What Chinese Communist ‘Democracy’ Really Looks Like

November 8, 2012 8:00 pm Last Updated: August 14, 2015 5:13 pm
Hu Jintao speaks during the opening session
Chinese Communist Party head Hu Jintao speaks during the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People on Nov. 8, in Beijing, China. The Communist Party Congress will convene from Nov. 8 to Nov. 14 and will determine the Party's next leaders. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

The idea that a communist regime could have any sort of internal democratic process seems, at first blush, rather contradictory. But a peculiar kind of voting does take place at the Chinese regime’s Party congresses, though it’s quite different from that any American has heard of.

It involves political monitors, forced ideological study, spying, carefully allocated voting quotas, and close surveillance regularly reported to higher-ups.

Cheng Xiaonong knows: he was in charge of surveilling a delegation from Hubei Province in 1987, for the Party’s 13th National Congress. Cheng is an economist now living in the United States; he was at one point an aide to Zhao Ziyang. In 1987 Deng Xiaoping was (on paper, at least) retiring from his supreme Party post, and Zhao was made general secretary of the CCP.

“I lived in the hotel with the delegation together. We ate together and I joined their discussions every day. My job was just to listen. I didn’t have to talk, but I had to remember every face and the background of each person,” Cheng said in a recent interview. “If somebody said something that the Party doesn’t like, it was supposed to be reported to the top.”

Every evening at 11 p.m. a car came to the hotel to receive Cheng’s written report. This would be driven to the Great Hall of the People, processed, and compiled into a report. The reports were printed at 5 a.m. and delivered to the desks of the 20-something Politburo members by 7 a.m.

“Deng Rong, Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, explained that to us,” he said. Cheng had been transferred from the economic research department of the National People’s Congress, the CCP’s Legislature.

There were around 30 other delegations like the one Cheng was monitoring, one from every province of China. There are now 40 delegations that are sent to the Communist Party’s National Congress, held every five years. The delegates, numbering 2,268 (it was 2,270 but two died), are supposed to represent the various constituencies of the Party.

Each was assigned a political monitor like him, Cheng said. The delegations stayed in a hotel, isolated from the outside world. “Nobody was allowed to make visits with friends or family. From day to night, all their activities were monitored,” he said.

A delegate speaks on a mobile
A delegate speaks on a mobile as he attends the fourth plenary session of the National People's Congress, on March 13, 2007, in Beijing. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

The congress goes for a week. After political meetings in the Great Hall of the People, delegates would be loaded with Party reports and documents to study when they got back to the hotel. Like in Maoist China, they were going through ideological indoctrination, studying the latest breakthroughs of the Communist Party’s theoreticians. “They had to read it and express their support,” Cheng said. Classic communist political study.

Along with the ideological work, delegates were told how to vote, often with great specificity. “Quotas were distributed, and people are assigned different jobs. You are supposed to vote for Marshal A, and another group is supposed to vote for Marshal D. For each delegation the quota of votes is very clear.”

Each delegation had a Party leader who was personally responsible for making sure his delegation completed their voting tasks. His neck was on the line if there were any political irregularities among the delegates. And the Party had many ways of catching those.

“Since the mid-1980s electronic voting equipment has been installed. The voting machine is also a monitoring machine,” Cheng said. “Everybody is assigned to a seat, so the machine you vote on is also monitoring you, and if you press the wrong button, you are in big trouble.”

According to a report prepared by the consultancy firm Practel Inc., the measures got more hi-tech as time went on. A report says: “In May of 2003, delegates to the Chinese Communist Party Congress were required to wear a RFID-equipped badge at all times so their movements could be tracked and recorded.”

It was not possible to locate another political monitor who carried out a task similar to that of Cheng Xiaonong, but contemporary reports indicate that such practices continue, and may have even intensified.

A recent article by longtime Beijing political observer Willy Lam notes a similar set of restrictions to that described by Cheng. “The delegates are supposed to read Party documents and attend meetings within the confines of the well-guarded hotel; they are not supposed to meet family and friends or even talk on the phone for long periods of time so that they don’t leak state secrets, according to conversations I’ve had with past delegates.”

There are even guards to monitor the guards. “Behind me, in the same hotel room, there was another guy from the Ministry of State Security. He was undercover. His job was to monitor me,” Cheng said.

“Wherever I was going, he was behind me. His job was to find out if I hid some information which was supposed to be reported,” he said.

“For example, if two delegates talked in the restroom and badmouthed some leaders, I was supposed to be there and listen, and then go back to my room and write it down. If I don’t do that, then he would report me.”

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