Yesterday’s Washington Post included a story that seemed to portray the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to track and respond to popular opinion as a kind of democratization. Reporter Simon Denyer wrote:
The government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.
According to Denyer, these endeavors represent a significant change from the past and are having a real impact on decision-making:
The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the Chinese people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism…Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform.
When I read the article, it reminded me of a school of thought in Soviet studies that saw important (if underdeveloped) features of democracy in the workings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). By incorporating an array of interest groups and creating channels for members of those groups to transmit their concerns to Soviet leaders, the thinking went, the CPSU after Stalin had built a form of organized pluralism that wasn’t as different from Western democracy as we conventionally thought. Other Sovietologists, however, countered that these claims about interest-group politics missed the forest for the trees. In a society that still had gulags and secret police and sharp limits on public speech, they argued, the hints of pluralism and responsiveness that some saw in CPSU politics were overwhelmed by the enduring organizational and cultural legacies of totalitarianism.
So who was right, and what does this tell us about China today? I think Charles Tilly’s ideas about democracy provide a useful fulcrum here. In contrast to procedural definitions of democracy that start (and sometimes end) with elections, Tilly jumps up one level of abstraction to emphasize the broader issue of consultation. In his words (2007: 13-14),
A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.
In their classic discussion of what democracy is and is not (here), Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl get at the same general idea with their emphasis on the principle of accountability. Still, I think Tilly’s notion of consultation better matches what most of us have in mind because of its more affirmative connotations. To me, accountability implies responsibility after the fact, the idea of holding someone to account for things he or she has already done. By contrast, consultation connotes a much wider array of interactions at all stages of the policy-making process—setting an agenda, formulating options, debating those options, making a decision, and evaluating the results—that better accords with the notion of government of, by, and for citizens.
At this level of abstraction, there’s no single form of consultation that is necessary and sufficient to qualify a regime as democratic, no single route across that threshold, and no point in time at which the process is completed. Elections are the chief mechanism we use today, but they are not the only form of routinized consultation that is possible or that matters. Political philosophers continue to discuss the merits of alternatives like deliberative or direct democracy, and some observers argue that new communications technologies are making these alternatives more realistic for large societies than ever.
So, back to that China story. Using Tilly’s definition as a prism, I think it’s easier to see why those social-media monitoring efforts and polling firms in China call democracy to mind, but also what’s different about them. Asking people what they think and listening and responding to their online chatter are forms of consultation, but this consultation isn’t protected, equal, or binding. It’s not protected because Chinese citizens still face harsh punishment for speaking out on sensitive topics. The state still chooses who gets to speak about what, and transgressions of those boundaries carry steep costs. The consultation isn’t equal because not everyone can participate. According to Denyer, “Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online.”
Finally and probably most important, the consultation isn’t binding because the state decides when it will respond to what it hears, and citizens still have no way to hold them accountable for those choices. This is why competitive elections are so important. Without a formal mechanism that gives all citizens a chance to reward or punish political decision-makers for their behavior, the Chinese Communist Party can continue to cherry-pick its “listening” efforts in ways that are meant to maximize its own corporate interests without really attending to citizens’ preferences. There may be an element of democratization in these polling and eavesdropping endeavors, but if so, it’s an awfully thin and fragile form of it.
PS. For an excellent academic treatment of China’s online monitoring efforts, see “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression“ by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. For a nice review of the debate over pluralism in the USSR, see this 1984 paper by Jeffrey Hahn.