China issues first ‘white paper’ on democracy

China's government on Wednesday issued a lengthy justification of its commitment to autocratic rule by the Communist party entitled “The Building of Political Democracy”.

The document, China's first policy “white paper” on the subject, left no doubt that Beijing defines democracy very differently from western governments or domestic dissidents who think it should mean giving ordinary people a real role in choosing their leaders.

“Democratic government is the Chinese Communist party governing on behalf of the people ... while upholding and perfecting the people's democratic dictatorship,” the document said.

“China's socialist political democracy has vivid Chinese characteristics,” it said.

China has in recent years used such “white papers” to counter criticism of its policies on issues such as human rights and arms proliferation.

The white paper said in the past 20 years China had dramatically improved its political system, strengthening protections for disadvantaged groups and improving administration.

However, Wednesday's statement will do little to silence widespread domestic dissatisfaction with the party's monopoly on power or calls from abroad for greater political freedom.

Visiting US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday told party officials that China could ease worries about its global intentions and help ensure future prosperity by opening up its political system.

But the white paper made clear Beijing intends merely to tinker with its system of political control by promoting government by laws, combating administrative failings such as corruption, and pushing forward with elections for some local government officials.

Such village elections are seen by some as laying a basis for more democratic government.

However criticism that such elections are rarely allowed to seriously challenge entrenched political interests have been fuelled recently by allegations that attempts by villagers in Guangdong province's Taishi to recall an unpopular leader have been violently suppressed by local officials.

Pro-democracy activist and foreign journalists who have tried to report on developments in the village have been beaten and harassed.

The white paper also glossed over domestic calls for wider participation in national government. It made no mention of the detention and jailing of dozens of people who set up the “China Democracy party” during a brief political thaw in 1998.

The document hailed China's commitment to freedom of expression, noting the country's huge numbers of publishers, newspaper readers and internet users.

But it did not mention the huge system of censorship that Beijing uses to keep politically sensitive news out of the press and to limit online political debate.

The white paper also avoided mention of government action against online commentators such as Shi Tao, a journalist who was jailed for 10 years earlier this year apparently for revealing details of a media crackdown by party propaganda authorities.

Fundamental political reform was widely discussed in China in the 1980s but has become a near-taboo subject since the bloody crushing of pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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