Speech by Ambassador Qin Gang at the conversation jointly held by the Carter Center and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China relations
Dear Mr Neil Bush,
Ms Barbara Smith,
Mr David J. Firestein,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I want to thank The Carter Center and The George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations for hosting this event. It’s my great pleasure to meet with you online.
I wish to thank President Carter for his warm letter and thank Mr Neil Bush for his kind remarks. We will never forget that 42 years ago, President Carter and Mr Deng Xiaoping made the historic decision of establishing diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Facing the difficulties in China-US relations after the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush stayed committed to engagement and dialogue with China to increase mutual understanding and trust. Thanks to generations of Chinese and American leaders and people, China-US relations have made remarkable progress.
However, today, some Americans’ misunderstanding and misjudgment about China is building up. A fundamental one is to define America’s relations with China as democracy versus authoritarianism, and to stoke up ideological confrontation, which has led to serious difficulties in China-US relations. Let me share with you my view here.
What is democracy?
As a political system, the word “democracy” originated in ancient Greece. It means “rule by the people”, or “sovereignty of the people”. So a basic criterion of democracy should be whether the people have the right to govern their country, whether their needs are met, and whether they have a sense of fulfillment and happiness. At the center of democracy is people. President Lincoln defines democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Whatever political system a country chooses, its purpose is to select appropriate persons to govern the country and create a better life for the people.
In ancient Greece, Plato believed that citizens need to receive various kinds of education at early ages. When they grow up, they would be evaluated to see if they are qualified to be politicians in the future, and those selected would be put to the bottom of society to get prepared for ruling the state. After a long time, the middle-aged candidates, who have survived all the trials and tribulations, no longer engage in empty talk, and they become determined and experienced. When they are ready, they would undertake governing positions, but they can only lead simple lives to prevent corruption.
Is China a democracy?
– The idea of people first has been deep in the genes of the Chinese since ancient times. Dr. Henry Kissinger said to me, China is a communist and Confucian country. Confucius, an ancient Chinese thinker who lived in the same time as ancient Greece, raised the idea that people are the foundation of a country. Mencius, Confucius’ follower, said, “To a state, the people are the most important thing. The state comes second. The ruler is the least important.” An ancient Chinese ruler believed that the people are to the monarch what water is to boat, and he cautioned that the water can carry the boat; it can also overturn the boat. 100 years ago, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was established as a political party for the poor, and its founding mission is to pursue happiness for the people. With the slogans of anti-dictatorship, anti-autocracy and anti-oppression, it enabled the people to become master of their own country and won the people’s hearts. As the governing party, it has remained faithful to its founding mission: people-centered, and serving the people whole-heartedly.
– What China has today is whole-process democracy. China’s Constitution prescribes that all power belongs to the people. The people have the right to election, and they can be broadly involved in national governance according to law. They exercise state power through the National People’s Congress and local people’s congresses at different levels, equivalent to America’s Congress and state legislatures. Deputies to the people’s congresses at the county and township levels are directly elected. Those above the county level are indirectly elected. People elect deputies, who will politically represent them and elect leaders. Deputies maintain close contact with the people, and all major legislations and decisions are made through scientific and democratic processes and extensive consultations. China also has a unique political consultation system and corresponding institutions, which are important ways for the people to exercise democracy. Any matters that concern people’s keen interests are broadly discussed by people’s congress, the government, political consultative conference, social organizations and industry associations, before major decisions are made, to make sure what the people want are reflected in the final decisions.
In China, government officials have many meetings to attend, and they do many field visits. Meetings are for discussing problems and exploring solutions, and field visits are for getting firsthand knowledge of things on the ground. Decisions are made through discussions and debates, which are extensive and intense, just like those on the Capitol Hill. Let me give you an example. The Civil Code is the first law of China with “code” in its name, and is regarded as “an encyclopedia of social life”. When drafting it, there had been ten rounds of collection of public opinions, and over one million opinions were gathered from more than 420,000 people. Another example is the five-year plans on economic and social development. When formulating the current 14th Five-Year Plan, there were also full public consultations. Over 1,000 suggestions were summarized from more than one million online posts, and 366 edits were made to the draft on the basis of them. After the deliberations by the national-level people’s congress and political consultation conference, another 55 adjustments were made before the adoption of the Plan. There are seldom fierce arguments or long-pending bills in people’s congresses in China, because most of the problems and conflicts of interests have been resolved and suggestions accepted in consultations, which also make implementation of the policies easier.
– In China, talents were chosen based on their abilities and merit since ancient times. Another Chinese philosopher, who was a contemporary of Plato, once said, “Prime ministers must have served as local officials; great generals must have risen from the ranks.” China had an imperial examination system over 1,400 years ago. Whoever passed the exams, regardless of their age and wealth, could be appointed as officials. They usually started from positions at the lowest level of government, and then got promoted or deposed based on their performance. This is the original form of the civil service system in the West today. Nowadays, a Chinese has to pass all kinds of exams in his or her lifetime. At work, there are additional trainings, assessments and selections, as well as oversight from superiors, colleagues, the public and the media. CPC members are also subject to Party disciplines, which are stricter than the law. Any violation will result in serious punishment. Take the Chinese Embassy in the US for example. There is a quarterly assessment of each diplomat from his or her supervisor. Lower-level diplomats can exercise their right of oversight of their supervisors at any time, and once a year, they can grade their supervisors’ performances. In such a system, officials who are incompetent, or not clean, or disapproved by the people have no chance to be promoted. The incumbent members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, the top leadership of China, have all had long years of work experience from grassroots up to higher levels in different localities. President Xi Jinping became a farmer in a poor village in Northwestern China at the age of 16. He was appointed Party Secretary of Shanghai, the biggest city in China, at 54. The decades in between saw him work on various posts and in different places, and the populations he served varied from several hundred to several hundred thousand, millions and to tens of millions. As he rose through the ranks, he has got to know the people’s kitchen table concerns. He deeply loves the people, cares about the people, and has become capable of managing complexities and getting things done for the people. At the same time, he is loved, trusted and supported by the people. This is why you often find China’s senior officials elected with an overwhelming majority of votes or even unanimously.
How to evaluate if a system is democratic?
There are many political systems in the world. Whether a system is democratic depends on whether it can represent the overall interests of the people and whether the people are satisfied. Democracy is not for embellishment; it should deliver. Samuel Huntington writes, “The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government, but their degree of government.” According to a survey done by Harvard Kennedy School for 10 years in a row, the Chinese people’s satisfaction of the CPC has been over 90 percent for each of the 10 years. Some people wonder why. The answer can be long, but I try to provide a brief explanation. Changchun, a provincial city in Northeastern China, has had a Mayor’s Hotline for 22 years, which citizens can use to report problems that need the government’s attention, and that Hotline works 24/7. Over the years, more than nine million problems have been reported and then resolved through the Hotline, and people’s satisfaction rating has remained above 90 percent. There are many similar hotlines and high satisfaction ratings across China. If you know about them, is it still hard to understand the results of Harvard surveys?
When some people are busy fanning up the battle between democracy and authoritarianism, and putting together an alliance of democracies, what is happening on the land of China? Well, absolute poverty has become a thing of the past, and 1.4 billion people are striving towards common prosperity. China has become the world’s second largest economy and biggest trading nation, and contributes over 30 percent to global economic growth annually. Every day, 16,000 companies are created in China. Every day, over 120 foreign enterprises are rushing to China, one of the biggest consumer markets and the top investment destination in the world. Almost every Chinese has basic medical insurance and old-age pension insurance. Products from remote areas are sold across the country through live streaming. Farmers in deep mountains and young people in cities take high-speed trains to look for jobs elsewhere and pursue their dreams. Green and low-carbon living has become a new fashion. The Chinese are driving 50 percent of the world’s new-energy vehicles, on the biggest network of expressways in the world. 10 percent of the Chinese population have visited other countries to open up their eyes. Chinese astronauts have safely returned to Earth after several months’ stay in our space station. The rights and freedoms of the Chinese are fully protected by the Constitution, and they are on their way to ballot stations. Muslims in Xinjiang and other places go to mosques nearby. One billion Chinese netizens get connected with the world for information and engagement at the click of a mouse. China has signed 26 international instruments on human rights. COVID-19 has been basically put under control in China, with 1.1 billion people fully vaccinated. China has provided vaccines to over 100 countries and international organizations, and will supply altogether two billion doses by the end of this year. The Belt and Road Initiative, guided by the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, will take tens of millions of people of other countries out of poverty. Over 2,400 Chinese peacekeepers are on duty worldwide. President Xi Jinping yesterday proposed a Global Development Initiative. China is working with other countries to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
I’m not saying China is perfect. There are many difficulties and challenges on our way ahead, such as how to make our development more balanced and adequate, and ensure fairness and justice in a market economy. We are deepening reform, improving socialist democracy, and modernizing national governance. These efforts are to meet the people’s aspiration for a better life and make greater contribution to mankind.
My friends, isn’t it obvious that China is just pursuing peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom, which are common values of mankind? Isn’t it obvious that both China’s people-center philosophy and President Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” are for the sake of the people? Shall we understand China’s socialist whole-process democracy as this: from the people, to the people, with the people, for the people?
China and the US are different in history, culture and political system. But just as President Carter said, both the American and Chinese people desire peace and prosperity, and leaders in Washington and Beijing share one common goal: to create peaceful and stable conditions for their people to pursue happiness. This is the biggest commonality between China and the US. We never say that our system is the best, because we know only the suited is the best. Whether it is good or not should not be judged by what we say, but what we do. Our two countries should not and cannot change each other. Instead, we should break ideological barriers, discard zero-sum mentality, respect other countries, and accommodate each other without losing our own distinctions, so as to get along with each other in peace.
President Xi stressed, “China and the United States need to show broad vision and shoulder great responsibilities. The two countries should look ahead and press forward, and bring China-US relations back to the right track of stable development as soon as possible, for the good of the people in both countries and around the world”. Let’s demonstrate strategic courage and political resolve to chart a new course in China-US relations.