The Common Program of the People's Republic of China 1949-1954

Article 15 of the Common Program

Dong Biwu explained during the CPPCC meeting of September 27, 1949, the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ (民主集中). The principle of democratic centralism is opposite to the parliamentary system. In the latter system, one part of the bourgeoisie has the power and the other part can only conduct opposition. The minority has no influence on the policy. Dong Biwu state: “We gave up this kind of political institution. We prefer a political system which combines discussion and execution in one hand. This is the system of Peoples' Congress in which all power is centralized.”
‘Democratic centralism’ is an authoritarian system in which it is possible to express opinions, in opposition to a totalitarian system in which rigid uniformity from top down exists. Within the authoritarian system, after expressing opinions, everybody is bounded to the end result. “The Leninist principle of democratic centralism created a pseudo-military command structure with authority flowing from the Politburo down to the secretary of each party cell. As agents of the state, the cadres were expected to carry out every policy faithfully [20][21] regardless of its popularity with the masses or its conformity to the perceived interests of the masses.”

In his speech Dong Biwu followed the thoughts of Mao Zedong. On the party congress of April 1945, Mao Zedong expressed his opinion about democratic centralism. "The organizational principle of the new-democratic state should be democratic centralism, with the people's congresses determining the major policies and electing the governments at the various levels. It is at once democratic and centralized, that is, centralized on the basis of democracy and democratic under centralized guidance. This is the only system that can give full expression to democracy with full powers vested in the people's congresses at all levels and, at the same time, guarantee centralized administration with the governments at each level exercising centralized management of all the affairs entrusted to them by the people's congresses at the corresponding level and safeguarding whatever is essential to the democratic life of the people.”
3 years earlier on February 1, 1942, he makes a punitive address to the CCP party school cadres “Some comrades see only the interests of the part and not the whole; they always put undue stress on that part of the work for which they themselves are responsible and always wish to subordinate the interests of the whole to the interests of their own part. They do not understand the Party's system of democratic centralism; they do not realize that the Communist Party not only needs democracy but needs centralization even more. They forget the system of democratic centralism in which the minority is subordinate to the majority, the lower level to the higher level, the part to the whole and the entire membership to the Central Committee.”
Already in October 1938, Mao Zedong warns “…education in democracy must be carried on within the Party so that members can understand the meaning of democratic life, the meaning of the relationship between democracy and centralism, and the way in which democratic centralism should be put into practice. Only in this way can we really extend democracy within the Party and at the same time avoid ultra-democracy and the laissez-faire which destroys discipline." The term ‘democratic centralism’ is not an invention of Mao Zedong, but has already a long tradition in all communist parties over the world. Article 7 of the 1928 constitution of the CCP puts it as follows: "Like other Communist International Branch Parties, the essential of organization of the Chinese Communist Party is Democratic Centralism…. The Party members may discuss and argue on certain points which are not yet passed by the Party Organ. In other words, they must obey unconditionally the resolutions which have been already determined by the Communist International or their superior Organs, whether they agree with these resolutions or not."
During the Zunyi conference in January 1935, Mao Zedong uses the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ to enforce the re-election of the Secretariat and the military committee of the CCP. In this way, opening the path to absolute power within the party.
In 1945 during the 7th Party Congress, the practice of ‘democratic centralism’ within the party changed. No longer existed the practice of debating and voting, but performing rectification campaigns became the highest form of ‘democratic centralism’ within the CCP. "This new understanding of democratic centralism as the practice of achieving the absolute unification (yi yuanhua 一元化) of thought through rectification thereby mitigated the need for open collective debate.54 It was recorded in the Seventh Party Constitution’s declaration that the CCP was a “united combat organization” (tongyi zhandou zuzhi 统一战斗组织) whose strength resided in its “unity of will and action.” In acknowledging rectification as democratic centralism in practice, the Seventh Party Constitution affirmed that the Party must always remain attentive to clearing its own ranks of those who would “destroy the Party’s programme, the Party Constitution, and Party discipline, and moreover who cannot be rectified (buneng gaizheng 不能改正)."
Once the CCP assumed national power, this new practice of democratic centralism as rectification was expanded to mass organizations. The conventional interpretation of representation within the CCP is rooted in Lenin's concept of the Party as the forefront of the labouring class. The vanguard role adopted by the Leninist Party is built upon two underlying presumptions. Firstly, it assumes that a sole Party can adequately represent the comprehensive interests of the entire working class, without the presence of a critical opposition to assist in identifying and rectifying omissions, inaccuracies, and errors. Secondly, it posits that the vanguard possesses the capacity to speak cohesively on behalf of those it asserts to represent, even in the absence of competitive elements.

This method is not only practiced in the CCP and all governmental and administrative organs and the PLA but also in the Minzhu Dangpai. “They either already operated on or were re-organized along Bolshevik-type lines using democratic centralism as their leadership principle.” For example, the NCNA used this method already from its founding in 1945.
"Furthermore, since all non-Party organizations also operate on the principle of 'democratic centralism' Party members who occupy the key posts hold crucial levers for the manipulation of these organizations* In this way, the Party leadership is able to turn the non-Party organizations into highly-manipulable executors of its will, and, at the same time* to maintain a facade of constitutional forms and procedures"
The concept of democratic centralism fits into the age-old Chinese tradition of the authoritarian rule of a single unchallengeable leader.

Cited in Chang (1952). Page 272 [↩] [Cite]
Lee (1991). Page 396 [↩] [Cite]
The origin and development of this term is beyond the scope of this study. Lenin introduces the term in 1905. [↩]
Cited in Linebarger (1954). Page 361 [↩] [Cite]
Thornton (2021). Page 63 [↩] [Cite]
Frenkiel (2019). Page 211 [↩] [Cite]
Groot (1997). Page 73 [↩] [Cite]
Joffe (1961). Page 57 [↩] [Cite]
Gaddis (1997). Page 63 [↩] [Cite]

Chapter 2 of Common Program