This is certainly encouraging development, but I think the strategy was originally proposed a while ago. I think this is a quite intelligent and prudent way of doing things.
I have actually thought about this quite a bit. Intra-party democratization doesn’t mean much by itself, but it should be viewed together with the recent effort to expand the party’s membership base. When membership to the Communist Party is open to a broad range of citizens (including — gasp — business owners), and at the same time the Party undergoes internal reforms, one could expect that intra-Party democratization is the functional equivalent of a limited overall political democratization and is a laudable step.
This is how I see intra-party elections and other moves to democratization. Currently about 5% of the population are Party members. In practice, membership in the Party generally signals some achievement outside of one’s political life and recognition thereof. Assuming that the demographic composition of the Party reflects that of the general population, the 5% figure could be seen as a very large group of representatives of the people — like a huge “Congress” — that vote on behalf of the general population.
One might criticize this characterization by pointing out that party membership, unlike a seat on the Congress, is not obtained by an election. Rather, one gets to join the Party only if the current members say so. So it is unlikely that the Party members will represent the will of the people, or so the criticism will go.
I think differently. There is really no real sense of class struggle any more. Today there isn’t a clear ideological divide between the majority of party members and the majority of non-party members. Unlike in the U.S. where Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on issues such as abortion, gun control, executive power and a number of other hot issues, there simply isn’t such an apparent ideological divide in China between party members and non-party members. The interests of Party members and non-Party members are very much aligned on most major issues: continued growth, unification of China, etc. Given that the party members are recruited based on their personal achievements, I don’t see a source of divergence of interest between Party and non-Party. There are still various “factions” within the Party, of course, but those reflect the conflicts among different interest groups that make up the Chinese society at large, and that’s the whole point of intra-party democracy.
So, by enlarging the Party membership on the one hand to make the Party more representative of the interest of the general population, and implementing intra-party democracy on the other hand, I think this is a uniquely Chinese way of carrying out political reforms. The Party should be viewed not as any regular political party in the Western sense, but more as an “electoral college” — it is the Chinese way of appointing/selecting a large number of representatives who can then be expected to vote in a way consistent with the interests of the society at large. In my view, this way of forming the electoral college is no much less unreliable than popular election, which incurs high transaction cost (campaigning) and association cost (voters don’t personally know the candidates, whereas prospective Party members are evaluated on a continuous basis by current members that know him personally). The various factions within this electoral college would then become the equivalent of the political parties in the Western sense.
Of course, the third requirement for this theory to fly, in addition to a wider membership and intra-party democracy, is to have an effective disciplinary procedure to remove these representatives should they fail to live up to the expectation. That, I think, is also in the works.