Saturday, August 07, 2010

List of the Month - democracy isn't everything

Here in China, you often hear people say, Democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be. Well, sure, it has its faults, yes, but its benefits far outweigh them. But, they say, China isn't ready for democracy, its state of development - and particularly of education - is still far too low. Well, democracy comes in many different forms: you can find a way of introducing elements of democracy appropriate to your country's level of development, if you try. And that right there is one of your major pointers for the future: maybe social development and mass education should be higher priorities than 'growth at any cost'. Some of these people are rather too fond of saying, The idea of democracy is a product of the Western philosophical tradition; it will never be appropriate for China because it isn't consonant with 'Chinese culture'. That one particularly gets my goat. Democracy - like tyranny - is a universal idea. The tyrants here try to hide behind national chauvinism like this to delay the inevitable, to postpone for a few more decades (not more!) the adoption of democracy, and with it, the relinquishment of their own hold on absolute power.

No, democracy isn't always a shining success. There are many countries which are - at least nominally - democracies but which are still in many ways chaotic, corrupt, and repressive. And even the world's leading democracies - the USA, Western Europe, Japan - are certainly not without their problems.

Democracy is not the be-all and end-all. What else do you need to build and maintain a free and prosperous society?

A strong, bold, and independent judiciary
I can live with a certain amount of overlap between the executive and legislative branches of government (America's Founding Fathers were perhaps a bit unrealistic in striving to make them completely distinct functions), but the people who interpret the laws are your main bulwark against tyranny. If you don't have a credible legal system, you're not a modern country, you're a feudal tyranny. Yes, China, that's you.

A strong, bold, and independent media
I think this is possibly the most important element of a thriving democracy. And it is no coincidence that the growth of democratic theorising shadowed the development of printing technology, with the widespread adoption of universal suffrage following closely on the advent of mass media. China has made some very small steps towards developing more investigative journalism, but the main media outlets are all still very closely controlled by the government, and the possible consequences of writing 'the wrong thing' can be severely discouraging.

A strong, bold, and independent academic community
My experiences with Chinese academe have been universally depressing. It is probably the area of public life that is still most hidebound - rendered most wretchedly cowed and subservient - by the attitudes of old-style Communism. The 'intelligentsia' ought to be the source of a country's most constructive criticism - but the great majority of Chinese academics are scarcely capable of producing an original thought (or are not courageous enough to dare to voice one) even within their particular specialism, much less on broader social or political issues.

Effective separation of the powers of government
That, of course, follows on from or encapsulates my opening three points. Montesquieu didn't anticipate the enormous importance of the 'Fourth Estate' - the media - in modern societies. And he probably didn't anticipate the possibility of such thoroughgoing totalitarian regimes as the Chinese Communist Party, whose absolute control not only fuses the executive and legislative functions of government (and what little of a judicial system there is), but permeates every element of society - the media, the universities, the trade unions, everything.

As much separation as possible between commercial and political activity
Another trick our French friend missed was the potential of 'commerce' to be a 'fourth power' in his analysis. When the state becomes the sole employer - or the major employer - in the country, it wields an intolerable degree of power over its citizens to restrict or deny their right to work, to withold their livelihoods, even to determine where they must live. Even in more moderate socialist/communist systems where only the 'commanding heights' of industry are under direct state ownership, the effects - potentially oppressive and unjust effects - on workers and on private businesses can be far-reaching. In China today, the massive state-owned enterprises often have substantial stakes, sometimes even controlling interests (though often masked by layer upon layer of intermediate investment companies), in many nominally private enterprises. And even truly independent companies are still mostly hog-tied by relationships with SOEs as principal customer or principal supplier. Even those companies not in thrall to such a key business relationship still have to operate in a marketplace dominated by these state-run dinosaurs, and still have to play by sets of rules created for the dinosaurs. Moreover, most CCP cadres - at all levels - are personally involved in commerce (it might be technically 'frowned upon', but there's no effective supervision to prevent it); and even when not directly involved, they routinely use their political influence to advance the interests of their business cronies: most of them, I suspect, don't even see it as 'corruption' - it is just a natural, reasonable, and deserved perk of their office.

Universal free education (untainted, as far as possible, by political indoctrination)
The content of school curricula is a contentious issue in every country in the world; but in most of the more developed countries, the debates tend to focus more on breaking down the perpetuation of long-ingrained mistakes and prejudices, or on how best to foster multi-cultural awareness, how much of a place religion should be allowed in schools, or how to achieve a more non-nationalistic perspective in the teaching of history and literature. Only tyrannies put 'patriotic education' (= propaganda) front and centre of their plans for the country's schooling.

A culture which tolerates and even encourages creativity and criticism, and which promotes a plurality of opinion within the body politic
I think - I hope - that things are very much better here now than they were in the Mao era, or even 10 or 15 years ago; but it's still very far from being an open and vigorous intellectual environment. The 'party line' is decided by little cliques of senior cadres behind closed doors. Any deviation from this can have very negative consequences for someone's political career (labour camps or house arrest are not such a common sanction any more, thank heavens; but hitting a 'glass ceiling', or receiving a 'punishment posting' in a remote, undeveloped area can be every bit as effective in ensuring compliance through intimidation). People are still very, very wary here of putting forward novel ideas.

A strong moral culture
Perhaps much of China's traditional moral culture was swept away in the turmoil of the Mao years. And what remains - the tenets of the ancient philosophers crudely labelled 'Confucianism' - has been hijacked by the Communist Party's propaganda machine: acceptance of hierarchy and elaborate deference to authority are lauded; social 'harmony' is promoted as the prime, virtually the only good, and dissent is thus portrayed as wicked and unpatriotic. However, from what I've read of Chinese philosophy and religion, I'm not convinced that there was ever such a strong and coherent framework of individual responsibility as evolved under the Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition in the West. There doesn't seem to be much of a concept of right and wrong here, only a narrow evaluation of the consequences for oneself. Lying, cheating, and corruption are commonplace here, almost universal: they do not seem to be perceived as absolute wrongs, merely as things which are technically 'improper' or officially 'frowned upon'; such behaviour is restrained not by a sense of guilt or propriety, but only by the fear of censure or punishment; pretty much anything is seen as being acceptable in this country (putting toxic additives in children's milk powder??!!), so long as you don't get caught. I've never seen any evidence of a 'work ethic' in China either, no sense that hard work is virtuous, or that doing a job well is innately more personally satisfying and fulfilling than doing it badly (you'd think such ideas would be prominent among the country's Buddhists, particularly in the Chan/Zen tradition, but, if they are, they are not greatly in evidence and they certainly don't seem to have permeated into the wider society).

The key question is whether any of these elements can exist effectively without democracy - without 'one person, one vote' and unfettered multi-party elections. In theory, you might think that at least some - perhaps all - of them could; but in practice, they always seem to go hand-in-glove with a democratic system. It may be a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum as to which comes first. It might work either way: the creation of such institutions and cultures would, before long, lead inevitably to the introduction of full democracy; the operation of democracy requires the support of institutions and cultures like these, and will naturally engender them if they are not already present.

However, more restrictive forms of government cannot tolerate such 'liberal' elements in their midst - factors which facilitate dissent and 'disharmony' - and will always resist their introduction, or restrict their operation, suppress their influence. However much the Chinese government may protest that it wants certain of these elements of a 'good society' above, however much it seeks to delude itself (and its people) that it may in fact already possess some of them, or be on its way to developing them, in fact the Chinese Communist Party will never be able to embrace any of these ideas - because they are fundamentally incompatible with its continued existence.

This is why, I believe, democracy always has to come first: democracy is the necessary substrate in which all these other desirable attributes of a civilised country will naturally grow. Wei Jingsheng (the most outspoken of the ground-breaking bill-posters of the 'Democracy Wall' movement in Beijing at the end of the 1970s, and still one of the leading figures in the pro-democracy movement among China's overseas exiles today, at the age of sixty) was right, I think, to call democratization China's Fifth Modernization - the essential process without which the other Four Modernizations of modern Chinese Communist policy (the development of industry, agriculture, national defence, and science & technology) would be meaningless.

As a practical system of government, democracy is rife with problems - it is the least worst system of running a country rather than an impeccable ideal. But what makes it essential is that it is the only system that enshrines true equality of status for all of a country's citizens. Without the possibility of democratic participation in the process of government through exercise of a right to vote, you have a two-tier society where political influence is restricted to a privileged elite - and such a set-up leads inevitably to arrogance and brutality, corruption and oppression. Experiments with 'limited democracy' - voting rights restricted on the basis of education or income/property; elections confined only to the local rather than provincial or national sphere; multiple tiers of representation to distance the common man from the centre of government - are flawed, doomed because they seek to deny this fundamental principle: all citizens are equal in status, all have a right to accountability from their government, all have a right to some say in whether their government continues in office.

And of course, without this, if you deny people their natural right to voice their discontent and to displace an unsatisfactory government by peaceful means..... then you leave violence as their only option.

I am afraid I am one of those arch-pessimists who foresees massive unrest and societal collapse in China within the next 50 years. I don't want it to happen - but I can't envision any other outcome, unless the Chinese Communist Party discovers the vision and the courage to embrace radical democratic reform (in effect, to decree its own dissolution); and, alas, I don't believe that will ever happen.

[By the by, I think China's lack of democracy, and of any of the '8 elements' I identified above, explains why it has lagged so far behind the Asian Tigers in its economic and social development. It is also, I believe, why it will be surpassed by India within the next couple of decades. India may not be scoring too well in many of those categories, but at least it isn't registering A BIG FAT ZERO in every single one of them like China.]

Postscript: Many readers - especially in China - might have been inclined to dismiss these musings of mine as a 'biased Western viewpoint', but in fact many of the more insightful and courageous political commentators within China are starting to express the same viewpoints. There were, for example, some very similar criticisms in the 2011 'Report on Social Progress' from the Social Development Task Group at Tsinghua University in Beijing (which was, of course, promptly suppressed in the Chinese media).


The British Cowboy said...

India's great advantages are, I think two of it's peoples loves: education & the democratic process.

India venerates education, and has a tradition of questioning accepted norms which, as you noted, is absent in China.

And you haven't seen an election till you have seen an Indian one. Huge rallies even in the slums of people genuinely passionate about the political process.

Oh an India is also a secular country, with respect for religious freedoms (on the whole, and even the BJP seem to have calmed down a bit).

Froog said...

In theory, the Chinese venerate education too. But I think that's perhaps more a phenomenon among the diaspora. Even if it does exist in the mainland, it doesn't count for all that much because the education system is so appalling.

India gives me a lot of cause for worry - possibly too big and too volatile to be a viable nation-state. But I think it is the great hope of the future: a military-economic giant in central Asia to counterbalance - and, hopefully, overwhelm - the potentially very destructive influence of China.

The British Cowboy said...

Well, the Chinese veneration for education seems to be a veneration for knowledge. It doesn't include the same questioning and research that I saw in India.

I am a huge India booster, by the way. It's not perfect, but it is a functioning, secular democracy. I don't think I have ever seen another country where individuals tend to be deeply religious, yet show a great degree of respect for other people's religious freedoms. Even in the face of some pretty hard core Islamic terrorism, the reaction has been against Pakistan, not against Islam.

It's the biggest foreign policy mistake the US has made since forcing the Iranian revolution into fundamentalism (and arguably a bigger one than that). We are supporting a Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship over an educated, secular democracy, and have been doing so for years. It's sheer idiocy.