A Brief Note on Democracy

China Daily today has a headline that’s too hilarious in its understatement to keep from sharing with you: “Experts: US, China democracy different”. Wow, who would have thought? Thank God we consulted “experts”.

Anyway, the New York Times also ran an opinion piece today by Roger Cohen about the potential for democracy emerging in China and Vietnam through peaceful evolution. Cohen writes,

The looming danger [to the CCP] is called “peaceful evolution.” […] That may sound like the weatherman warning of the menace of clear, sunlit skies. But the architects of Market-Leninism, who have delivered fast-growth capitalism to one-party Asian states, are in earnest. The nightmares they have are not about revolutionary upheaval, but the drip, drip, drip of liberal democracy.

[…]

The rapid rise of China and Vietnam, accounting between them for some 20 percent of humanity, has ushered hundreds of millions of people from poverty since totalitarian Communism fell. The West is in no position to say it knows better.

Something there is about a single doctrine that rubs humanity the wrong way. For a brief moment, after the Berlin Wall fell, free-market, multiparty liberal systems seemed set to sweep everything in their triumphant path. But from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi, reaction came. Markets and nationalism trumped freedom and the vote; the noble spirit of Tiananmen and Berlin faded.

America, born as a liberating idea, must be true to that and promote its values. But, sobered and broke, it must be patient. As the emergent middle classes of Vietnam and China become more demanding of what they consume, they will also be more demanding consumers of government.

They will want more transparency, predictable laws, better health care, less corruption, broader education, freer speech and fewer red lines.

One-party states will be hard pressed to provide that. Another quarter-century down the road, I’d bet on more democracy and liberty in Beijing and Hanoi, achieved through peaceful evolution, no less.

It’s an interesting point, but my first response to “one-party states will be hard pressed to provide [more transparency, predictable laws, better health care, less corruption, broader education, freer speech and fewer red lines]” is: why is that? Zhao Ziyang’s memoir is just the latest reminder that while the CCP may be monolithic it is not ideologically homologous. If, within the CCP, there are liberal and conservative elements competing with each other on matters of ideology and policy, then at some point, couldn’t the difference between “multi-party” and “one party” really be a semantic one?

Now, before everyone explodes and starts typing angry comments, please read this paragraph several times: I am not arguing that the CCP, as it currently exists, offers the same spectrum of opinion and policy that would be offered by a multi-party system. I’m only wondering why “more transparency, predictable laws, better health care, less corruption, broader education, freer speech and fewer red lines” couldn’t, theoretically, be accomplished by a single political party.

Frankly, I suspect the kind of “peaceful evolution” Cohen is talking about is, in China, about as likely to evolve within the Party itself as it is outside it. As Cohen notes, there’s a widespread perception in China that undermining Party authority would lead to instability. Given that there’s also widespread dissatisfaction with a number of issues, most especially corruption, the logical solution seems to be to reform the extant system.

Whether or not that will happen, of course, is another question entirely, as is whether or not it’s what’s really best for China. But what do you think? Is a single-party system like China’s theoretically capable of providing “more transparency, predictable laws, better health care, less corruption, broader education, freer speech and fewer red lines”? Is it capable of satisfying the demands of a modern, educated middle class?

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0 thoughts on “A Brief Note on Democracy”

  1. If the chinese don’t want democracy ( underpaid students in 1989 are not the majority of the population) don’t force it down their throats, in china’s four thousand year history it has survived by authoritianism not “human rights” and individualism and democracy.

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  2. Chinese governance in mainland China, in Singapore and in many overseas Chinese communities (look to the local Chinatown) is authoritarian – strictly paternalistic if you will – because it answers the Chinese need for stability, safety, and at least the appearance of moral authority. Hong Kong’s is a relic from the British that may not last long and Taiwan is in the earliest stages of evolving democratic society with the outcome far from certain. In answer to your question look to Singapore as the model that mainland China seems to hold high.

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  3. Custer, in response to your question: theoretically anything is possible. I wouldn’t bet on it though. In my opinion, there is too much conflict of interest inherent even with maintaining the facade of a unified single party. This conflict of interest would act as a confounding factor in the transparency of checks and balances between opposing elements within the party. However, I do like your point about semantics as it is the kind of nuanced observation I dig, but deft rhetoric aside, there comes a point in the division of a party that it really ought to be recognized as being separate parties. I don’t think the existing or manifesting differences in today’s CCP are at that point. There’s greater loyalty to the maintenance of a single party than to ideology. Only when sides form along strong ideology will there be a split, and then the freedom to check and balance each other.

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  4. One party rule and paternalistic societies are not a new concept to the world and they are not unique to China. Unless everyone has forgotten, it’s important to note that monarchies similar to dynastic China didn’t fall in countries like Germany, Serbia, Russia, Turkey, etc. until after World War I.

    Scott, your stating that HK’s system is a British relic seems to imply that Hong Kong’s system isn’t viable. Why? And I’m not sure how citing a country like Taiwan being young adds to the idea that democracy can’t be successful in China.

    The idea that China can’t accept anything but centrally strong, dynastic rule is proposed quite often, and I’m not quite sure why. To say that the Chinese people don’t want democracy also seems equally foolish, as people will be quick to remind you that village leaders are popularly elected. And, of course, they hate the fact that those elections are almost always rigged. Therefore, I would say that the Chinese people want democracy, yes, but they don’t adhere to the traditional American concept of “fighting for freedom” which basically means to pick up a rifle and go fight.

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  5. “Scott, your stating that HK’s system is a British relic seems to imply that Hong Kong’s system isn’t viable. Why? And I’m not sure how citing a country like Taiwan being young adds to the idea that democracy can’t be successful in China.”

    Hong Kong’s system may not be viable because it’s continuance rests on the indulgence of the PRC, and Hong Kong Chinese themselves when polled commonly say economic well-being is more important than political freedoms. The young and fragile democracy in Taiwan – the first president from an opposition party is in jail for well-proven corruption charges – gives no proof that democracy will be successful in China.

    “The idea that China can’t accept anything but centrally strong, dynastic rule is proposed quite often, and I’m not quite sure why.” And in reply I repeat,
    “Chinese governance in mainland China, in Singapore and in many overseas Chinese communities (look to the local Chinatown) is authoritarian – strictly paternalistic if you will – because it answers the Chinese need for stability, safety, and at least the appearance of moral authority. ” So, don’t trust me, look yourself.

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  6. The Chinese people of course want democracy. It’s racist to say otherwise. But the thing is should the Chinese have democracy, would it be like those in Thailand, France or Japan? Most likely Japan, where one party has reigned for as long as one could remember, not out of coercion but of the collective respect for uniformity and authority and stability. I don’t want Singapore to become China’s model.

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  7. No, a difference of opinion is not racist, Wooddoo, and I have suppported my opinion with examples and verifiable observations unlike your bald assertion. You may not want Singapore to become China’s model but – and unless you are an influential member of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee posing here under the moniker Wooddoo to act otherwise – the Party thinks highly enough of the Singapore model to send adminstrators there for three-month learning sessions. Singapore also stands as the only example of Chinese government outside China’s territories.

    Why not find out yourself about Chinese attitudes towards democracy? Simply ask any number of mainland Chinese – start with your friends and relatives, people just like yourself – if the Chinese people want democracy. Real simple: Do the mainland Chinese people want governance by the results of one man one vote? And to make you feel good, those who say “no” you may call “racist”, okay?

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  8. Usually I would give arguments, but not with racists. However you may slice it, it’s racist to say Chinese people don’t want democracy.

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