Responding to Zhang Weiwei – Democracy and China
However, Zhang’s conclusions and the method he used to reach them are fundamentally flawed. It starts with a serious lack of understanding of what democracy means these days. As I discussed in a previous post, democracy is not just having elections. It is about an entire system that crosses the country, in regards to not just elections but also the media, judiciary, rule of law and civil rights. If one does not recognise how they are all linked and that if any particular aspect is attacked the rest can be equally compromised, the entire discussion becomes pointless. It also doesn’t help that he gives no definition of “modernization”.
Zhang’s complaints that examples offered such as the USA and Switzerland were not valid because they did not have equal voting rights again shows a lack of understanding. Democratic principles and mechanisms were already in place before those countries had fully developed economies. Limitations in who had the vote are red-herrings, as they were based on prejudice that we have since moved on from.
As for India, he states that it is 20-30 years behind China economically. Even if that is true it has little to do with democracy. It was mostly due to India having Socialist policies for decades after China had decided to reform its economy. In some respects one could argue that democracy in India is the reason it has started an economic surge. The ability for change in leadership of the country, not to mention the free media that is able to criticise government policy, has encouraged leaders past and present to adopt different ideas that can help the people. Let us not forget that China is behind the democratic, developed world in terms of living standards. The CCP tried failed economic policies for decades because no one was able to freely challenge it from the outside. There is no guarantee a single party state will ever become enlightened – North Korea is a good example of this.
Zhang also makes a frankly bogus argument that if “western democracy” is perfect countries will adopt it. It isn’t perfect, but left to their own devices countries will often adopt it. However, the leadership and elite in autocracies and dictatorships will resist that happening. There is a link here to China. The current middle and upper classes in China may not have the vote, but they have power or security through their financial situation. Those of these groups who say China can’t handle democracy, or not the sort practised in America and elsewhere, will say they are thinking about what’s best for China.
However, it can also be suggested that they’re mostly thinking about themselves and don’t want what they have to be disrupted by demands of the poor. Zhang himself rather admits this when he complains about peasants dominating politics in a democratic China and being unable to run the country effectively. This is a groundless fear, as in countries like the US and UK the poor had the vote long before they became even modestly well educated. The expansion of the electorate in those countries had no discernible effect on the quality of governments.
In one part Zhang takes a rather petty swipe at “the West” as a means of undermining its support for global democracy. He exploits the suffering during the world (and other) wars, saying that the West’s feeling that it was “the centre of the universe” caused those conflicts. That is a baseless accusation. The two great world wars were caused by oppressive and/or expansionist powers playing a game of chicken with other great powers – a game that they lost.
Of course the last great war and its aftermath has lessons for all of us. Germany and Japan, the aggressors, had broken economies in 1945. The level of suffering there was what we could only find in the developing world today and not even the best parts of it. Yet they are now two of the world’s most economically powerful and developed countries today, with high living standards. It is no coincidence that their economic rise followed the adoption of democratic systems early on in their post-war history. As I said earlier no system is ever perfect, but the results speak for themselves, especially as to how West Germany faired in comparison to East Germany.
Zhang also refers to a publication of Professor Edward Mansfield to further his theory. However, even by reading the link provided by Zhang we can see that the book does not suggest that adopting current democratic norms leads to internal and external conflict as Zhang alleges. Here is the important extract.
Mansfield and Snyder show that emerging democracies with weak political institutions are especially likely to go to war… Because the risk of a state’s being involved in violent conflict is high until democracy is fully consolidated, Mansfield and Snyder argue, the best way to promote democracy is to begin by building the institutions that democracy requires—such as the rule of law—and only then encouraging mass political participation and elections.
As I and others have said here, there is no suggestion that China should institute multi-party elections within years, let alone overnight. Indeed we have strongly supported the position advocated by Mansfield and Snyder, a step-by-step process building democracy from the roots up. Of course Zhang, like some other Chinese commentators, knows that scaremongering tactics can be effective. It’s a shame that he needs to misrepresent the views of others to try to make a point.
Zhang, like many Chinese who resist real political reform, suggested at the start that China has different “ideals” to Europe, America and other parts of the world. This is a hackneyed excuse about why China should not adopt a form of democracy that we see in those parts of the world. Every country has different ideals from the other, even if they share some. Is Zhang arguing that Chinese people tolerate corruption more than Germans do? Does he think that Chinese care less about the suffering of other people than South Koreans? I think that we all share a lot of values. The only issue is how they are best met. That is a technical matter, not one of values.
China’s path to becoming a real democracy will be a hard one, but I believe it will benefit in the long-run from treading that path. The view promoted by Zhang, which is that favoured by the Chinese establishment, is often misleading and factually incorrect. Whilst no two forms of democracy are exactly the same, they do have basic traits (as I outlined in my previous article). If you start stripping parts away, such as press freedoms, freedom of speech, judicial independence and multi-party rule, you’re not left with a democracy.
People like Zhang never say what democratic aspects they would cut away, because that would start to tie them down. They should be courageous enough to say what they are promoting – a modified version of the status-quo that enables China’s elite to retain control of the nation and keeps the peasants locked out. Of course, they cannot do that because the reaction from the Chinese public would be one of serious outrage that would affect their careers, just as it would happen in democratic nations. Yet another example of how China and the democratic nations of the world share values.
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