March 2, 2009
Mutual understanding is essential to underpin a long term strategic relationship. Despite the common belief that Europeans and Americans share basic, common values, languages and culture, there is clearly considerable lack of mutual transatlantic understanding. Europeans and Americans are very different in many ways, think differently, are influenced differently, and frequently see problems differently and in a different context.
Imagine then the lack of mutual Sino-European understanding, with our very different histories, cultures, languages, political and social conditions: misperceptions abound.
With this in mind, I strongly recommend a recently published book, “Democracy is a Good Thing” by Yu Keping, published by The Brookings Institution, with the active involvement of “The John L Thornton Center at Brookings, with a presence in Beijing at Tsinghua University.
Many would have assumes that with such a title, the book must have been written by A Chinese dissident, living in the US. On the contrary. Yu, although only 50 this year, is a pre-eminent Chinese political scientist, serving as a visiting professor at a dozen of the PRC’s most prestigious universities. He is also a political insider, holding a ministry-level official position under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
To those who do not know China well, there is a vibrant discussion taking place, both inside the Party and between scholars, on democracy in China. Unfortunately, most of the articles and papers have not been translated into English and, therefore, remain largely unknown outside China.
The PRC, while an autocracy, is not a dictatorship: major policies have to be agreed by the nine man CCP Central Committee, which seeks consensus within itself and its supporting constituencies. Scholars frequently express themselves freely and criticize the government, provided that this is within the objective of creating a “harmonious society”. Before the important 17th five year Conference of the National Committee of the CCP in 2007, the leadership encouraged a public debate between scholars on democracy.
‘Democracy’ cannot be defined in an absolute, normative way. It is essentially a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power by the people. It varies considerably, even between western countries. The American version is based on a strict separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary; but some argue that money distorts this democracy. The UK is a parliamentary democracy, but in practice the government has a near absolute power of legislation unless it has only a small parliamentary democracy. France has a powerful president but a weak parliament. Germany is a federation. Switzerland is a confederation, with a weak central government: major policies are put to public referendum.
In his report to the 17th Conference of the CCP National Committee, Premier Wen Jiabao talked at length about political reform and mentioned ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ 61 times. On another occasion, Wen said that, “When we talk about democracy, we usually refer to the three most important components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances.”
President Hu Jintao clearly wishes to increase intra-Party democracy:
“We need to improve institutions for democracy, diversify its forms and expand its channels, and we need to carry out democratic election, decision-making, administration and oversight in accordance with the law to guarantee the people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee.”
Hu also pointed out that, “There is no modernization without democracy.”
Yu Keping’s original article, “Democracy is a Good Thing”, was first published in autumn 2006 in the Beijing Daily and subsequently republished in most major newspapers. The key points he makes are:
- Democracy is a good thing.
- Under conditions of democratic rule, officials must be elected by the citizens, gaining the endorsement of the majority of the people.
- Officials’ powers can be curtailed by the citizens.
- Democracy has to be promoted and implemented by the citizens themselves and government officials representing the interests of the people.
- Not everything about democracy is good.
- Democracy allows the citizens to go into the streets, hold assemblies and engage in actions that can fuel political instability.
- Democracy can complicate and often involves repeated negotiations and discussions, thus reducing efficiency, while increasing delays and costs;
- Democracy often affords opportunities for certain sweet-talking politicians to mislead the people.
- But among all the political systems that have been invented, democracy is the one with the fewest number of flaws. Relatively speaking, democracy is the best political system for humankind.
- Democracy cannot do everything. It mainly regulates political lives.
- But democracy guarantees basic human rights, offers equal opportunity to all people, and represents a basic human value.
- Democracy can destroy the legal system, cause the social and political order to go out of control, and even impede economic development. The democratic process can also propel dictators onto the political stage.
- At their roots, however, these faults are not the faults of democracy as a system but rather the faults of politicians.
- Implementing democracy requires the presence of economic, cultural and political preconditions: the unconditional promotion of democracy will bring disastrous consequences.
- Political democracy is the trend of history, and it is the inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy.
- But the timing and speeds of its development and the choice of form and system are conditional.
- An ideal democratic system must be related to the economic level of development of society, the regional politics, the international environment, the national tradition of political culture, the quality of the politicians and the people, and the latter’s daily customs.
- Democratic politics is a political art because it requires collective wisdom to determine how to obtain the maximum democratic effects, while paying the minimum political and social price.
- Democracy cannot force people to do things: it’s the people who make the choices. No-one has the right to regard itself as the embodiment of democracy and therefore able to force the people to do this or not to do that in the name of democracy.
- But democracy requires the rule of law, authority, and sometimes even coercion to maintain social order.
- We Chinese are building a strong, modern socialist nation with unique Chinese characteristics.
- Democracy is not only a good thing for China, it is an essential one.
- We want to absorb the best aspects of human political culture from around the world, but we will not import wholesale an overseas political model.
- Our construction of political democracy must be closely integrated with the history, culture, traditions and existing social conditions in our nation.
- Only this way can the people of China truly enjoy the sweet fruits of political democracy.
The hope of Yu Keping and his fellow thinkers is that democracy will be developed incrementally in China so as to avoid social disruption and be durable. While he does not mention it in this paper, the strengthening of civil society is an essential first step, together with intra-party democracy, elections at grass roots level and administrative reforms. As Yu puts it, “if grassroots democracy means pushing forward democracy from the bottom up, intraparty democracy entails doing so from the inside out”. In his view, “without intraparty democracy”, it will “be difficult to attain democracy in China”. But he does not predict a timetable.
Some Chinese intellectuals argue in favour of a more radical transition to democracy. Some overseas Chinese dissidents attack Yu Keping for putting up a smokescreen, maintaining that the CCP is not interested in democracy.
Views as to the ultimate form Chinese democracy will take are diverse: ranging from the western model to the Japanese model (dominated by the Liberal Democratic party) to the Korean multi-party system.
The current leadership is focusing on intra-party democracy ie democratizing the CCP’s processes. The Party has the power but not necessarily the legitimacy. Hitherto, the received wisdom has been that its legitimacy depends on economic growth. But in today’s economic times, good governance becomes all the more important. Good governance can lead to “stability, order, trust and efficiency” (Cheng Li in the book’s introduction).
The pursuance of political reform will largely depend on the Chinese leadership and its incentives to reform. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao seem currently convinced that this in their interests, but a surge of extreme social unrest could persuade them otherwise. How then to make democracy safe for China is therefore the challenge?
It’s fundamentally a question of equilibrium: how “to preserve the Chinese cultural and sociopolitical identity in the era of globalization and the imperative for the country to participate more actively in the construction of a harmonious world” (as so well put by Cheng Li).
Human rights in China remains a controversial issue. Western hypocrisy may have reduced the public admonition of the Chinese leadership by their western peers. The curbing of excesses of human rights abuse and greater freedom of the press are both in China’s interests. China will act, as with all countries, act first and foremost in her own interests. We should therefore suggest why human rights progress is in China’s own interests.Author : Stanley Crossick