Thursday, December 1, 2011

More Fearsome Than Tigers

Once every few months I hear some FOTD* kid braying about how "democracy won't work in China!" and all sorts of meh meh meh. No doubt because one of his professors in some lecture on politics and culture he attended two years ago brought it up as a question - I should know, because my professors did that all the time - and that's the position he took.

On the surface it seems PC: it seems like the person saying it is trying to incorporate China's current domestic issues and cultural background into the mix, which makes that person sound really in touch or with it or thoughtful. Which is great, except half the time the people saying it have never been to China (and if you've been to Taiwan, no, you've never been to China so don't even) or have been there, and have turned into that special brand of expat who is brainwashed into believing ridiculous things (they're the ones you can hear on the streets of Beijing faffing on about how great China is, how we're too hard on their undemocratic but very efficient government - but you have to admit, they get stuff done! - defending the One China fallacy, taking untenable positions regarding China's environmental problems (but it's the West that buys all the goods that China produces in those factories!), its sexism (that's just the culture! Accept it or go home) and human rights (you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet).*

Yeah yeah, different people have different opinions and maybe I shouldn't come down on them so hard, but as I see it, they're wrong. End of. They can believe what they like, and I can think they're ridiculous and blog about it, and they can leave comments which I can either refute or not publish (if the comments are rude and attack-y rather than thoughtful), and everyone's happy and exercising their freedoms in civic debate.

The "China can't be a democracy" blather is a popular one, and here I am (yay! you can all relax now, haha) to give you a point-by-point rundown of why it's bullshit.

"China can't be a democracy because democracy won't work with Chinese culture the way it does with Western culture."

Wrong. First, while Taiwan is not China, Taiwan does have a strong Chinese cultural influence - and what's important is that that influence stems from pre-Communist days and still carries a lot of traditional Chinese beliefs that were eradicated or greatly cut back during the Cultural Revolution. Taiwan is a democracy. A strong, functioning democracy that, well, yeah OK, sometimes they hit each other or spit on one another and there's vote buying and such but generally the system works and is fair. If Taiwan, while not actually China, provides an acceptable stand-in for how democracy would work in the context of Chinese culture....and it works just fine, thanks. Hong Kong actually is a part of China, although you could argue cultural distinction there, too, and while not a full-fledged democracy there's no reason to believe that democracy wouldn't work there.

Looking at other countries in East Asia, culturally they're not as similar to China, but there are a lot of shared traits (especially when you look at the influence of Confucian thought in Korea). They're all functioning democracies. They all have problems, but there's no government on Earth with the possible exception of Bhutan that doesn't.

Looking at some aspects of Confucian thought, by the way, it does make room for democracy. The Mandate of Heaven is something that can be taken away by unruly, unhappy masses. It was considered acceptable for dynasties to fall - this to me sounds like a cultural tic that would allow for democracy. Confucius also once said "惡政猛於虎", or "a tyrannical government is more fearsome than tigers". This does not sound like a philosophy that is 100% opposed to democracy. I don't even think I need to go into why Daoism and democracy work just fine.

"But those countries are small. China's too big to be a democracy!"

Yes, it has a big population, but so does India - and India, while a bit crazy, has a democracy that could generally be described as functioning. In ways I don't quite understand, and more than a little corrupt, but functioning. In its way. Yes, it covers huge tracts of land, but so do Canada, the USA and Brazil - and they're all democracies. Indonesia, too.

OK, there's one other obvious country that bears mentioning. It's true that Russia is mostly a democracy in name only, in that narrow definition of democracy in which - to quote Brendan - "there's an election and whoever gets the most votes wins".

Taiwan's got a relatively small population but it's extremely dense, which puts it in the running. And let's not forget Bangladesh. Poor, densely packed...and a democracy.

"But China is too diverse. You can't govern that different a population with democracy. You need stronger central rule."

Let's leave aside my strong belief that Tibet and Xinjiang (Uighur territory) should be granted either true autonomy (what the CCP offers now is not real autonomy) or independence.

I'd argue the opposite - that the only way to govern a large, diverse country is  through democracy, so different groups can have their say and, one hopes anyway, through the process of  inclusion feel less marginalized. I realize this is quite the utopian viewpoint but hey, seems to work in Canada. The USA is a more contentious issue. It is possible to demarginalize minorities and historically oppressed groups through democracy. It seems possible to do that with autocracy, but it never seems to actually work out that way.

I'd also say "let's look back at that list above". America is huge and diverse, both racially and culturally.   Brazil's pretty diverse, with all sorts of  native populations. India is the poster child for linguistic and cultural diversity - we may think of them all as "Indians" but come on. Go to India for awhile and tell me what you think then. Singapore, while small, is extraordinarily diverse. Indonesia's got some diversity going on - any island nation that huge would. Every single one of these countries have made democracy work.

"But China is still developing and democratic reform can only come with economic gains!"

This is the first statement I do give some credence to - it's true that moving from the Third World to the first does tend to have a democratizing effect on nations and one can't discount the effect of economics on politics.

That said, China is approaching, development-wise, the spot Taiwan was in when it underwent its transition to democracy. You could say the same for South Korea (although they might have been farther along - I'm not an economist and I am estimating here). As above, Bangladesh is massively poor, and yet a democracy.  India is lagging behind China - although doing very well in its own right - and it's a democracy.

"But the people don't want democracy. If they did, they'd demand it."

Ask the people who were at Tiananmen Square - if they're still alive - what they think of that one.

Hell, go to China and ask almost anyone, provided you're friends enough that they'll speak honestly with you and they're not one of the rapidly decreasing number of Chinese brainwashed in schools to believe their government is infallible (this belief tends to deflate the minute you get to know someone well enough to learn what they really think). You'll hear a different story. A democratic revolution against a party so ensconced in and obsessed with power as the CCP is not an easy fight to win. It wasn't easy for the Arab Spring countries, and it will be even harder in China. One shouldn't have to die for democracy: it's a human right to have a say in how you are governed. I can understand why someone might not want to actually die for it, even if they sincerely wish they had it.

"But a Chinese democracy would be so much less efficient than the current government. That's why India hasn't caught up to China."

Again, interesting belief, worth exploring, but ultimately wrong.

Well, not 100% wrong, it's true that democracy tends to be inefficient and that the CCP can get what it wants done more quickly (and bloodily). That tends to happen when you have a blatant disregard for citizens' rights, the health of your populace or, well, basically anything other than the path you've decided is the way forward.

First, considering that they built a dam on an earthquake fault, that roads fall apart, government-built factories fall apart, pollutants are sprayed into the countryside, the food supply is basically horrific, the water is undrinkable, you can't even be guaranteed you'll be able to keep land you own and you definitely won't be paid fairly if the government takes it, people suffer so much in Gansu that it's rendered a huge percentage of the population mentally disabled, and the horrible concrete tile-covered boxes that get built are very dodgy indeed - I don't even want to know how lacking the safety standards are - I wouldn't call the government that efficient. If it were, it would have done something about its constant environmental degradation and the air wouldn't be gray and sooty even in the countryside (I lived in semi-rural China and I got bronchial pneumonia twice in one year. The mountains in the distance were obscured by an unmoving haze of horrible smoky blech, even on sunny days).

Awhile back you'll remember that a section of road on the way to Keelung in Taiwan was buried under a landslide, and a few people died. I remember in that article reading that it was a surprise, as all manner of testing had been done on the hillside to ensure that it was a safe place to build a road. In China, the government would have sent an official, who'd point at a random hillside and say "build it there". "But..." "I said build it there." "OK."

I also question this deep need for better efficiency when it comes at the cost of human  and civil rights. Would you really trade freedom of speech for getting giant skyscrapers built a little faster?  Would you trade land rights for a superhighway built more quickly? Does a government that feels the need to restrict the rights and actions of its people deserve the adjective "efficient", or just "cruel"? I'd say that if the grease that oils your gears to make things go faster is actually blood, then it's not a good trade at all.

*fresh outta the dorms


Anonymous said...

A strong, functioning democracy

I would not sign this statement. Not sure, on what grounds you base this assessment.

Jenna Cody said...

Well, on the grounds that Taiwan is a democracy in which real campaigning, voting and issue-based debate and initiatives based on elections take place, and although there are issues with corruption, vote-buying and politicians who don't act in voters' interests, you could say the same thing about the USA or basically any democracy.