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Democracy: Made in China

Posted on Dec 15, 2010
AP / Greg Baker

Residents fill out forms before voting in local legislative elections in Beijing in 2006.

By Steven Hill

George W. Bush, it turns out, was not only a challenged president but also a lousy advertisement for the importance of democracy. It’s 2008, the Beijing Olympics have just ended, and I’m sitting across a cafe table from professor Pan Wei, a rising academic and ideological star in China who teaches at Beijing University. We are debating the merits of representative democracy, with the U.S. presidential election only two months away. Students take up the surrounding tables—the lucky ones in China who get to go to university at all, since for the average Chinese family it is impossibly expensive. If wide access to education is considered an underpinning of a democracy, China has a long way to go. But Pan Wei, who obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996, dismisses such talk, ranting in favor of a Confucian-values meritocracy over a democracy.

“Look at your own democracy, look at what your elections produced,” he says, practically gloating. “George Bush. In China, our president and premier, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiaboa, are highly educated men. Both are engineers, men of science. Professionals, highly competent. Your president is a frat boy with a silver spoon. How can you seriously argue that elections and democracy are superior?”

I have to admit I was caught flat-footed by his taunting comment. China is like that sometimes. It can challenge conventional notions. George W. Bush has become their ready-made response to that Winston Churchill adage that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”

But others within China hold a different view. Political scientist Yu Keping is one of China’s leading proponents of electoral democracy. He is not some wild-eyed radical. Indeed, he is an insider in the Chinese political establishment and is said to have the ear of President Hu Jintao. Author of a prominent book called “Democracy Is a Good Thing,” Yu sees some type of electoral democracy as central to China’s future.

All my other interviews with Chinese leaders and academics had been low-key affairs in a cafe or an academic office. But when I met with Yu, I was ushered into what appeared to be an official state meeting, the two major participants (myself and Yu) sitting side by side on big puffy chairs like Nixon and Mao in photos from 1972. His assistant and another researcher sat to his left, my “assistant” (i.e. my domestic partner) to my right, the tea being served between us by a little Chinese woman, with cameras snapping and video cameras whirring.


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“Democracy is good not only for individuals or certain officials but also for the entire nation and for all the people of China,” Yu said with great solemnity. I felt a shiver as I considered that I was perhaps sitting in the presence of China’s Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. “Political democracy is the trend of history, and it is inevitable for all nations of the world to move toward democracy.”

Yu went on to talk about how, in his view, electoral democracy forces officials into the constructive practice of gaining the endorsement and support of the majority of people, a familiar Western theme. He also believes that electoral democracy can act as a check against abuses of power by those officials, a particularly local concern given China’s notorious plague of corruption. While he talked of China having “unique characteristics”—often the Chinese way to tell Western scolds to bug off—he was unequivocal in saying that, for China, “democracy is not only a good thing but an essential one.” And, he pointed out, his view has been seconded by the top political leaders.

Indeed, in September of this year, President Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking, saying, “There is a need to expand socialist democracy ... hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise.” His remarks elaborated on comments from Premier Wen Jiaboa, delivered the previous month in Shenzhen, the coastal free enterprise zone at the forefront of China’s economic revolution. Wen said that without reforms of the political system, gains from reforms of the economic system would go down the drain, and the objective of modernization would not be achieved. Political reform is necessary, said Wen, to sustain the nation’s breakneck economic growth, including opportunities for citizens to criticize and monitor the government for a fair and just society.

Wen’s remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China’s economic development, could soon become a “special political zone.” James Sung Lap-kung, an administrator at Hong Kong’s City University, was quoted in The Standard as saying that the Chinese leadership is sending a signal. “Shenzhen has long set the pace in administrative reform,” he said, “so a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the Special Economic Zone’s six districts, and Shenzhen will probably be the first city to elect its mayor.”

But even with such top-level endorsement the prospects of democracy remain unclear, since the two leaders’ remarks raised a lot of eyebrows among the old guard and hard-liners in Beijing. The public remarks of the premier are usually accorded prominent coverage in official media, but state media either played down or avoided reporting on Wen’s calls for political reforms.

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

The 1998 movie “Elizabeth” about the royal hegemony gives great insight into these elites and how we haven’t a say in whether a country goes to war or not.

What I didn’t like too much was the spiritual suggestions that God favored England over Spain… which is hilarious… for BOTH were led be VILE and greedy/lost folks it seems… yet the ‘fairy tale’ story of ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’ juxtaposed against a backdrop of lies and killings.

Yet, very insightful when considering how the elites communicate with one another and lead their people into conflict over the most mundane of reasons… just to keep control and power in their hands… at the expense and cost of the common livelihoods.


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By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 9:37 am Link to this comment

I think you’re right patriot10101

I remember visiting China few year back and recognizing the similarities between their ‘old’ fiat currency, for it resembled the FED note.

I was dumbfounded, for at the time I ‘believed’ they were a different culture and political system altogether, yet they too have a central bank which produces fiats.

The elites of EVERY country is on the same page with other elites- Keep the commons down.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 15, 2010 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment

What is interesting is that ‘the people’ of that country called China are doing something called resembling what we believe was had here, or is being done here…. but they too believe their votes are without hierarchical and class bias.  For their handlers will do what they will with what they have to work with, just like over here.

Now, if this type of ‘representative _________’ ( I don’t want to add the pigeon-holing term ) can be called something rather better defined like ‘self-representing’ political type of governance, maybe the idea of politics can be turned on its head.

In Venezuela, the lower and poorer classes learned to read their Constitution and what it meant, and procedure according to their writ was demanded by the informed and educated public.

Also, what if the idea of ‘president’ and that whole upper crusty and stuffy pedigreed be replaced by a body of regional representatives from non-money-bred origins ( I guess I"m referring to dissolving the federal government along with its alphabet agencies AND outlawing lobbying by mega corporations / reforming corporate charters to be brought back to public service centered intentions and not solely profit at any expense ).

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By lolwut, December 15, 2010 at 10:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The writer of this article is flatfooted by a ridiculous straw man from the Chinese Ph.D.? No wonder our country is in trouble.

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By Paco, December 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
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The elevation of George W. Bush to the office of President does not represent a failure of democracy, it represents a failed democracy in which the electoral process was corrupted and defeated. 

Our electoral process has been contaminated by money and the consequent rise of moneyed power-brokers who determine who can run and who the winner will owe debts to.  In the first election of George W. Bush, the popular will of the voters was defeated by an activist Supreme Court that saw fit to over-rule the will of the voters and install the president they preferred.  In the following election, it was the rigging of the electoral count in Ohio that kept Bush in office. 

Democracy had nothing whatever to do with the presidency of George W. Bush.

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By ProfBob, December 15, 2010 at 10:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We seem to assume that democracy is the best form of government. It might well be true if people were educated. But clearly in America they are not.
Second, we need to define what democracy really is. Is it merely one person one vote. Does it include free enterprise? Does it include government by lobbyists? Should earmarks be allowed? are we really talking about a republican form of government? How much free speech and gun ownership should be allowed in the real democracy?
  Third, if Plato’s philosopher kings are an ideal to be emulated, is not China’s government closer to the utopian ideals?
  Fourth, what is the function of government? Is it to aid the people in being happy, in being productive, in gaining pleasure or riches in any way they can?
  These are some questions that need to be answered. But based on the last 30 years of progress, it seems that China has progressed much more under their political system and has the United States.

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