A few years ago, in a comment in Army.ca, I explained what I saw as the difference between liberal democracy ~ the sort of thing to which we, Americans, Brits, Canadians, Danes, etc are accustomed, and conservative democracy ~ the sort of thing that one sees, full blown, in Singapore and, albeit ‘watered down’ in Japan and Taiwan. There is a third sort of democracy, defined, to my satisfaction, by Fareed Zakaria in 1997 in an article in Foreign Affairs: illiberal democracy ~ which is all too prevalent including in many friendly states like France. The distinctions between the three is a dead horse upon which I beat with some regularity over on Army.ca and here, too.
One of the things upon which I have commented is the number, regularity and duration of the private sessions which the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew had with Chinese leaders …
They were fascinated by his “model” for an Asian, conservative (Confucian) democracy, one which gave them all the advantages of a liberal democracy ~ a populace that understands and respects the rule of law, solid “institutions” that work, protection for the vital, fundamental, civil rights of all ~ all of which lead to domestic “peace and prosperity,” without the messy disadvantages ~ sharing power between parties, freedom of assembly, and so on ~ that are inconsistent with “order” in society.
When a world leader comes to visit a US president he or she gets, maybe, a 90 minute tête–à-tête because, as we all understand, the US president is just so busy being the leader of a great nation with global interests. But I noticed that Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintau all cleared their (equally busy) calendars for a whole day when Prime Minister Lee came to visit … they wanted to listen and learn. The same sort of courtesy, but not, likely, the day long “audiences,” is being extended to Lee’s son and successor, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The fact is that China (the Chinese leadership, anyway) understands that it must develop some form of governance that is more responsive and less idiosyncratic than its current model.
One of the great advantages of regular elections is that it gives the people, the ultimate source of power in any system, even in absolute monarchies, an opportunity to express their views on issues … and China has issues.
This brings me to a book review in The Economist. China, says Professor David Shambaugh (a political science professor at George Washington University and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution) must either change or die. He is one those scholars (and there are many) who believe that “no country has yet been able to modernise its economy without becoming a democracy.” It seems pretty clear to me that a functioning economy, which is, almost by definition, capitalist, requires that those providing the capital (money, human capital (labour) and intellectual capital, too) need to have some say in the overall direction of the country. Thus far in human history only democracy has provided that “say,” and most stable democracies are both relatively prosperous (or, in India’s case, becoming prosperous) and relatively capitalist – even India and Sweden.
I think that many Chinese leaders believe this too.
It appears to me that the Chinese leadership wants to move towards some form of conservative democracy but, perhaps, beyond electoral democracy. The Chinese are, already experimenting with very limited participatory democracy at (always, as far as I know) the village level ~ there have been several pretty free and fair local elections in many small, remote, rural districts. They always seem to follow some sort of crisis in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration failed to display adequate leadership or management. The local people are then given the option of electing their own local government. I do not know if elected local governments do any better ~ I doubt it, given the all pervasive corruption and the dead hand of a centralized bureaucracy “above” them. But the locals, after being allowed to elect their own village administration, appear to cease agitating against the party. I have also been told, by people involved, that the CCP is experimenting with various sort of “active polling,” within the party, for sure, but also in communities. The idea is to poll to find out what issues are top of mind ~ pollution is one of them but, a few years ago, user fees (for parks in the case with which I am familiar) was another ~ and then they poll again, asking people which one of a range of choices/solutions they like/dislike the most. There are many people, not just in China, who believe that constant polling is a better way to gauge public opinion than periodic elections with campaign platforms that defy reality.
I have mentioned Prof Daniel Bell, a Canadian professor at Tsinghua University (China’s Cambridge or MIT), before. His book, ‘The China Model,’ asks some penetrating questions about democracy and how it can be adapted to meet China’s needs. It seems clear enough to me that Prof Shambaugh is right: China must adapt or be convulsed by destructive revolutions. I understand that some, probably many, so-called Conservatives want China to collapse and they want the CCP to be replaced with something different – the heirs of Chiang Kai-shek? Surely not. How about the heirs of Dr Sun Yat-sen? Some of them are participating in a Chinese democratic success story in Taiwan. My prediction is that no matter how much one may dislike communism and the Chinese Communist party (which is communist in name only) a Chinese collapse into chaos and civil wear will be, as Robert Kaplan has explained and as I have discussed, a global nightmare with social, economic and strategic implications that do not bear imagining.
It is better, for everyone, that China adapts. But the Chinese leaders have been, consistently, opposed to Western style, Anglo Saxon-Scandinavian, liberal democracy and they are even less impressed with Franco-Spanish style illiberal democracy. My sense is that the Chinese leaders find even Singaporean style conservative democracy, complete with free and fair elections, too problematical, too risky. Will they find a suitable, workable alternative that gives people the essential “say” in how they are governed? I am convinced they are trying; I am also convinced they are serious about trying because they, the Chinese leaders, understand that some form of democracy is essential for continued, sustained economic progress, and sustained economic progress ~ the sort of thing we in the liberal West take for granted, even during recessions and depressions ~ is essential to the kind of “social harmony” that China needs to avoid revolution, chaos and a civil war that will be felt around the world. We should all hope they succeed.