The Dragon will never become the Eagle: China and Democracy

by Stephen T. Asma

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Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is a founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and in 2007 he lived and studied in Shanghai China. Asma also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. And in 2014, he was a Fulbright Scholar, teaching philosophy in Beijing, China.

Recently my Chinese students in Beijing asked me why the U.S. media was so critical of China –always wagging a finger about human rights (forgetting about U.S. violations like NSA spying, drone bombing, Guantanamo, and so on). “Can't Americans see,” one student asked, “that our Chinese way is different but still successful?”

How successful is the Chinese government? Over the last three decades, the Communist Party has pulled hundreds of millions of people from poverty. It has done this partly through controversial but needful policies like the “one child rule.” Moreover, China's annual GDP growth has averaged 10%. China is the world's leading exporter, and second only to the U.S. in imports. Its unemployment rate is between 4 and 7 %, and its literacy rate is 95%. In short, the Party has been very successful, and is not going away anytime soon.

Ironically, the Chinese people already think of themselves as a democracy. But it is democracy “with Chinese characteristics.” China has seen itself as democratic, minzhu or “people driven,” since the 1911 revolution. Even Mao Zedong characterized the early People's Republic of China as a “new democracy” and a “people's democratic dictatorship.”

Surprising to many westerners, Chinese people do vote for their politicians, but it's a hierarchical electoral system. Local people directly elect the regional chapters of the “People's Congresses.” Then the People's Congresses elect the “National People's Congress” (the national legislator). Finally, the president and the State Council are elected by the National People's Congress. The voting is bottom-up, but nominations of candidates are usually top-down. This is precisely the sticking point for the recent “Occupy Central” movement in downtown Hong Kong. They want to reject the Chinese style of democracy (of top-down nominations) in favor of western style voting (at all levels). Beijing's approach, however, is not the reflection of some Orwellian fascist agenda, but an organic result of deep Chinese cultural commitments.

There are two entrenched cultural reasons why China is unlikely to ever adopt western democracy (in Hong Kong or the Mainland), and they result from a different theory of human nature. First, China is still deeply Confucian in its commitment to the idea that wisdom is intrinsically elite. In this commitment, Confucius and Plato (Republic Bk. 8) agree. Knowledge is not contained in the masses. Rigorous, civilizing education is necessary in order to become the kind of person that can direct public policy. Americans see wisdom in the mob (Federalists not withstanding), whereas Confucians (e.g., Kongzi and Xunzi, etc.) see uneducated human nature as unreliable and dangerous. This drives the idea that educated elites must vet political leaders. Confucian philosopher Xunzi argued that culture and education act upon us like a carpenter repeatedly steaming a plank of wood –slowly and permanently the board is bent to a better shape.

Secondly, Chinese culture has a different view of government legitimacy. We think a government is legitimate if the people voted it into power. But from the Chinese perspective, that is a very low bar. After all, a political candidate could be an idiot or a criminal, and still be charismatic or rich enough to be elected by an impressionable electorate. The Chinese, on the other hand, think government is legitimate, not when average people influence it, but when it represents their higher interests. If the interests of the people are being satisfied, the rulers have the “mandate of heaven” (Tianming) and can rule regardless of how they got into office.

China may be better off without western democracy. Singapore's nation-building prime-minister Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away, famously argued that Chinese people want a strong centralized state because it is their tradition (since Qin Shi Huang 220 BCE). They do not want western style democracy, and the West needs to respect this cultural preference. Lee Kuan Yew demonstrated this style of development by turning Singapore into one of the “Little Tigers” of Asian economic success.

From the Chinese perspective our democracy is unimpressive. Americans, for example, are vociferously devoted to democracy, until, of course, they're asked to exercise it. Voter turnout in midterm general elections has been declining for decades and is now about 35%. When Americans do actually vote, they also have a knack for voting incompetent leaders into office (e.g. unqualified celebrities). And, importantly, the U.S. is not really a democracy per se. According to a 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the U.S. is actually an oligarchy (ruled by rich families).

The seeming superiority of western democracy over the Chinese is that we can easily remove bad leaders. The “bad emperor” problem, as it's been called, is when a tyrant gets in power but cannot be removed. We have a tradition of checks and balances in the structures of power but also in the adversarial nature of the two-party system. However, while we're patting ourselves on the back for this supposed superiority, we might notice that the U.S. adversarial system is often paralyzed by intrinsic opposition, and ends up failing to rule altogether.

What China needs, as it goes forward into the leadership position of the 21st century, is not western democracy but an improved version of its own political tradition. How should they improve it? A start would be greater freedom of the press. Beijing needs to stop worrying about investigative reporting and criticism. Chinese style democracy and even a strong central government can be compatible, at least in principle, with a free press. If president Xi Jinping wants to root out corruption, then he should unleash the press and it will do the rooting for him. The Confucian tradition defines a strong state as one that takes care of its people, not one that successfully evades all criticism. When the Party finally figures this out, the Orwellian stereotype will be severed from the rich political philosophy of China. And the West might even learn a few things about statecraft from the Middle Kingdom.