Today’s blog, a reprint of one from March 2006, is a long one and, although dated, it still reflects my controversial views about Democracy and in particular how it applies to China.
Harking back to previous observations on Asia, and China in particular, I should preface my remarks with two of my favourite homemade adages:
1. Democracy is not a panacea for all of a society’s ills
2. American Democracy is like some wines – it does not travel well, and is best consumed in the country of origin.
In order for a democracy to be fully functioning, there are a few basic requirements – a relatively well educated population, cultural cohesion, security, good nationwide communications, and some experience in self government (my requirements).
With respect to China and the first posit, I am not convinced that Democracy is the answer at this stage of China’s development. China is an enormous landmass with a population in excess of 1.3 billion, many of whom are ill educated, low per capita income and with limited health care (like the USA). Cultural cohesion is also not fully developed, only having been begun under communists and central rule since 1949 in recent history; communications are improving rapidly but are notyet ideal. In other words, there are more pressing priorities than free elections, multi party systems and the right to stand on the street corner mouthing obscenities and promoting religion.
In 1960, I read a book, “The Soul of China”, by Amaury de Riencourt. It may be out of print now, but I remember it well because of its revolutionary thesis (for me), namely that Communism fitted Chinese culture and history “like a glove”. The author argued that the Confucian tenets of obedience to central and senior authority were incorporated into Chinese communism. There was more, but that was the essence of his position. Since then, I have read at least three histories of China. In those books they present the view that Communism in China is merely the successor to the world’s oldest and most successful autocracy. China, they argue, “is trying to achieve economic modernisation without the representative political democracy that Americans view as their special gift to the world’s salvation.” They also caution Americans who are prone to bash China’s autocratic government to avoid attempting imposition of the flawed American model on China’s unique culture.
A longtime Chinese friend, who with his family fled China and the communist take over in 1947, returned to China in recent years and surprised me with the comment, “the best thing to happen to China was the communist assumption of power in 1949”.
As it turns out I, a dedicated capitalist, had already reached the same conclusion, but I was surprised that a dedicated Chinese capitalist such as my friend would have the same point of view. Communism freed China from the grip of the colonial powers – Great Britain, France, Untied States, and Japan and although it took WWII and the invasion of China by Japan to initiate the process. Communism, with the exception of the years and madness of the Cultural Revolution, maintained and strengthened China’s cultural traditions. Communism united China and its disparate parts for the first time in its 4500 year long history and began to implement a policy of cultural cohesion making Mandarin Chinese an official language of communication; it has harnessed the brilliant and innate Chinese intellect and is on the road to making China a superpower in every respect.
China today has regained the pride it lost under the rule of the colonial powers in the Treaty Port “agreements” forced upon them in the 20th and 19th centuries. It has the fastest growing economy in the world; it has education and the free market economy as its major priorities. Security, in a land as large as China, with a large segment of the population still not educated in the ways of democracy can only be possible with a strong central control. Some day China will evolve in the direction of democracy but China recognizes it should not make the mistake of Russia and rush will nilly into the arms of democratic capitalism in which it has no experience or background. I personally do not believe it will ever have a Western style democracy.
As for suppression of religious freedom, organised religion is more of a liability than a blessing. First, religion has never played a major role in Chinese history or culture. If you examine Chinese history you will see that religious influence, with the exception of Taoism (Daoism), in China always came from outside China and has been pluralistic – Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, all foreign influences. Even Taoism never developed into a religious organisation or institution having been practiced as an individual philosophy. None of the religious doctrines have gained universal appeal to the Chinese. The closest to acceptance could be Confucianism’s moral and ethical tenets which people sometimes confuse with religion. Religions such as Christianity ran counter to and conflicted with the imperial claim to divinity and omniscience and the importance of filial obedience and respect. So, when the Christians tried to preach their doctrine of obeisance to an other-worldly authority, they got very short shrift from the powers that be. As much value as there may be in religious philosophy as ethics, I see no value to organized religion. It is a divisive, not a uniting force in society – just look at the history of Western Civilization and the wars that have been (and still are being) fought for religious motives. If China is wise, it will keep religion institutions under firm control.
I frequently hear the term “afraid” when the subject of China is raised, but China need not be feared as an aggressor. China, unlike its former communist cousin the USSR, China has never aspired to world domination or territorial acquisition. Colonialism has never formed part of Chinese history even in its golden Ming period (1368-1644) when its huge maritime fleets navigated all the way to today’s Somalia (with compasses unknown at that time in Europe) in 1403 before Columbus lucked and stumbled his way across the Atlantic pond. Its interests then as now were in creating political and commercial alliances not in imposing its culture on others. Any involvement in wars has been to protect its borders. During the Korean War it became enmeshed in that conflict because of the threat of a superpower, the United States, occupying territory contiguous to China. Taiwan is regarded as a legitimate part of Chinese territory and as such, in China’s view, has to return to the fold, and will do so in the not distant future.
Taiwan, held up as an icon of democracy, was ruled by a dictator and thief, Chiang Kai Shek, from 1950 until the 1980s and during the 1950s Chiang instituted a wave of political repression called “The White Terror”. So democracy, aside from being a recent phenomenon, has not necessarily been responsible for Taiwan’s success. Hong Kong was also under an imposed government, the British, from 1842 until 1997, the Brits having allowed democratic elections only when HK was about to be turned over to China – perfidious Albion indeed. Hong Kong flourished because it was in a controlled, secure environment, not riven by internal dissent or threatened by external forces. That political and social situation and the inherent Chinese entrepreneurial spirit were responsible for Hong Kong’s progress which was in place long before elections in 1997.
Those points deal just with China and the Chinese. Then, look at the effect and impact of democracy on former colonial territories in Africa. Are they really better off? I for one do not think so – those countries are totally corrupt, engaged in vicious tribal warfare and subjected to horrific atrocities that seldom took place under firm colonial rule. Look at Russia – now with endemic crime, and rampant corruption that I never saw in the years I worked in that country. Russia, under the inept, drunken and corrupt Yeltsin caved into to US pressure and its ideologues to move the country, before it was in any way ready, into democracy and capitalism. Had they followed instead Gorbachev’s formula for gradual change from communism to democratic socialism to democracy the evolution to democracy would have taken longer but it would have had more positive results. Putin is now trying to hold the line and reverse the rot, but it may be too late. Result – the Russians, with the exception of the Oligarchs and local mafia, are increasingly disenchanted with both democracy and capitalism and long for the good old days of Communism and security.
Many of these countries were catapulted from either stone-age cultures or feudal governments into a full blown democracy without any historical reference points. Using the analogy of wine again, for democracy to flower, it requires time and a process of maturation. Democracy is not a system that can be imposed externally (as we are trying to do in Iraq) on an alien culture, any more than one can transplant flora and expect it to flourish in alien soil conditions.
This is particularly true of American Democracy which has its dubious appeal to Americans but does not necessarily suit other cultures. In Francis Fukuyama’s classical book on liberal democracy “The End of History and The Last Man” Fukuyama argues cogently but not (for me) convincingly, that liberal democracy (liberal in the philosophical sense, not political) is the epitome of political evolution. I disagree. There are too many shortcomings, too many inequities in the system to satisfy me and justify such an assertion. Furthermore, I believe there is an inherent defect in democracy raised by both Aristotle and Alexis de Tocqueville (“Democracy in America” – 1830). Aristotle argued that democracy unrestrained can only lead to mobocracy. De Tocqueville, over 2000 years later, after observing democracy in the making in America in the 1830s, posited that “democracy contains within it the seeds of its own destruction”, a theme echoed from Burke to Tocqueville to Ortega de Gasset to Mencken, related to excessive freedom and misguided egalitarianism.