China, Democracy and Reality

Tianan'men - The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing, China.
Tianan’men – The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing, China.


Having recently had the opportunity to visit China and combine that with some reading about the country, I’ve come away with some inevitably fairly superficial thoughts about how the Chinese and the West do things differently. While the Chinese government sets limits on voiced or organised challenges to the Communist Party’s control of the country, it seems that most Chinese are able to pretty much get on with their lives as they wish. Having visited the great open spaces at the centre of London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Madrid, it felt disturbing to be shooed off Tiananmen Square at dusk, but otherwise despite the presence of police and soldiers at nearly every turn in central Beijing, I felt able to move around and take photographs pretty much as elsewhere.

I suspect the vast politically apathetic majority of Westerners would feel no restriction of their freedom under the Chinese regime. If the rise of Donald Trump and apparently popular strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, along with Brexit, show that the ability to vote is not enough to sustain government by reason then Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution show that the lack of a democratic buffer leads to the deaths of millions.

On the other hand, since the late 1970s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) have probably governed their country in its broad aspects as well, if not better, than any other has been. The co-ordination of the country’s huge population to create income, wealth and infrastructure, and to lift over 700 million people out of poverty, must be seen as a serious achievement from which the West can learn much. The ability to plan successfully for the long term and to take policy decisions on a rational basis (which is not to say that they are always correct or just decisions) for what is generally seen to be for the common good (and clearly often has been) is impressive. There are now clear problems facing China: a rising wealth gap between the urban and rural populations and environmental degradation most obviously; but contrary to the attitude of some Western governments faced with the same problems they are not in denial about them, are discussing them and are taking at least some steps to deal with them

In a Beijing bookshop I came across a volume of opinion surveys conducted by a Chinese academic which contained evidence of Chinese citizens’ support for the Party regime despite the lack of democratic institutions. This is therefore an issue which is not undiscussable in China – although of course whether this book would have been available had the results been unfavourable to the regime is doubtful. According to the survey results the CPC’s legitimacy rests on the moral and social rectitude of their governance and confirmation via the ballot box is not a priority for the large majority of citizens. This emphasis on what rulers do rather than who they are could well derive from Confucian traditions and is not obviously unreasonable. It also explains the importance to the government under Xi Jinping of being seen to be rooting out officials who act corruptly.

Since the late 1970s the Chinese leadership has characterised their approach as ‘wading across the river by feeling out for stones’, by which an empirical rather than an ideological basis for policy is preferred. What works in raising living standards is sought in part by following examples from the West and in part from policy experiments (not always originating from the central Party) in China’s provinces – many themselves as populous as large Western countries

Western democracies currently show little sign of operating in a similarly empirical manner. Whilst the majority of economists argue from theory and evidence against cutting government expenditure when economic activity is sluggish and interest rates are low, that is precisely what the UK and the Eurozone have done since the Financial Crisis of 2008. The Chinese did not make the same mistake, having learned from Japan’s economic failure of the 1990s and 2000s. The US has persistently elected Republican Representatives and Senators who deny global warming and now claim that reducing access to healthcare will make both the majority of US citizens and the US economy better off. The current US President appears to have no working relationship with empirical reality whatsoever. The United Kingdom seeks to better its economic performance by reducing its trade co-operation with its nearest neighbours, while at the same time ignoring the huge contribution such co-operation has made to an unprecedented 70 years of peace among Europe’s major countries. The Chinese, meanwhile, have been expanding trade co-operation, and are now at the forefront of action against global climate change

So formal democratic institutions seem to be failing the West while at present their absence may not be harming most Chinese unduly. As Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen points out: ‘democracy is a demanding system and not just a mechanical condition (like majority rule) taken in isolation’. Democracy is ‘government by discussion’, and is moreover a two-way process in that individual values can change, not just be expressed. Crucial to this is the tolerance of different points of view and the encouragement of public discussion with its opportunity of learning from others. (As Sen argues forcefully, this is not purely a Western tradition.) These interactive processes ‘are required for people to be able to determine what they must demand, what they should criticise and how they should vote’. It is the lack of these features that are proving toxic to Western democracies. The polarisation of interests and of opinions that have virtually destroyed any common basis for meaningful policy dialogue at least in the UK and the US most likely follows from the symbiotic recruitment effects of wealth and power, particularly at the economically liberal and socially conservative ends of the political spectrum, along with the backlash that results where they do not hold complete sway. It’s almost certainly a mistake to see this as a left-right battle, since any consistency of policy or opinion is increasingly difficult to discern anywhere.

So what might we learn from China? First, probably that speech itself is not an unalloyed good. More of it is not necessarily better. What matters at least as much is its quality and its distribution. If too much is ungrounded in empirical reality and if it is not spread evenly, then it may well do more harm than good as we cease to make judgements based on content, but come to make them on loudness, persistence and source. Second, we should pay much more attention to how policy decisions are made, rather on who makes them. Are they made disinterestedly, with deliberation and consultation and with clear reference to empirical fact – even as must often be the case in real world policy these facts are confusing, conflicting and inadequate? Leaders who cannot lead, communicate or understand should be rejected, but not because they somehow fail to match up to pre-conceived stereotypes or are somewhat clumsy when it comes to eating fast food. (All Chinese are pretty revolting eaters, it should be noted.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *