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Unusual Piece of Self-Doubt from a Former US Neo-Con


US Democracy Has Little To Teach China

Francis Fukuyama


The first decade of the 21-century has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune in the relative prestige of different political and economic models. Ten years ago, on the eve of the puncturing of the dotcom bubble, the US held the high ground. Its democracy was widely emulated, if not always loved; its technology was sweeping the world; and lightly regulated “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism was seen as the wave of the future. The US managed to fritter away that moral capital in remarkably short order: the Iraq war and the close association it created between military invasion and democracy promotion tarnished the latter, while the Wall Street financial crisis put paid to the idea that markets could be trusted to regulate themselves.
This piece was written by Francis Fukuyama, a well know, but now former, U.S. Neo-Con.  Since 2002, Fukuyama has increasingly distanced himself from the Neo-Con’s in his own views.
He has also compared Neo-Conservatism to Leninism, announced the end of Neo-Con movement, and in 2008, endorsed Barack Obama’s candidacy for US President.
Apparently, in this piece, Fukuyama is unusually pessimistic about the current US Democratic system.  Not just policies, but the system itself.
Of course, this may be the rambling of a man who has lost faith and sees no solutions.
But he saved his own ending with some optimism for US.
It leaves me wondering the whole point of his piece.  Was it just some Devil’s advocate piece with Fukuyama arguing out of both sides of his mouth?
But still, for once, Fukuyama demonstrated some pragmatic understanding of China.  (That at least, it may be called “authoritarian” by the West, but by no means is the Chinese government unaccountable to its people.)
* I recently told an American colleague, that most Westerners misunderstand China’s political system as one of slow to respond to public will.
In fact, Chinese leaders inherently  understand that they survive upon the public will of the Chinese populous.  And in Chinese history, dynastic revolutions often happen within less than one generation if the rulers refused to accommodate public will.
Fukuyama is right in that the Chinese system of accountability is not inherently ingrained in some “system” to tally public will.  But then again, neither is really any Western “Democracy”.
Votes are simplistic, and don’t account for much real public feeling.  Voting for a candidate often is based upon unrealistic personal feelings and expectations.
Polls are damn near meaningless.
Media distorts on both ends of the political extreme.
Fukuyama missed a simple fact:  Public sentiments cannot be simply measured in some universal “democracy”-meter.
Words and votes are lost in translation, and forgotten in the layers of lobbyists, unions, and NGO franchises.
At the end of the day, Good leaders will know public sentiment, even without polls and measurements, BAD leaders will ignore public sentiment, even with stacks of papers/studies in proof, and do so, because they can get away with it.
Consider the simple case of John McCain, who stubbornly chose to denounce the repeal of “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell”, in spite of the fact that he got the “study” he demanded from Pentagon, proving that most of the US military are not concerned about the effects of the repeal or homosexuals serving in the military.  The study was extremely detailed and took the Pentagon several years (and millions of tax dollars in lawyer fees, and mountains of forests turned into fine paper) to conduct.  (The last bit about the forest was a joke.)
Now, why did McCain do it?  Because he could get away with it.  Same as any corrupt leader anywhere in the world.
Certainly, there are no shortage of similar ones in the Chinese bureaucratic system.
But one would think a “system” of polls and checks and balances like the US would have long eradicated the likes of leaders who ignore public sentiments?
Not at all.  Whenever you have a system, you will have people who can exploit the loopholes.
Hence, the US politicians shield themselves with their own pollsters, their own studies, their own talk shows, to help manipulated the news and the perception of “public sentiments”.  (Not the public sentiment itself, just perception of it.)
As for me, I don’t buy the “system” precisely because it is so easy to game around it.
I just want good leaders, not bad leaders who can game around the system.
And I don’t want a “system” that tell me to file my grievances through the “system” when the “system” is being gamed.
*As for China, I believe the Chinese leaders and the Chinese people are searching for a good “system” that doesn’t depend on the system itself.
We are in search of a new way to define our relationship between human beings.  And we can’t get there by depending on other people’s “systems”.
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  1. TonyP4
    January 22nd, 2011 at 16:06 | #1

    Canadians are communists, US folks are socialists, and Chinese are capitalists.

    Use health care delivery to prove my point. All Canadians get free medical care, but you have to ignore the quality. In US, even the illegals get it free when they check in emergency room. In China, if you do not pay, you die.

    Need the majority of the citizens to be educated to practice true democracy. Otherwise, the vote by an uneducated farmer is worth the same as an educated urbaner.

    Every political system has advantages and disadvantages. I prefer democracy myself as I am used to it.

    In a democracy system, the politicians agree with the special groups in order to buy their votes. Hence, they never consider long term.

    The worst of communism is it discourage folks from working hard. There is no incentive to advance or take chance in a new business. Any political system that has lifted millions from poverty in last 30 years is good to me.

  2. January 23rd, 2011 at 02:57 | #2

    Indeed, what a shift from his famous “End of History” view about Democracy!

  3. xian
    January 24th, 2011 at 15:36 | #3

    Well Fukuyama was never much of a neo-Con to begin with. Not that it’s perfect, but voting is a simple, direct way to express public opinion. The real problem with democracy is that it systemically divides public opinion itself, so even if the government knew what people thought, there’s no way to effect any serious change without facing grassroots opposition from ‘the other side’. In the end benevolent dictatorships have always been the best form of governance, as long as they remain benevolent…

  4. r v
    January 24th, 2011 at 17:47 | #4

    Here is another US commentary, based on Fukuyama’s comments:


    First, although China’s leaders are not elected democratically, they are (contrary to what many Americans believe) very attuned to public opinion. When trouble brews, they issue statements and new laws quickly. Skeptics say they do this because they fear being overthrown and executed, like former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, rather than from true humanitarianism. Whatever their motivations, China’s leaders do in fact for the most part listen to the will of the people. Of course, they can’t always fix problems immediately, but they do show that they care about the wants of ordinary folks.

    For example, our research suggests that two of the greatest concerns of ordinary Chinese are rising real estate prices and food costs. Leaders show they are addressing these worries by regularly announcing how much square footage of new low-income housing is about to come onto the market or is under construction, and they use taxation to force real estate developers through to product affordable units. Likewise they put price controls on food for low income families, or exempt farmers from road tolls.

    This comment puts in more accurate comment about the feedback system in China.

    1 additionally note:

    Confucius said of the essential elements of a state, the most important is the People’s faith in their ruler/government.

    The People’s faith can only be effected in 2 ways, (1) government address the people’s concerns, and (2) government affect/manipulate the public opinion to change their concerns, usually a mix of both.

    It seems to me, that China is doing more of the (1), and US is doing more of the (2), since obviously, US has been in deadlock for a long time over many essential issues.

    Not saying that every solution in China is necessarily a good solution, but they do try very hard, instead of depend on speeches and news that talk about “freedom” instead of actually doing something.

    *What’s good about “freedom” of speech, vote, etc, when all the talk/votes don’t lead to much concrete actions?

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