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Three Common Myths about Democratic Institutions

It is obvious to any China watcher that in the western media, there is ample criticism and exposure of the numerous social and political side effects that accompanies China’s rapid modernization. Three such side effects seem more frequently mentioned than the rest: abuse of unaccountable power, the rise of violent civil unrest, and the growing wealth gap between rich and poor. While such criticisms are valid to varying degrees, problems arise when Western (AND WORSE YET, MAINLAND CHINESE) public intellectuals implicitly or explicitly prescribe democracy, freedom of expression, and transparent, participatory governance (or broadly speaking, western liberal democratic institutions) as the cure for such ills. These commentators frequently attribute imaginary benefits to democratic institutions vis-a-vis non-democratic counterparts. This commentary briefly illustrates three such myths.

Myth #1. Democratically elected governments are better able to prevent unaccountable abuse of power.

Although this seems like a distant memory, Russia (and other former Soviet Republics) did experiment with democracy and freely elected government in the late 80s and early 90s. The result – robber baron/crony capitalism, the rise of an oligarchical ruling class, capital flight, increased poverty, and the collapse of an already fragile healthcare system that lowered life expectancy by 10 years. It is safe to assume that “unaccountable abuse of power” happened somewhere along the way of the Russian catastrophe known as “The 90s”; those who encountered open solicitation of bribes while living/working in Moscow can undoubtedly attest to the validity of this assumption. When ever this author ponders the tragedy that befell Russia during those years, a revealing quote from a former co-worker in Moscow comes to mind:

“У каждого поколения русских своя катастрофа, у моего дедкушки была отечественная война, а у нас 90-х годов…” (Rough translation: Every generation of Russians have faced their own disasters, my grandpa had World War II, and we had the 90s…)

Granted, the root causes of the disastrous 90s cannot be solely attributed to the democracy years, nor have some of these problems shown significant improvement since the reemergence of authoritarianism since the early 2000s. However, the key takeaway here is that the democratic political system that should have theoretically slowed or halted political corruption and abuse of power had only exacerbated its woes.

Myth #2. Participatory governance is more capable of preventing violent civil unrest, since freedom of expression and the vote are pressure valves that give disenfranchised communities and individuals non-violent means of redressing grievances.

A simple tour of the world’s largest democracy reveals just how “effective” such pressure valves actually work in the real world. From Kashmir to Assam, and the Naxalites in between, violent insurgencies rage across India, claim thousands of lives, and remain organized and armed to a degree unimaginable in authoritarian China. All the disenfranchised communities that foster these violent rebellions have both their vote and their voice available to redress the injustices imposed upon them, be it real or perceived. Obviously, the pressure valve has been severely inadequate. Of course, one should not single out India as the only example of democracy’s failure to prevent internal violence. Until recently, multiple democratically elected governments in Sri Lanka were unable to end the all out civil war with Tamil insurgents. In Kenya, post-election violence caused the death of hundreds, with several hundred thousand more displaced from their homes and livelihoods. Needless to say, whatever resentments that existed within these societies could not simply be resolved with the pressure valve of debates and elections.

Myth #3. Transparency and rule of law gives everyone a fair voice and equal opportunity in the democratic decision-making process.

One needs to look no further than the United States of America to debunk this fantasy. Open, transparent formulation, implementation, and interpretation of laws in the US did not prevent its electoral machine from becoming the “one dollar, one vote” political system that it is today. It would be delusional to think that a middle-class American’s ballot carries equal weight to that of David H. Koch. It is equally delusional to believe that the current arrangement of power can reverse the decades old erosion of Middle America’s economic and political power vis-a-vis the top one percent, or the ever-widening wealth gap that accompanies this decline.

In sum, few can dispute that official abuse of power, ethnic/separatist conflicts, and wealth inequality are serious long-term obstacles that have the potential to derail China’s growth and modernization. However, far more people should be raising the question “is democracy – especially western liberal democracy – really the one-size-fits-all solution to China’s problems”?

  1. August 4th, 2012 at 05:36 | #1

    You are forgetting myth about democracies being less aggressive militarily with each other AKA democratic peace theory and the related theory that democratic societies are less violent towards others in general.

    As for 3, rule of law is only tangentially related as a concept to that of democracy. I actually agree that rule of law reduces intra national violence, conflict and improves social and economic well-being in society when it is done well but it is not sufficient to built a truly great society.

  2. August 4th, 2012 at 07:42 | #2

    The so-called “democratic peace theory” is indeed another myth about democratic governance. In fact, there are many more than just the three I mentioned. I chose to focus on these three because these are the supposed benefits that public intellectuals (both Western and Chinese) seem to use most frequently to justify regime change/transition to a western-style multi-party democracy in China.

    With regards to rule of law, I acknowledge that any system of governance can and does have rule of law to some degree; I also acknowledge that it can yield social benefits. Once again, I brought up this concept because it seemed to me that ‘rule of law’ is one of the more common sticks used by Chinese liberal intellectuals and the western media to bash China and the CPC. It is also a characteristic that is more often than not associated with democracies rather than non-democracies.

    Here is my intended key takeaway on ‘rule of law’: critics often explain China’s wealth gap as the result of the absence of a fair and level playing field, which is further extrapolated as the consequence of lacking rule of law. Even though that might be valid, I provided an example of a democratic country where the transparent rule of law does exist (or at least is widely perceived to exist), yet the wealth and political power gap continues to grow between the elite and the masses. To paraphrase what you said, rule of law is a necessary but not sufficient component of a well-run society. However, democracy is not the most suitable to move China in that direction.

  3. no-name
    August 5th, 2012 at 21:08 | #3

    Only 3 ? West’n democracy ( cap democracy) is a big humbug. It led hitler to power in Germany and now in UK there is the English Defence League. In S E Asia & elsewhere you have extremist groups masquerading as NGOs. Politicians in numerous cap democracy countries hire thugs and goons to masquerade as ‘party supporters’ often killing, looting & committing arson. Democracy of the kind peddled by the west comes with the aid of knives, cluster bombs, mass rapes, mass looting & mass fraud. In short it is a recipe for introducing evil warmongers as leaders, nurturing the rise of an economy based on a strong arms industry which needs constant wars, promoting good skills in exploiting and promulgating political debauchery, demagoguery including the use of character assassinations, intimidating tactics, control of the media which quickly becomes heavily biased, purchasing support via unethical means, and failure to curb crime against minorities which are often the target of populist politicians. This is why the US military which is the single largest user of energy in the world does not practise ‘democracy’. For more, read http://www.scribd.com/doc/61136617 on the shady or ugly side of ‘democracy’.

  4. August 5th, 2012 at 21:49 | #4

    As I already mentioned in the previous reply, there are a lot more than three myths about democracy. But I feel those are the three myth that are most frequently propagated and used to bash the CPC by democracy activists inside and outside China, so I went for the low-hanging fruit. If I were to list out all the potential flaws of democratic governance, it would take forever; few would read a diatribe that long.

    But if you like what I have to say, please share it on social media to get the word out. >;-]

  5. August 8th, 2012 at 00:50 | #5

    @Mister Unknown

    To paraphrase what you said, rule of law is a necessary but not sufficient component of a well-run society.

    I disagree. Why is it necessary?

    I can imagine a very well-run, just, pleasant society that is characterized as ruled by wisdom, by common decency, by compassion, by love, or by 仁, 义, 道, 德.

    Law to me is but a tool, a framework – one framework – for framing social issues, conflicts. It has really little to say how conflicts are really to be absolved. The law masks the politics beyond how social issues, conflicts are absolved. Law per se allow games that justify the most injust result through law to be played. A belief in rule of law is but a worshiping of idols. Sorry to say…

  6. August 8th, 2012 at 01:59 | #6


    I concede that “rule of law” as perceived and known in the West – formal, well-defined rules written in highly technical and legalistic language, crafted & argued over by well-paid word-smiths with an ambiguous grasp of the real world – is not necessarily the best tool/framework for conflict resolution and administration of justice, especially when operating by itself.

    However, while we all can wish we had a society that can operate effectively with the ideas of informal, socially-agreed-upon rules (common decency, compassion, etc), a society where a handshake is as binding as written legal contract, there will always be manipulators and free-riders in any society under any political system. Therefore I think rule of law (in the more traditional, western sense of the term) is necessary to “error-proof” (if you will) social interactions against the “bad seeds” that exist in all societies.

    That said, in any genuinely healthy society, we need some balance of both rigid laws and some informal, socially-established common sense, that’s why I maintain that rule of law is necessary, but it alone is NOT sufficient. I don’t think any society has found the right balance of law and common sense yet. The decency and compassion you speak of must supplement and correct for the rule of law, since laws are by nature rigid, inflexible, and incapable of accounting for the complexities of real day-to-day human interactions. The United States and its obsessively litigious society is the perfect example of a society ruled by too many written laws manipulated by word-smiths with too little conscience, common sense, or grasp of reality.

    In any case, where ever that “perfect” balance between common decency and formal rules lie, I think we can all agree that democrazy is not the cure-all answer its advertised to be.

  7. August 8th, 2012 at 02:13 | #7

    Rule of law can be extremely expensive too. In the U.S., there is a trend towards third-party arbitration to settle disputes – rather paying exorbitant priced lawyers.

    In China’s case, it’s the mixture of tools: rule of law, guanxi (your friend is bigger than my friend, so your bigger friend’s sense of justice prevail more often), arbitration, and norms from culture.

    I used to think “rule of law” is the end until Allen poured water on it. Now I feel more enlightened.

    Completely agreed – that balance is always negotiable, depending on time and circumstance in China’s development.

  8. August 8th, 2012 at 02:46 | #8


    You might be right that the rule of law is not even necessary, nevermind sufficient for a just and well run society. However, it seems to me that it would be extremely difficult if not practically impossible to construct such a society from the ground up without the rule of law even if eventually the rule of law is abandoned for something more robust such as virtue as the society develops. Virtue (such as the ones you listed) has to have substantial preconditions in which to even begin developing. It would be very difficult to inculcate virtue on a mass level if not for some kind of rule of law already in place protecting the oppressed.

  9. August 8th, 2012 at 02:51 | #9


    True, not only is it expensive monetarily but when it is done right, it is expensive socially as well. It taxes social awareness and educational resources. For the rule of law to work, people in society must understand their rights and actively defend them against those that seek to oppress and curtail their rights. People must also uphold other people’s rights as if it were their own (such as bearing witness when rights of others are curtailed etc, etc). So the rule of law requires lots of attention, education, and desire to be successfully implemented. But a well run and just society is not something that is easy to come by so one shouldn’t expect it to come easily. It takes lots of effort and resources. But I see no better alternatives to the building of the initial stages of such a desirable society.

  10. August 12th, 2012 at 00:01 | #10

    @melektaus , @Mister Unknown

    People typically worship rule of law because it connotes transparency, fairness, neutrality. The rule of law – by that I include also the real life working of law – much more than that, and is ultimately anything but (cynically, it’s about hiring creative good lawyers and having the money to frame your case properly to get away with things…).

    I don’t dispute that certain levels of transparency (in an informed manner), fairness (but in a not too rigid manner, remember Shylock?), and neutrality (but without becoming unsympathetic and heartless) are desirable. But those are not characteristics exclusively of (or even of, depending on your level of cynicism) rule of law. Rule of law is marketed as such, but that is not how it works.

    If you look specifically at rule of evidence (just to make things easier to manage), if you dig deep enough, you will see that you are not looking to deal with the truth, but only at coming away with looks being fair. That’s an important insight. It’s really what all of what law is about – it’s a technique, like voting in democracy, for buying legitimacy. It does not intrinsically incorporate notions of justice. There is no way you can codify things that really matter: fairness, justice. It’s a human thing that are more informed by notions of wisdom, by common decency, by compassion, by love, or by 仁, 义, 道, 德.

    Now I am not saying notions of transparency, fairness, neutrality don’t matter. They do. But they are also informed by these other traditions I talk about. Rule of law does not have a monopoly on these notions. And I believe other traditions actually push these principles, among others, further toward a society of genuine justice.

    Another thing: we may think rule of law is concrete while these other things are not – but that’s because the world is dominated by Western traditions and thoughts, and in some ways, we all buy into it. And that’s a reality I accept.

    For China, I think rule of law is a useful technique – given its current level of development and the current entrenchment of ideology that says rule of law will advance justice – for developing a fairer, more just society. But I see it as a transitional stage – perhaps like capitalism. In the future, notions of capitalism, rule of law will ultimately have to be modified by the greater insights provides by other thoughts, traditions – and experiences with modernity (environmental concerns may modify how we structure markets, for example)…

  11. August 12th, 2012 at 03:29 | #11

    I have said plenty about the rule of law which addresses the main issues Allen raises and thus I will simply post the link to my previous article.


  12. dan
    August 12th, 2012 at 07:31 | #12

    Perhaps the question to ask is ‘Rule of Whose Law’? No country can survive without proper governance system, be it ‘democracy’ or ‘authoritarian’. China grows and prospers is not without some kind of effective governance measures, it just not happens to be what the West wants to see and that becomes a challenge to its system, and thus indirectly, Chinese governance method challenges the Westerners’ ways of life.

    Many Chinese emigrate to the West not because for democracy or ‘rule of law’, since most 1st generation Chinese-xx, even 2nd generations do not participate in politics in any of the Western countries of their homes (some don’t even vote). So for me to understand why Chinese activists in China protest against their government for democracy is a bit hard to understand. Perhaps it is the oft mention ‘the West .. is the best’ illusion? Of course this is just my theory.

  13. August 12th, 2012 at 14:09 | #13


    In your other thread, you noted:

    Now, I believe also that we may never get totally away from having some legal protection for individuals in society from abuses of their rights no matter how we cultivate virtue in the population because there will always be some bad apples making the whole society worse off and law may be the only way to protect people from abuses from these intractable individuals.

    This is one place where we fundamentally disagree. Rule of law does not provide for an iota of protection for basic human rights per se. What protection we have seen in the West comes from its progressiveness, its advancement of development, the good fortune it has found itself.

    It has chosen to wear the rule of law as its clothe, but it needed not have, and it would still be just as progressive. Conversely it would have been corrupt even it had the “best” laws in the books if it were not so progressive in its nature to start out with.

    In general, a system of law run by crooks is still a system run of crooks. What matters utmost is the character of a people, which often is embedded in many aspects of its institutions (but its institution is no substitute for the character, which must be there).

    The rule of law as a norm makes sense to so many because we see the world through Western experience, Western eyes, and history. I really believe that.

    Again, I don’t dispute with you on perhaps the practical aspects of all this, at least not yet, but our worldview on the norm of “rule of law,” “logic,” “rationality,” “objectivity” – as have been revealed before in our other discussions – shows how we are also world part. Hopefully with time, we will be able to better debate our differences and reveal more clearly for the readers those differences. I think efforts spent there will be revealing and productive.

  14. August 12th, 2012 at 23:26 | #14


    I simply cannot invision a society completely devoid of all law the purose of law being served by virtue on a mass level. But perhaps you are right and that someday such a society will be possible. But I do not think such a day is anytime soon. I don’t even think it is in the forseable future. Thus I thuink of it as an ideal, a theoretical but not a practical possibility. Thus to be practical, I believe that for now and into the forseable future, law does indeed protect people, especially the worst off. Though much of the progressiveness of the modern societies does come from things like education and such, I do believe that the reason it got to that point is partially due to the instatiation of legal institutions and the rule of law (which is actually a set of values in society and not formal institutions though these institutions come with the territory of those values). So it really is a complext interaction between the rule of law and the development of culture and education in making modern societies in the west and other parts more civil, moral, and socially advanced. Even though there will always be crooks in all systems, even crooks in the legal system bending the rules for personal advantage, the way to catch and punish the crooks is best achieved through the system itself. How else will you catch and punish the crooks fairly and judiciously except through some system of law? Vigilante “justice” is not any kind of justice at all.

    So unless someone gives me a model of an alternative PRACTICAL system that can take the place of rule of law NOW, I see no way around it.

  15. August 13th, 2012 at 01:22 | #15


    I think you may have over-characterized what I wrote.

    I did not say I am looking for an idyllic world where we don’t need laws, where everyone does what’s right.

    Rule of law means many things. But one thing it does mean is that law rules supreme to the way society should be governed. Disputes and policies are to be formulated through law, and it is through law – the mechanics of law (advocacy, lawyering, technical argumentation, etc.) – through which society must be run. Law in many ways has become the new religion (at least Constitutional law).

    That approach has worked for the West (given its history) and has now become the norm for social development.

    I don’t buy it.

    In the traditional Chinese formulation, rule of law is an important (indispensable) part of running a society, but it’s but an aspect, a tool. It is not worshiped, and it is not relied on to serve justice. It definitely per se does not run society (many other things – be it considered policy, well-trained wise judges, etc. as society dictates) – at least not the mechanics of law, by which I mean rule of law.

    Of course, there are other issues.

    Chinese conception of rule of law is a little different from Western one. Chinese conception has a connotation of fairness – that is meant to apply to the ordinary people. When it comes to gov’t officials, there are official laws that govern them, with different duties.

    I don’t see a problem with it. It’s a good way to ensure the law does not become politicized too much.

    But in the West, this is seen as a no no, where rule of law is actually often framed as a way to constrain the government, the sovereign.

    Anyways, I’m going way too much off the tangent. But I want to stress, I am not talking about an idyllic world in the comments above.

    When I hear people say rule of law is so important and so important, they really mean that law should be supreme. That’s what I don’t buy. Of course a society need laws, amongst a zillion other things that a society need – such as a sewage system, or farm land, or research facilities.

    China’s issue with rule of law is that it is advancing so rapidly that its system for governing often is falling behind the needs of society. China needs to more effectively enforce government policy more uniformly, in more explicit detail – so that gov’t policy are not hijacked by incompetence or entrepreneurial local officials. That should really be all.

    It’s an evolution of itself as it finds itself in new situations. It’s not an adoption of a new notion “rule of law” as a non-Chinese concept.

    Sure, one might say, during the cultural revolution, policy – politics – became king, and things became arbitrary, and many yearn for more predictability, more “rule of law.”

    Yes. That’s also an important aspect for understanding China’s march toward “rule of law” today.

    But just because China is looking to reset from its revolutionary “breakdown” doesn’t mean it is adopting a new thing outside of its tradition called “rule of law.”

    The breakdowns of law in the cultural revolution is not a breakdown of Chinese tradition per se, it was merely a breakdown suffered by a society in revolution.

    China’s search for rule of law must be understood in proper context….so it not be hijacked by the misinformed attitude that China must adopt Western notions of rule of law to become civilized…

  16. August 19th, 2012 at 09:26 | #16

    Allen :


    I think you may have over-characterized what I wrote.

    I did not say I am looking for an idyllic world where we don’t need laws, where everyone does what’s right.

    I know. I’m saying that what you have said seem to imply that though you may not have said it. So if there is no rule of law, how would you propose to run society in practical terms? I’ve been saying that it takes lots of resources and time to build a society so that it can focus on virtue instead of legal principles. And even then, there may be no getting away from some sort of law.

    So I’m still not certain how you propose to run society without law. I’m curious about the actual structure of society which you’d propose. What will such a society look like?

    I am convinced that there is always en element of coercion in law and that is why I do not see it as ideal. So society must work towards an alternative. I believe that alternative is to cultiave as much virtue in society and reasonableness as possible. But like I’ve been saying, it takes time and resources for that to happen. I am asking you what your practical solution to the interim period will be.

    In the traditional Chinese formulation, rule of law is an important (indispensable) part of running a society, but it’s but an aspect, a tool.

    I think you’ve misunderstood me. I never said law wasn’t a tool. In fact, I did say things to that affect. Like I’ve been saying, it is not ideal. But many things aren’t ideal in life but we must sometimes put up with them until a better solution is found.

    It is not worshiped, and it is not relied on to serve justice. It definitely per se does not run society (many other things – be it considered policy, well-trained wise judges, etc. as society dictates) – at least not the mechanics of law, by which I mean rule of law.

    I’m not saying it should or that it does.

    Of course, there are other issues.

    Chinese conception of rule of law is a little different from Western one. Chinese conception has a connotation of fairness – that is meant to apply to the ordinary people. When it comes to gov’t officials, there are official laws that govern them, with different duties.

    I did not say that I was advocating a strictly “western” notion of the rule of law. I’m saying that *some* form of the rule of law may be the best option for China when it is trying to build a society that is more robustly run by individuals who do not need coercive external inducements to behave and act reasonably.

    But in the West, this is seen as a no no, where rule of law is actually often framed as a way to constrain the government, the sovereign.

    I don’t know why this is relevant. What the west does with its conception of the rule of law is irrelevant to what I am proposing for China. I advocate the rule of law in some form or another that is best suited for China’s current practical needs to better ensure things like justice and fairness and a efficient harmonious society. That is a stepping stone to something else. If you suggest a better way to that better society, I can assure you the Chinese government as well as myself would want to hear what that is.

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