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”?