The West shouldn't scoff at China's democracy

Beijing may have lessons to offer at a time when governments in the US and Europe are struggling to deliver

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening session of the annual National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Monday, March 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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Now that the first sessions of an international gathering on democracy have taken place, with 500-plus participants attending from more than 100 countries, has the event lived up to its billing? Or has it merely produced well-meaning platitudes with little real world effect, as critics suggested?

The keynote speaker said that democracy was a common value shared by all humanity, and former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama also stressed the importance of common values. Nothing objectionable there, surely. But some of the sentiments expressed would be contentious in some circles – such as scepticism about the necessity of elections being open to opposition parties, and the insistence that outsiders should not dictate whether a country counts as a democracy or not.

That is because the conference I am referring to is not the "Summit for Democracy" that US President Joe Biden is hosting this weekend. No, this was the forum on "Democracy: the Shared Human Values" that was held in Beijing last weekend and which will continue on December 9-10 and 14-15.

Some will dismiss it as an effort by China to distract from Mr Biden's much-heralded summit, to which Beijing is not just pointedly not invited: China, and Russia, are deemed to be the targets of American attempts to forge a global alliance against them both.

But it is worth considering this conference's discussions, and in particular the white paper released by China's State Council Information Office on Saturday titled "China: Democracy That Works", with its assertion that "there is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms". For, regarded without prejudice, there are many criticisms of the western model that hit home.

China's "whole-process people's democracy", claims the white paper, "leaves no room for politicians to shower promises while campaigning and break them all once elected". Broken promises have certainly been a feature of many administrations in the West. US presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson all claimed they would keep "American boys" out of foreign conflagrations – and then sent them to join the First and Second World Wars and Vietnam respectively.

George HW Bush famously pledged "read my lips: no new taxes" in 1988 – and then signed tax raises into law two years later. To be sure, electorates have the ability to punish governments that don't keep their promises, but they may have to wait impotently for four or five years to do so.

In China, says the paper, "the state power serves the people, rather than capital". After a decade in which public anger about the inordinate power and wealth of the "1 per cent" and tax systems seen as unfair to those on low incomes has resounded across Europe and the Americas, from the Occupy movement to the Gilet Jaunes in France, it seems clear to many that western-style democracy is simply not delivering to the masses.

It doesn't matter how they vote. Massively increased job insecurity and lower social provision than in the past appear to be here to stay. Meanwhile, according to the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, the world's billionaires increased their wealth by 54 per cent in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the weaknesses of western-style political party systems, says the white paper, is that "when making decisions and exercising governance, political parties act in their own interests or the interests of the classes, regions and groups they represent, provoking division in society". I wrote only last week about the normalisation of the far right in many western countries. Competitive party-and-coalition-based elections don't have to be divisive, but they have increasingly become so. Look at Britain, where many family relationships and deep friendships have been sundered by the Brexit vote.

The white paper makes much of China's extensive use of consultation and the many layers of elected officials who can be called to account. But there are clearly limits in a system in which "there are no opposition parties" and one where all must abide by certain core principles.

And yet, the highly regarded former foreign minister of Singapore, George Yeo, could state earlier this year that in terms of "the essence of democracy, which is the people as master", he gives China the thumbs up. "Abraham Lincoln talked about government of the people, by the people, for the people," he said. "By this definition, China is a democracy."

One Person, One Vote is a democratic principle, but it is by no means the only principle
White paper released by China's State Council Information Office

You don't have to agree wholly with Mr Yeo to recognise at least some truth in what he said. Triumphalists for western democracy should also recognise that some flaws in their systems might make them ineligible to describe themselves as democracies at all.

In Britain, for instance, no government has won 50 per cent or more of the vote since 1935. When I told my former colleagues at Malaysia's national think tank that the Labour party won its last election in 2005 with only 35 per cent, they looked at me with disbelief. With good reason, for this sounds like decades of a tyranny of the minority rather than a democracy of which anyone could be proud.

In that light, the white paper's view that "One Person, One Vote is a democratic principle, but it is by no means the only principle, nor does it of itself create democracy" is a fair comment.

Finally, could anyone really disagree with this statement? "A good model of democracy should build consensus rather than creating social rifts and conflicts, safeguard social equity and justice rather than widening social disparities in favour of vested interests, maintain social order and stability rather than causing chaos and turmoil, and inspire positivity and appreciation of the good and the beautiful rather than instigating negativity and promoting the false and the evil."

Whether China has managed to achieve this or not – and they strenuously argue that to a great extent they have – is beside the point. Attendees at Mr Biden's summit should take a hard look at their own records, and be willing to take any useful lessons they can on democracy – and not just ignore them if they don't like where they come from.

Published: December 08, 2021, 7:00 AM