Today's date:
Spring 2011

Why China Won’t Follow Arab Revolt

Daniel A. Bell is professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing and of the arts and humanities at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. His latest book is China’s New Confucianism.

Beijing—Like Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Chinese government relies on harsh measures to put down calls for democratic reform. Like Egypt, China is plagued by a huge gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption, rising prices of basic foods and high unemployment rates among recent university graduates.

So should outside forces turn to democracy-promotion in China?

Not so fast. In Egypt, social critics and reformers of different stripes profess public allegiance to the ideal of multiparty democracy, defined as free and fair competitive elections for the country’s political leaders, along with the freedoms that make those elections meaningful.

In China, it is not so simple. Pro-democracy forces are not absent—the most famous is the imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo—but they are not widespread. Many social critics and political reformers in China do not endorse multiparty democracy as the solution to China’s political problems.

And the “democracy is not so good” camp is itself divided into two different groups. Let us call them Pessimists and Optimists.

The Pessimists point to a serious problem with democracy: The will of the people may not be moral—it could endorse racism, fascism or imperialism. Such concerns are not purely theoretical. In the case of Egypt, widespread anti-Israeli sentiments, for example, may not prove favorable for the cause of peace in the Middle East.

In the case of China, an unhealthy form of nationalism has gained strength. Nationalists want to make China a strong military and economic power that can “say no” to the rest of the world, whatever the moral considerations at stake. A transition to democracy could easily give rise to a populist strongman backed by a security and military mafia.

It is easy to blame the Chinese government for fanning the flames of a resentful nationalism. But the fact of the matter is that the government often tries to counteract it. Contrary to popular belief, much of the censorship of popular newspapers is targeted at extremist and dangerous forms of nationalism, not at liberal-reformist viewpoints.

Hence, Pessimist reformers say that China should implement measures to combat corruption and abuses of government power and open the society in other ways—but without going the route of electoral democracy. In the long term, perhaps, but not now.

The Optimists point to another key problem with democracy: There is no formal representation for non-voters who are affected by the policies of the government. Hence a democratic form of government may be counter to the interests of future generations and people living outside national boundaries.

Again, this is not a purely theoretical problem. Democratic countries such as Greece vote themselves unsustainable welfare policies that threaten to harm not just future generations but other European states. Or consider global warming: It is difficult if not impossible for democratically elected governments to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of future generations and foreigners.

If China were to follow the American model in terms of per capita carbon emissions, the world would be damaged beyond repair. Today, several hundred million Chinese living south of the Yangtze River cannot use central heating. Such policies benefit the world as well as future generations, but they would likely be revoked by a popularly elected government.

Optimists respond to such concerns by proposing forms of government that aim to do better than Western-style democracies. In the past decade, Confucian reformists have put forward proposals for a democratic assembly that would represent the interests of workers and farmers, complemented by another assembly that would represent the interests of non-voters. Deputies in the democratic house would be chosen by voters, while deputies in the other house would be chosen by meritocratic mechanisms such as competitive examinations.

On issues such as land disputes in rural China, the decisions of the democratic house would take priority. In areas such as foreign policy and the environment, the meritocratic house would have more say.

Democrats often respond to such seemingly utopian proposals with the objection that democracy is a priority: Let’s democratize the system first, and then we can think about how to improve democracy.

But the current political system is already meritocratic in some respects, and it would be practical and desirable to draw on the parts that work well.

Cadres in the 78 million-strong Chinese Communist Party are increasingly selected according to competitive meritocratic criteria. And the government implements some policies according to five-year plans that are designed for long-term benefit, such as support for clean energy, high-speed railways and economic development projects in the impoverished and sparsely populated western part of the country. A more democratic government would be more constrained by short-term electoral considerations.

And once a democratic government is in place, it’s hard to change. Once people develop a taste for the ritual of voting for their country’s most important political leaders, it’s hard to argue for alternatives, even if they are more efficient and morally better. Which politician would dare tell the people that they should not hold

all the trump cards in foreign policy or environmentalism?

So at the very least, outside forces should not seek to override reasonable viewpoints of social reformers in China.

Liberal democrats as well as Pessimist and Optimist reformers agree that more media freedom is desirable to expose abuses of political power. They all seek to humanize the government in various ways. To the extent possible, they should be supported in their efforts.

But both Pessimists and Optimists have good reasons to doubt the benefits of competitive, direct elections for the country’s top political leaders.

Let’s hope that democracy succeeds in Egypt. But in China, the “freedom agenda” for now need not include support for full electoral democracy.