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On Democratic Paradox

Sep 19 , 2016
  • Ding Yifan

    Deputy Director, China Development Research Center

From the UK referendum to leave the EU to Donald Trump’s rise in the US presidential election, people are interested now in the failure of “democratic system”. In fact, a few years ago, we already witnessed somehow the decline of “democracy” in the US. The congress dominated by Republican majority refused to approve anything that the Democrat administration might request, even to let the administration shut the door, for lack of budget. Political science pundits like Francis Fukuyama, also began to question whether democracy is supreme, as he suspected that “vetocracy” would bury American democracy.

However, whether in the West or in China, people are faced with a “democratic paradox”: on the one hand, democracy is a sacrosanct goal people are looking for, but on the other hand, democracy is the ideal which is most likely to leave people dissatisfied.

In Western society, people often debate about the meaning of democracy. If one says that democracy is the best form of government of mankind, others would say it is simply not what democracy is all about. In other words, people are dissatisfied with the current public governance, but they cannot imagine any better forms of pubic governance than their current democracy.

In today’s China, people are faced with another “democracy paradox.” No matter how much progress China has made, there are always critiques saying that China is not doing well enough, because China does not commit itself to “democratization”, “free elections”, or “multi-party alternation of power.” Therefore, when a problem occurs, the problem is always described as “institutional”, meaning that as long as China is not democratized, the solution won’t be ideal.

So, what is democracy?

Democracy today is only a form of decision-making, a voting system. People make decisions according to the opinion of the majority. However, is the majority always right? Talking about democracy, Westerners would trace it back to ancient Greece. But in the ancient Greek city-state politics, for quite a long time democracy was not considered to be a very rational form of decision-making. Think of Socrates, the greatest ancient Greek philosopher. How did he die? Isn’t it because he was condemned by the majority and sentenced to the death penalty? Moreover, the reasons for that verdict were purely “unwarranted,” because he was supposed to have “confused young people”.

So, when we say that democracy is good, we are trapped by a dichotomy, a confrontation between democracy and dictatorship. People will choose democracy, because no one will stand for dictatorship. But if you are told that those two things are not in contradiction, what will you think about? For centuries, democracy has been synonymous of tyranny of the majority, so a sort of majority dictatorship.

Even in ancient Greek politics, political regimes were classified according to the number of people in power, but not according to the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy. If the power is exercised by one person, it could be monarchy or tyranny; if the power is exercised by a few people, it could be either aristocracy or oligarchy; if the power is exercised by the majority of people, it could also be either republic or democracy. In other words, no matter how many people are in power, a political regime could be good or bad. In a monarchy, if the king takes care of his subjects, people may feel very comfortable; but if the power is taken by a tyrant, and he cares only about his own personal interests, the one person’s power might be turned into tyranny, a very bad regime. In an aristocracy, if those patricians in power are characterized by glory and commitments, people may enjoy their lives and like the regime; if the patricians only take advantage of their positions for personal profit, then the regime will become an oligarchy. If the majority of the population sets rules and laws, and people abide by those laws, a republic is a good governance, but if the majority change its opinions very often, and laws and rules are shelved, and people are chasing personal interests as they like, then the regime fails to be a democracy. In the eyes of Plato, democracy is a little bit like anarchy. Anyway, bad regimes are all more or less autocratic, no matter if power is in the hands of one person, a few people or the majority.

Western countries used to call themselves liberal democracies, while liberalism and democracy are somehow contradictory. To put these two conceptions together is syncretism. They look alike, but will fly in the face of each other. Liberalism requires freedom of doing everything, which will eventually lead to inequality, because human beings are not equally endowed; democracy requires equalitarianism, so to reduce freedom that could enlarge inequality. From Arab Spring, Western intellectuals started questioning the purpose of democratization, because they realize that democracy may not lead to liberalism.

Americans like to describe their check-and-balance regime as democracy, while this genius conception is aimed originally at restraining the tyranny of majority. We may look for the word democracy in the Federalist Papers: nowhere is democracy used as a positive word, but as opposite to freedom. For the founding fathers of the US, democracy will lead to self-determination of local communities according to their own interests and objectives, and the confrontation of these divergent interests will lead to the failure of the system. Those concerns may remind us of what is happening in Europe. The story of Brexit tells us that what is disturbing Europe is not a lack of democracy, but an excess of democracy. If the European Union might fail one day, it’s surely by democracy, not by any other accident.

To promote democracy in other countries, Americans always want to teach other people how to vote. Little by little, democracy is confused with free election, as if only free election means democracy, while in ancient Greek democracy, people did not vote for their administrative officers, they chose them by sortition. The drawing of lots may seem arbitrary, but it has the advantage of being totally equalitarian. When Europeans invented their representative democracies, they reached some consensus on election as the means of leader selection. While the free election gives everyone an illusion of being able to choose leaders, in today’s real elections in Western countries, voters are not that assured of their rights.

Actually, a series of elements hamper today’s free elections. First, the asymmetry of information prevents voters from getting accurate information on different candidates, as they can only have information that campaign organizers want to give them. So this kind of situation sometimes may lead to adverse selection, some very extravagant candidates may get people’s preference.

Second, money talks a lot. In today’s election, the more money you put into the campaign, the bigger chance you will have to get elected. Third, the electoral campaigns try to mobilize people’s animal spirit, not people’s reasoning ability. So, the campaign is reduced to some very simplistic slogans, with no one paying attention to candidates’ agendas for public governance. Last but not least, political parties are in control of the electoral process, party bosses determine who will be the party’s candidates, and they manipulate the process in order to get their candidates selected.

When WikiLeaks revealed the manipulation by the Democratic Party bosses to sideline Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ supporters are outraged. They felt cheated by the electoral machine.

Political radicalization not only occurs in the United States, but also in Europe. In 2014 European Parliament elections, the biggest winners in most member countries are far right-wing parties. With the development of the European refugee flows, extreme right-wing parties in European countries are rising in nearly every-member country’s political elections. The extreme right-wing politicians have something in common, that is that they all are anti-immigrant, they reject the influx of refugees, and they are skeptical of European integration. In short, political intolerance is becoming a megatrend. Since the financial crisis, Europe has been struggling to rise above a lackluster economic recovery, and the traditional politicians can no longer solve the problems of the people. So people will naturally lean on politicians with extremist political views.

Look at Japan: Since Abenomics is basically bankrupt, Japanese politics has entered a new round of development. Abe has managed to turn Japan’s “democracy” into a sort of theater, deliberately focused on playing with his acting, and directing the media in a wrong way. People are led into the “wrong track,” and the government’s policy failure is no longer a concern. Abe is poised to use the LDP majority in the parliament to modify the “Peace Constitution”, a cornerstone of the post-war Japanese economic miracle. Might people still pretend that democracy is a best guarantee for peace?

Democracy in developed countries is sick, while democracy in many developing countries becomes worse. In many countries, democracy is reduced to buck-passing, subversion of a group of political elites by another group, and the real interests of the people are treated by political elites as trifling matters. There are still a lot of people trying to establish a “democratic” regime in China, because they believe that democracy is a panacea to solve all problems.

From the collapse the Qing Dynasty, democracy in China has become an undisputed value.

For most Chinese people, democracy means that people should be the masters of their own destinies, and that those in power should be enlightened and far-seeing, taking account of different opinions and caring about people’s interests. So, there is no direct links between democracy and the multi-party system. Political justness is the ultimate goal that China is looking for.

Under the influence of Western ideology, a number of Chinese people also unwittingly believe that Western democracy is more “advanced” than ours, and only the implementation of “democratization with Western standards” may lead China to the ranks of modern states, and to become a developed country.

In recent years, the notion that all developed countries are democracies has run rampant. Therefore, democratization is portrayed as a major historical trend. Those who want to become developed countries have to go through democratization, a sort of “Nirvana” process, even if the process is full of pain and blood.

However, with the dismemberment of the former Soviet Union, tragic civil wars in Balkans, and the Arab Spring, the experiences of democratization have not brought peace, development and prosperity in those regions. There is almost no successful experience of “democratic transition” in multi-ethnic countries.

In fact, it is purely ideological propaganda to pretend that democracy will promote economic development and social modernization. The reality is that the major Western European countries have created their representative parliamentary systems over quite a long time, so could be qualified as “democracies”. But during a very long period of time, multi-party politics and free elections only brought chaos and spoils system in their public governance. Any election-winning party could arbitrarily assign the Government’s public resources, as war trophies, to contributors to the election-winning side. Government officials were appointed entirely according to their political loyalty, to their contributions in the election. Those political appointees were amateurs in administration, so were easily tempted by abuse of power and personal enrichment. European philosophers in the middle of the Enlightenment Movement, regarded with disgust this chaotic political administration, and they were even envying China’s imperial examination system and civil service system.

So, China was touted as a model for Europe in the 18th century. Subsequently, Germany, France, Britain, the United States have introduced Chinese experiences in the 19th century, and gradually established a career civil-service system, which rendered their representative democracies more stable. Those elected politicians may change their positions as in a revolving door, but the government civil service could ensure the stability of administration. But recently, with the political radicalization in Western countries, civil servants have become confused. Both Austrian-American political economist Schumpeter and British philosopher Bertrand Russell have said that for democratic institutions to run smoothly, the opposition and ruling parties must respect the spirit of compromise. Any violation of this principle would be considered as the “beginning of the end of democratic institutions.” Their warnings could be a wake-up call for today: democracy might go on decline.

Since China’s reform and opening to the outside world, China has been able to achieve huge economic and social progress in a short period of time, partially thanks to the return to the traditional career civil service system. Our political system is not perfect, needs to continue to reform, but China’s political reform cannot follow the path of Western countries, and we cannot take the road of so-called “democratization”. We should cherish the traditional Chinese political wisdom and governance framework, and gradually improve Chinese political institutions, in order to render them more appropriate to China’s modernization. Chinese history tells us that if we blindly copy Western democracies, and smash China’s political traditions, it will only lead China into even greater chaos, thus losing the opportunity for the Chinese nation’s rejuvenation.

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