The idea that democracy doesn’t fit China’s national condition seems to be a weekly feature in the Global Times (like today’s article). The arguments provided in these pieces not only show a disgusting contempt for the common Chinese person (we’ll call them “laobaixing (老百姓) from here on), but also expose the deeper flaws in the current electoral-system which is a faux-democracy at best.
At present, China’s political system allows for choosing representatives at the local government level, these candidates though are handpicked by the Party. In the last round of elections there were several independent candidates, but many of these were harassed by the police and marginalized in the election. These elected officials are partially responsible for selecting the higher levels of gov’t although they too face a limited choice of candidates, and are frequently told how to vote. As a student in one of my wife’s classes stated with misguided pride, “In China, we don’t have to vote for our president.” In China the results of an election are often known before the first vote is cast.
The gov’t is interested in providing an appearance of reform while maintaining the current structure that ensures Party officials have the final say in village decisions. Voting for local officials who are established as supporting the Party means that this small concession appears as a step towards democracy, without fundamentally changing the higher levels of power.
Many people have pointed to the fact that China’s poor would be easily swayed by money from politicians. Evan Osnos, from the New Yorker, covered a recent case of election fraud in Central China where two candidates reportedly paid a total of 9,000rmb per voter to secure votes in their campaign. As government positions offer lucrative opportunities for collecting bribes and other illicit financial gains, it is not surprising that some are willing to pay for these posts. In fact, the amount paid in this case indicates that some officials are able to make more than 5,000rmb per constituent from their office.
The Party argues that this is another reason that Democracy shouldn’t be expanded. The poor are simply too easy to buy, and the rich would just buy the elections leading to a Chinese Oligarchy. How is this different than the current system? As Bloomberg reported today,
“The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.”
This also ignores the facts on the ground. In many of the elections over the past year the most popular independent candidates were not gaining support because of their ability to buy votes, instead they were people advocating the construction of convenient markets, clean governance, and airing the complaints of the laobaixing. Unfortunately, none of these people actually managed to run for election, as they were arbitrarily disqualified from the races, ignoring the current election laws.
This indicates that perhaps the real reforms come after the establishment of a functioning democracy, and are not possible without it. Democracy, as a political system, can survive the initial turbulence as it adapts to the “unique” problems of a country. Advocates acknowledge that problems like corruption are not magically wiped away with a political shift, but there is some indication that democracy is useful in supporting efforts to limit it (18 of the 20 least corrupt countries are democracies).
That the laobaixing must wait for China’s national condition to improve, is an unfounded claim that ignores the history of dozens of successful democracies.
Low Quality People
As popular blogger Han Han argued at the start of the year, China isn’t ready for democracy, because the people aren’t capable of making their own good decisions (Charlie Custer, from ChinaGeeks.org, wrote an excellent post exploring this particular issue). This idea has been put forth time and again by Party sympathizers, that simply the character of the average laobaixing is too low to make these kinds of decisions (Similar arguments were made in the US around the turn of the century in relation to voting rights for minorities and women).
The part of this argument that I find the most sickening, is that many Chinese are poorly educated and are therefore ill-equipped for democracy. But who is responsible for the current state of China’s educational system? The very people who would lose the most in a democracy.
Given this, it is also worth noting that China’s current system seems incapable of promoting people worthy of public service. With rampant corruption leading to weekly scandals that effect the lives of the laobaixing, what evidence is there that democracy would make things worse? Are farmers really more likely to vote for candidates that can’t protect their land rights? Would urbanites put up with officials that approve the construction of heavily polluting factories that send their children to the hospital?
In fact, the results of low-level elections have already achieved encouraging results in the countryside. As John Kennedy noted in a 2001 study, village elections result in leaders that are more accountable to the villagers, and results in more equitable land distribution (cited in this 2009 paper by Kevin O’brien and Rongbin Han which is worth reading). The problem is that elected village leaders are still dominated by local Party secretaries in a way that minimizes the voice of the laobaixing.
Last week when I was talking with a cabbie we somehow ended up on the topic of gun ownership in the US, she told me that “in China, the quality of the people is too low. If you give them guns there will be chaos.” I explained that our right to gun ownership stems from our revolution, and that in theory we could use them to overthrow our government if it stops representing our interests. She nodded and added, “I think in China this is what the government is really afraid of.” To the Party, votes are no less dangerous.