"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why China’s Political Model Is Superior

In a fascinating and brilliant article in today’s (2.17.12) New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/opinion/why-chinas-political-model-is-superior.html Eric Li explains the difference between the vastly different political systems of the United States and China.  For the Chinese, he explains, economic development leading to social integration and a more equitable society comes before democracy:

The West’s current competition with China is therefore not a face-off between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather the clash of two fundamentally different political outlooks. The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith.

China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.

This argument is not new, but I think Li has framed it the right way.  Democracy for the West, especially the United States “is a belief premised on an absolute faith”.  At its core the theory of democracy, with its focus on the individual first and society as an aggregation of individuals second, is based on the religious principle that only individuals can realize spiritual meaning and salvation.  Stifling the individual in any way to achieve social ends automatically stifles his freedom to seek God.

Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, "Tocqueville was aware of the harshness and bigotry of the early colonists"; but on the other hand he saw them as "archaic survivals, not only in their piety and discipline but in their democratic practices". The theme of a religious basis of economic discipline is echoed in sociologist Max Weber's work…(Wikipedia)

At the same time, says Li:

The current democratic experiment began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

This was a powerful combination of religious sentiment and moral thinking, and it is easy to understand how we as Americans could believe that democracy is the be all and end all of society, not a means to an end.  Li comments further:

Many have characterized the competition between these two giants as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

This debate over means and ends is not new.  China is not the only country to have put economic development first, suggesting that a greater good – or a more valuable right – is freedom from poverty.  Singapore is a good example, and while it is more democratic than China, it clearly has put the general development of society over freedoms of the individual:

Although dominant in its activities, the government has a clean, corruption-free image. Singapore has consistently been rated as the least-corrupt country in Asia and amongst the top ten cleanest in the world by Transparency International The World Bank's governance indicators have also rated Singapore highly on rule of law, control of corruption and government effectiveness. However, it is widely perceived that some aspects of the political process, civil liberties, and political and human rights are lacking (Wikipedia)

China remains the alternative model to which scholars look.  Singapore is wealthy, but small.  Korea had a brutally authoritarian beginning after the Korean War, and its suppression of civil rights continued through its early period of economic development, but it has developed into a mature democracy.  Brazil had the same early autocratic beginnings but had a parallel growth of democratic institutions and economic development, and is now a full member of democratic and developed nations.  China is the only major country steadfastly adhering to this model of limited democracy and major investment in economic development.

It must be remembered that it is a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people in a land mass not too much larger than the United States.  As importantly it comprises vastly different ethnic groups – the Tibetans and Uigurs are but two – and widely different rates of growth.  It has felt that social cohesion and economic unity – let alone the international stature and power resulting from economic primacy – are the foundations for future development. 

As Li has said, the Chinese are not adverse to increasing political participation, freedom of speech and assembly, etc. when it is “conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests” as it has done over the last decade.  There is no way that the country can continue to develop and compete, for example, unless there is far more free flow of information, and the government must make difficult decisions on how to allow what they consider productive information without allowing subversive information.  Eventually the country will achieve a balance between economic development, social justice, and individual freedoms.  It will still be a while.

Having given this even-handed appraisal of the two systems, Li criticizes the current American application of the Western democratic model.  Where it once was true to the beliefs – both religious and moral – of the Founding Fathers, it no longer is:

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

This is a serious indictment.  Not only is China succeeding in both economic development, but with international political influence and financial power, its political system is providing the foundation for it all.  At the same time, the American democratic system is fractured and splintering.  How can we regain our world stature and national sovereignty if the political system on which we base our actions is cracking?

Li closes with these very sobering thoughts:

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end.

History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.

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