Last week, plans for constructing a nuclear processing plant in the Guangdong province in China were shelved after demonstrations. The people spoke and the authorities caved in. The demonstrators engaged in nothing more than what the organisers called “an innocent stroll”. Yet they defeated a project that would have provided enough fuel for 50% of China’s atomic energy needs.
Along with the growing power of village democracy in quite a few parts of China is something happening? Unless one is a high profile dissident you can complain all you want on the internet about most of the deficiencies of the time, except the party leadership itself. Many newspapers are staffed in part by liberal journalists who are constantly looking for opportunities to report honestly.
This suggests that what the then Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, said in London in 2011 has the making of truth: “Tomorrow’s China will be a country that fully achieves democracy, the rule of law, fairness and justice. Without freedom there is no real democracy.”
No longer does the leadership continuously utter the tired words about Chinese society with its Confucian heritage being unsuited to democracy. In Hong Kong free elections for choosing the country’s chief executive are on track for 2017 and in the courting of Taiwan, which the Chinese believe belongs to the mainland, the democratic system is rarely if at all criticised.
But wait. Optimism is perhaps a step too far. The old top down authoritarianism persists and government runs according to the principles of Lenin combined with that of Confucianism. Indeed the Confucianist element is arguably the most powerful of the two.
Modern China has become a meritocracy. The arbitrary and idiosyncratically brutal rule of Mao Zedong has long gone and so has the long, strong arm of the economic moderniser Deng Xiaoping who ordered the massacre in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. Today’s top leaders can serve only ten years and all the recent ones have had to do well in tough nation-wide exams, then gain experience in a ministry or state-owned industry, then administer provinces, working themselves up from the poorer ones to richer ones. By the time they get to the top in their late 50s or 60s they have a breadth of experience that Western politicians should envy. Presidential candidate Barack Obama would not have been considered experienced enough to run a major province like Guandong or a city like Shanghai- (although probably with his talents he would have been fast-tracked, but not yet to the top, the politburo).
In the February issue of Foreign Affairs, Eric Li, a Shanghai-based political scientist, argued that the Communist Party’s one-party system is the best that China can get. There will be more independent media, NGO activity, local elections, some elements of intra-party democracy- indeed competitive voting is finding its way into ever-higher levels of the party hierarchy. But not much more.
Already the introduction of village elections has improved accountability and increased expenditures on public health services.
Li argues that the Chinese Communist Party “has arguably been one of the most self-reforming political organisations in recent world history”. In Taiwan and Hong Kong democracy and human rights practices have evolved slowly over time. Why should we expect China to go faster?
In a poll of Chinese attitudes published by the respected US-based Pew Research Center, in 2011 87% of respondents noted satisfaction with the general direction of the country and 66% reported significant progress in their lives over the past five years.
Today’s Chinese are freer than at any other period in recent memory. Most can live where they want, choose their line of work, go into business without hindrance, travel and study where they want. Bookshops carry a fair range of Western authors from novelists to academics writing on human rights. Lectures in universities can address the subject of this column in an open way. Many of the senior leadership’s children study at top universities in the West opening them to influences their parents never experienced. However, the party draws a line as with Liu Xiaobo, an activist who calls for the end of single-party rule and who is currently in jail.
On the negative side large scale corruption seriously undermines the notion of fairness. The party has shown that it seeks to root it out and welcomes press exposures. A good number of perpetrators have been tried and executed. Maybe some of the politburo can quote Bismark who said that justice is more important than democracy.
It is too early to lay a bet that full democracy will arrive in the next 20 years, although it could and should. Perhaps some more liberalisation will satisfy all but a few. One can vote for the village mayor or protest a nuclear plant. But there it stops - for now.
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