China's long road to democracy

21 February 2008

Anthea Thompson

It has been said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” It is easy to forget, in this age of conquer and democratise, the prudence of Churchill’s words. In our mad rush to create new democracies and our swiftness to disapprove of nations that take a side-track off this hazardous road, we should remember that democratic government is not without its faults.

Our disapproval has always been rather selective. Not so long ago General Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup, was basking in the warm glow of George Bush’s approval. But that was when the “courageous leader and friend of the United States” was considered indispensable to the War on Terror, and well before he began causing headaches for the Bush Administration with his imposition of emergency rule. And nobody minds too much when the Saudi Arabian government of theocratic human rights abusers routinely tortures thousands, doling out lashings for crimes such as ‘sexual deviance’ and drunkenness. Such was our concern for the welfare of a 19-year old gang rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes that the Queen laid out a state banquet for King Abdullah during a visit to Britain last December. Of course, a rap on the knuckles of our Saudi friends could have cost billions in military exports and thousands of jobs.

With the imminent 2008 Olympics, the world’s spotlight has turned to China. Beijing’s human rights record is besmirched with summary capital punishment, restrictions on free speech, and the imprisonment and torture of dissidents.

The repression and abuse meted out to anyone considered a political threat is deplorable; however, a rapid shift to a foreign system of government which has no roots in Chinese culture or history could spark political instability and create far more problems than it might solve.

Transitions to democracy are rarely smooth and bloodless. The Kenyan elections have led to over 1000 deaths and a spate of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Uganda. Nor are transitions always linear, or their end results predetermined.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was met with gleeful cheers from outside observers, but many of the newly independent states proceeded to freely elect former communists into government and have since been beleaguered by spiralling unemployment and social problems. Eighteen years since we heaved a sigh of relief over the end of the Cold War and it doesn’t seem as though much has changed in the minds of Russia’s governing elite. The West is still regarded with suspicion (evinced by the closure of British Councils across Russia) and despite early hopes for lasting change, Putin’s democratic credentials are now more than a little tarnished.

The crippling ignorance which led us into Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that no amount of cajoling, criticism or bombing can create democratic rule overnight. Above all, democracy is based on the will of the people, and if the people are unready, if a country is unripe for change, then no foreign power can induce a democratic transition.

These things take time. Whereas our systems of government evolved over centuries with the help of liberal traditions, China’s deep-seated Confucian philosophy, with its emphasis on authority over liberty, responsibility over rights, and the group over the individual, may be at odds with democracy. And although the Chinese may be increasingly disenchanted with their leaders, the country’s stellar economic success has lifted millions out of poverty and drastically raised living standards. Since economic growth cannot occur in a climate of political instability, one can understand why they might be reluctant to rock the boat that delivered their good fortune.

Our strategic head-turning with regard to Saudi Arabia and other dubious regimes speaks volumes about our real concerns. China’s relentless growth has seen its global trade exceed $1.7 trillion, surpassed only by the United States and Germany. The sub-prime mortgages fiasco has proved that when America sneezes the world catches a cold, and whilst this is not yet the case for China, its emergence as a global industrial hub means that it certainly has the potential to upset the world applecart. Instability could be disastrous for both the Chinese and the rest of the world.

For better or worse, foreign policy is driven by pragmatism. Nothing could be more pragmatic at this moment in time than allowing the Chinese government to gradually evolve its political system at its own pace.

Anthea Thompson is TCS Comment Editor and a former SPS student.