China should make us rethink our assumptions about democracy, effective government, and the will of the people
There is a section in one of my favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, where the idea of voting and democracy is being explained to villagers in the Belgian Congo in the run-up to the first elections there following independence from Belgium. The villagers are confused: how could it be possible that someone could win with only 51% of the vote? Shouldn’t everyone get together and discuss it, and arrive at a consensus? Doesn’t democracy mean that the opinions of almost half the population could be ignored completely?
This very reasonable response on the part of the villagers was eye-opening for me: for them, the problem with Western-style, majority rules, one person-one vote democracy is that it was not good enough at achieving the fundamental goal of democracy, namely a government that represents (and is responsive to) the will and the interests of the people – something they already had at the level of their village.
Of course, the challenges of governing a village – where a consensus can feasibly be reached – are quite different from those involved in governing a large, diverse nation. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s famous saying, that democracy is the worst form of government in the world – except for all the others. But more importantly, it should encourage us to question whether Winston Churchill’s saying is still right, or will always be right.