China should make us rethink our assumptions about democracy, effective government, and the will of the people

by Alan Cohen

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.

Westerners in general and Americans in particular tend to assume that democracy (specifically, western-style, majority rules democracy) is a good in and of itself. But both Churchill and the Congolese villagers remind us that democracy is a tool, not an end in itself. (The end can be defined as  government that represents and is responsive to the will and the interests of the people.) Up to this moment, democracy has been the best tool available. It probably still is. But will it always be? Can we develop better tools?

I argued recently that modern government is a form of technology, and differs in some fundamental ways from government 200 years ago – even in the US, where the constitution is the same. Just as there can be innovation in cell phones that builds on and complements innovation in electrical engineering, there can be innovation in government that builds on and complements all the other technological changes going on around us.

I’m not just referring to the use of Facebook and Twitter by government officials, but, for example, to the way that electronic health records and centralized health databases are leading to improved government delivery of health care here in Canada through evaluation of what treatments work and how to get them to the people that need them. Such innovation cannot happen in a decentralized, fully privatized system – a structured system for optimizing health care delivery is, at its heart, innovation in the technology that is government.

Where does China fit into all this? Well, China is a country that is decidedly not a democracy, a country that is modernizing quickly, and a country that is often cited by the West for human rights violations, suppression of religious freedom, and authoritarianism. But, given its economic growth rates and the improvement of living standards, we should acknowledge that China has been quite successful at fulfilling some (though not all) of the objectives of democracy. Namely, China’s government does appear to represent the interests of the people (at least as well as many democracies – look at Greece, for example), though not necessarily the will of the people. Its responsiveness is debatable…

In addition, China has at least one huge advantage over democratic governments: centralization and coordination of its power structure. In the US, if someone wants to pass a health care bill (just to pick a random example), they need to get it through the Senate (with a 60-vote majority), the House of Representatives, and the President. In order to win enough support, many concessions have to be made to all the various players involved, and the final piece of legislation is unlikely to look like anyone’s ideal: it will be a patchwork of exceptions and caveats which may or may not work well in the real world. In other words, the ability to achieve a coherent policy is sacrificed in order to have democracy.

Modern government (as opposed to government 200 years ago) is both incredibly complex  and substantially interconnected. This means that a piece of legislation arrived at as a patchwork compromise among many different interests is not only less likely to succeed in its intended domain, it is also more likely to conflict with other domains. If the US signed a trade agreement with France in 1800, it didn’t have to worry that the consequences of that trade agreement would conflict in unforeseen ways with its health policy and with its energy policy – at that time the US didn’t really have a health or energy policy to speak of. Now, US agricultural subsidies for grains affect health care policy (increased availability of cheap sugars affects diabetes rates), energy policy (ethanol), and foreign policy (trade agreements, oil dependence in the Middle East).

In the US, there is essentially no way to coordinate these policies to achieve a coherent national agenda. US government is a huge, slow ship that is not easily maneuverable. China, by contrast, can have a central committee re-write environmental policy, energy policy, health policy, agricultural policy, and foreign policy together in order to adjust to changing conditions at home and abroad. This is not to minimize the constraints imposed on China by bureaucratic inertia, powerful interest groups, and corruption, but a cumbersome legislative process is not a problem there.

In light of all this, I would argue that China’s current system of government appears to be more nimble than modern democracies at adjusting policy to conditions; on the other hand, there is still far more corruption than in most democracies, and the levels of political repression are far from ideal. Despite the policy advantages, I don’t think any Western democracy should want to adopt the Chinese system right now. The more interesting question is whether, in the future, it will be possible to arrive at a system that makes the best of both worlds: that allows more policy flexibility and centralized control, while at the same time being sufficiently responsive to public opinion and with less corruption.

(As an aside, I should admit that my understanding of the political power structure in China is fuzzy at best. It is clearly not a dictatorship in the sense of Nazi Germany, North Korea, or Iraq under Hussein, but it is also far from a democracy. There is a centralized party structure that controls orchestrated transitions of power among insiders, such as the one occurring now. Despite a fair amount of corruption, it seems this system somehow succeeds at choosing leaders who work hard and with substantial realpolitik to advance China’s interests. Of course, my understanding of this is based largely on Western news accounts and analysis.)

Over the last few years, The New York Times has carried a number of stories showing how Chinese citizens are using the web and modern technology to organize, resist public corruption, and demand accountability from their leaders. It is not clear from these stories how effective these methods are in the big scheme of things, or how representative these examples are; nonetheless, they raise an interesting question: will it be possible for a developing and modernizing China to prevent its middle class from accessing the web openly and demanding government accountability?

In a poor, rural village in China, I expect that most peasants accept a fair amount of corruption as a fact of life, and accept a somewhat repressive government as unavoidable. But China’s middle class is growing. More and more young people are studying abroad, or at least traveling. They have access to cellphones, media, and the web, all of which show them other societies where there is less corruption and more accountability. Nonetheless, my impression is that most young Chinese are highly patriotic and view recent economic development as the rebirth of a central role (perhaps the central role) for China, the “Middle Kingdom,” in world politics. They are not necessarily eager to adopt Western democracy (after all, the current system has worked for them, bringing them into the middle class), but nor are they willing to tolerate too much corruption and unfairness in the system.

The challenge for the Chinese power structure is that as it achieves success with economic development and ascent on the world political stage, the size and demands of the middle class will grow. Trendy young folks walking around Shanghai texting on their smartphones may tolerate the occasional execution without fair trial of a peasant, but they will probably be less tolerant of seeing their friends dragged off to jail over a Tweet. The recent riots at Foxconn over labor conditions underscore this tension of a modernizing China.

The combination of rising expectations of the middle class and the technological capacity to organize and apply pressure to the government via the web will almost certainly result in a Chinese power structure that is increasingly responsive to pubic opinion and less able to tolerate open corruption. What is less clear is exactly how much progress will be made. Will the Chinese government censors succeed in controlling the web and cracking down well enough to push the balance of power toward the existing power structure? Will the increasing government accountability eventually lead to a transition to democracy? Will some intermediate balance of power be achieved where there is less corruption than now but more than in the West?

I don’t think anyone can answer these questions yet, but to me the most intriguing possibility is that China will arrive at its own unique way of ensuring government accountability and preventing corruption that does not involve Western-style democracy. For example, perhaps censorship efforts will fail long-term as pressure against them becomes too great. Loose and informal watchdog groups will spring up on the web and call out the government for corruption and failed policies, and these groups may be able to martial enough public opinion to pressure the government to change. And all this might happen without toppling the current Communist Party power structure. If this is the case, China could point the way to a new form of government, one that achieves the underlying goals of democracy but without the accompanying policy inefficiencies.

I won’t go so far as to predict this – I am not sure there will ever be a better form of government than democracy. But there might be, and we should be open to this possibility rather than viewing democracy as the end in itself.

What do you think? Might there be alternatives to democracy that could work better under some circumstances? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.