Democracy versus Good Governance

Following is my attempt at  translating  an article (民主与专制还是良政与劣政?) , found in the . The writer is Zhang Weiwei.

Zhang is a professor of international relation in Fudan University. Previously he thought in Geneva, Switzerland and he also worked as translator for Deng Xiaoping many years ago. His  book  is a best-seller, and I have read an English version of hs book, “The China Wave  Rise of a Civilizational State”.

In the following article, Zhang argues  against placing much importance on democracy versus authoritarian system concept. It is over-simplified and truly an inadequate  concept that can be used to resolve global problems facing humanity. What matters more is whether there is good governance or bad governance in place. I agree with Zhang that having good governance will deliver more positive impacts on ordinary people lives, rather than having so-called democratic label. I also think that the democracy versus authoritarian concept is often used as a convenient propaganda tool, projecting high morality in order to denigrate others – it is very convenient and superficial  for some people to say that if you are not democratic enough, then you are tyranical. 

Democracy versus Good Governance

A few years ago I attended an academic conference in Paris. An American scholar remarked  that “the battle in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta lasted 27 years with Sparta winning.  Then, authoritarian system had won by 1:0 against democratic system. During the cold war, the Soviet Bloc battled against the US led West . It resulted in democracy achieving a 1:0 victory against authoritarian. Right now the overall score is even, but today there is    authoritarian China (and also allied with Putin’s Russia) battling against the democratic West, and who will emerge victorious?”

Largely in part due to having experienced the Cultural Revolution, I developed a deep sense of scepticism towards ideologues or over simplification of histories, as exemplified by the views of US right-wing conservative. Highly ideological view that simplify the thousand of years of human history into struggle between democracy and authoritarian, is just  as absurd or even more than those seen in the  cultural revolution era, where the Chinese history was viewed as endless struggle between peasant class against the landed gentry. Remnants of conflict between the peasants and the landlord class did exist  in China, but the  real story is much more complicated. When Athens was defeated, the democratic system also vanished from Europe for more than a thousand years. It was divine right monarchy that appeared in the European Middle Ages, followed by colonialism, racism, nationalism and fascism, in which this scholar seemed to have conveniently forgotten. This just shows that over simplified cold war thinking has good market in the West.

One cannot deny that the West provides the world with the concept of democratic against authoritarian form of government system. Many of our country people also like to use this concept as framework for analysis. The concept has its raison d ‘ être, because it could explain part of the political phenomena, such as Hitler coming into power through popular vote, but started to become a dictator soon after he came into power. It has become an important ideological tool as it conveniently simplifies the patterns of world politics between democracy and tyranny; or either democracy or dictatorship, and democracy is good, dictatorship is bad, authoritarian is fascism, just like Hitler. Such an over simplified analysis framework naturally sets limits to our understanding of the broader issues. For example, during Saddam Hussein rule, Iraq was considered authoritarian, but after the US invasion, Iraq became a democracy. But most Iraq people would think that it is worst than living under the past dictatorship. Also, the reign of Mobutu Seko of Zaire is considered authoritarian and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now a democracy:  but from the point of view of ordinary Congolese, both are just as bad, with civilian massacres and civil wars breaking out.

This concept is also has problems when applied to China. The West considers  Chiang Kai-shek era rule as being authoritarian, the era of Mao Zedong was also termed autocratic, and the era being ushered by Deng Xiaoping is also called autocratic rule. People who have lived through these periods know that the vast differences and the effects on their lives. This fact alone shows that the limitations of the concept of democracy versus autocracy. Perhaps “seeking truths from facts”  might  open the blind spot in  the Western discourse . The use of binary  concept of democracy or tyranny might be applicable in certain cases, but it is not really useful today  in explaining the complex nature of  world affairs, and the use of  so-called Alliance of democracies method in dealing with today’s world affairs is just plain  foolish. Though China does not follow the Western political model, it is very successful  among the developing nations  in eradication of poverty.  In the Arab world, the most successful states like the UAE and Qatar are monarchies, while emerging economies like HK and Singapore  are doing well. Their governance standards are much better than those in the Philippines, Albania, India and “democratic countries” like Ukraine etc. Since the concept of democracy and dictatorship does not seem to be able to explain such conditions, and is there a more objective and neutral concept that can be used? There is.

If the world of politics is simply divided into two main categories, then it should be just good governance and bad governance. Good governance can be Western forms of democracy, such as those found in Switzerland, and Denmark; they may also be non-Western forms of democracy as in Singapore authoritative model, the Chinese styled strong government model, the chief executive led Hong Kong model or the UAE enlightened monarchy model. Poor governance can be found in those adopting the Western democratic model in Haiti, Iraq, Greece (mired in sovereign debt crises), and so on. Non-Western democracy, such as Myanmar can also be considered in that category.

Most Western commentators are accustomed to use the democracy against authoritarian concept. Perhaps it gives them a notion of moral superiority. During a 2006 EU held seminar on political reform in China, a European scholars directly asked me about the legitimacy of Chinese government, since  there is no inter-party elections and universal suffrage in China. I then asked him: “If you use this way to construct the discourse, then do the US founding fathers have legitimacy? After all no elections were held when they proclaimed that they represent the people of the United States of America. Thailand adopts a Western democratic system, but in elections after elections, the prestige of those elected is much lower than the King of Thailand, and where did the King’s legitimacy arise from? And the least trusted public figures in US are the elected members of the US Congress. We know that modernization in the West was completed prior to universal general elections being introduced. Therefore can we imply that prior to modernization, every Western government do not have legitimacy? In the US, the blacks and women did not obtain their rights via the democratic system, but from the strong civil right movements in the 60s, and finally established by the judiciary. If one looks back at the history of US, slavery was finally abolished not from one person one vote, but by a war. And these people sitting in the EU parliament are also not elected, and are they legitimate? “. He was speechless.

In our country, there exist a number of Gorbachev admirers that subscribe to this “democracy versus autocracy” view. They believe that China must be integrated into so-called mainstream civilization. In fact, if it is a mainstream civilization that is based on United Nation charter with Chinese involvement in the international political discourse, then it may not be problematic. But if it means gaining acceptance by the West, then I am afraid it would be problematic. The 2008 Western media coverage of the riots in Tibet showed deep-rooted prejudices against the China, in the mainstream Western discourse. There is long held anti-Communism and strong support for  Tibetan in mainstream Western discourses, due to  incitements and brainwashing by the mainstream media. The public opinion is actually controlled in the mainstream media and this is an important reason why Western society can not get rid of their ideological bias.

The collapsed of the former Soviet Union was a good lesson. When the Communist Party lost power and the country then broke up and ended up as Russia, the West could not accept it  as among its members. This is because Russia was still strong militarily and in size, and therefore had to be weakened.  A senior Russian official has this to say:  NATO always seek to deny  Russia of any strategic space. First, they become friend with us and then borrowed my garage. Next they said would like to live in my House, and finally they would say they want to sleep with my wife; thus Russia had no choice but to resist. The issue between China and the West, particularly the United States, is not just a simple question of ideological struggle, but is also a matter of national interest, of geo-political and geo-economic issues. As long as you are strong and need resources, and you have your own culture and values, their minds will not be ease. They will try to push you aside, control you and change you. You can just check where the Tibetan government in-exile organisation gets its funding from, and how much are actually from the various Western groups?  This clearly indicates the wish of many in the West for Tibetan independence from China. In fact many of them also hope for the separation of Taiwan, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia from China, just like the breaking up of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. They can’t have their way now because 1.3 billion Chinese say “No”.

In present mainstream civilization, the rule of the games are established and controlled by the West. They can accuse you for whatever reasons, but they no problem flouting the rules themselves. They can behave self-righteously: meddle in your internal affairs, and somehow think that they are always in the right. Even if they help to bring about the disastrous disintegration of a country, there is no need to be apologetic because it is done in the name of democracy, a true universal value. If your country copy their system and subsequently collapsed, then it will be your problem as it has nothing to do with them.

When we learn the good things from the West, we also need to be prudent  and put our firmly feet on the ground. . The Chinese people do approve of democracy, but this democracy should help China to be prosperous, richer and stronger, and must not bring about collapse and disintegration of China. The US is particularly wary about the emergence of a strong China;   it does not even like a strong Europe. The rise of China will certainly challenge US interests in many fields.

Back in 1991, the Russians were brimming with the worship of great USA. A Russian Academy of Social Sciences friend told me: “at that time the US could have occupied Russia. People believed that their lives would be much better and they would eventually become rich”. The US did help bring about democratic transformation, and it was  mainly through politicians of the likes of  Gaidar, Chubais and Yavlisnski , as if only these people represent democracy, while others were ignored. Political parties (including Communist Party) were allowed to take part in democratic elections, but when conflict developed between Yeltsin administration and the Russian parliament, the US did not support the use of democratic procedures to resolve the impasse. Instead it backed Yeltsin in using force against the Russian parliamentarians. The US actually identified with personalities rather than with a particular system, and therefore it supported the highly authoritarian Yeltsin. The same situation happened in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon. If China were to adopt one person one vote system, the United States will undoubtedly throw its weight behind a few Chinese dissidents or a few other favoured candidates and then will undoubtedly insist the election as undemocratic unless its favoured candidates win. In addition to being accused as not democratic enough, China will also need to give up Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Even then China might still have problem with US, as it will still be too big and intimidating.

According to the Western rules of the game, in any regular elections, the West will also sent its own people to monitor elections. Those elected will have to be pro-US  or else they will face problems. The Palestinians elected Hamas party into power, but the West refused to recognize Hamas. Iran elected Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president, but the West refuse to acknowledge it as democratic. In 2006, Lebanon elected a pro-Western government that was praised by the West, and before the praise was over, the Israeli started to bomb Lebanon. Lebanon pleaded tot he US to intervene and stop the  bombings. But the United States deliberately dragged its feet, and Israel continued with bombardment of South Lebanon, with the intention of weakening the Pro-Iran Hezbollah movement. One Lebanon political scholars angrily told me, “even if you have elected a pro-Western Government, the West will still categorize you as  ally, friend or  minion. The elected government in Lebanon , in the eye of the West, is probably not even a minion, and so can be easily sacrificed.” Western democratic slogans, no matter how good sounding, cannot shake off its own self-interest.

Having third world countries copying Western-style democracy may exacerbates internal strives. The Western countries with per capita consumption of resources more than ten times that of the developing countries have much greater leeway and resilience in tackling internal disputes. For example, Belgium recently experienced 500 days without the central Government in place, depending on local governments to operate and it ran as usual. For most third world countries, they do not need 500 days, merely 100 days without their central Governments and they would find themselves in civil wars.  The West is likely to meddle civil disturbances,  by support ing certain factions. Then it will be quite impossible for a divided country to built its strength comprehensively in such case. During Republican era of modern history of China, the Western powers supported their own Chinese warlords in order to gain influence and benefits .  China suffered huge losses in the civil wars,  but the Western backers made their fortunes.

Even in the case where Western political system represents the only viable world wide political system of our future and China has to choose it,  China must still act in accordance to its national circumstances by adopting and accepting the political system gradually. And no foreign countries should be allowed to guide the process; otherwise there will no end to troubles.  However due it super-size and 5,000 years of history, China will ultimately arrive at its own unique political system. It should contain good aspects of Western system, as well as  good things inherited from its own traditions. Germany’s former Chancellor Schmidt said: “Chinese and Western culture are essentially different and, therefore in social development, China will take different path from Western countries, just as the ancient Rome was different from ancient Greece, and Athens was also different from Sparta. The social relationship in China when compared to those in United States, Germany and the United Kingdom is fundamentally different. In order to conform to the US ways, only the Americans can do it”.

After all, no matter whether it is Western democratic system or some other  political system, these are merely means to secure objectives, and ultimate these objectives must embody good governance, as shown by  satisfaction and recognition by the people.  Poor governance and good governance is a most important concept in world politics today that we should adopt. In fact it is applicable all over the world. The Chinese has been highly practical and results from various programs have been used to verify many ideas. The West may not understand, and even object and distort what China is doing, but as long as what the practice are proven right, and the Chinese people are supportive, the West will end up trying to comprehend and having to accept it. When the West thinks that it cannot hinder China hard power and also feel helpless to prevent the rise of China’s soft power, it would really then have to accept the inevitable.

In fact, many people in the West, such as the Newsweek editor-in-Chief Fareed Zakaria agreed that the world has entered a “post-United States age”. In this “post-United States era”,  China’s soft power enriches humanity, and can be used to resolve a range of global challenges. This is because the rise of China is not just a matter China’s integration into the Western mainstream civilization process. It is much more, as both sides will treat each other as equals, learning from each other. Eventually Chinese and other emerging countries will together with West, become the designer and builder of a new world order.  Without the involvement of Chinese soft and hard power, globalization problems cannot be resolved.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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