That old pair of shoes is not democracy

That old pair of shoes is not democracy
That old pair of shoes is not democracy
Posted on 2010-09-22

Thirty years ago, as China’s economy tottered on the edge of insolvency, Deng Xiaoping stepped in and fashioned order out of chaos. He called for robust development of the economy in order to save both country and Party. It has never been smooth sailing, however, and voices have clamored from time to time about the need to be clear about our path ideologically, about whether China is “surnamed Capitalism or surnamed Socialism.”

At each critical juncture we have come to, the courageous Deng Xiaoping would pull out with his “black cat and white cat” theory. He would urge everyone to shut their mouths and stop bickering about whether China is “surnamed Capitalism or surnamed Socialism,” all the while actively pushing economic reform and drawing lessons from the experiences of other countries.

Today, thirty years on, China has reached another critical juncture. We have made wondrous achievements in economic development. But this development has, at the same time, exposed the unsuitability of our political system. Government controls are now seriously out of joint with China’s ever rising and expanding civil society.

In this moment, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, among others, have emphasized repeatedly that China must move forward with the process of opening and reform, and that China must also deepen political reforms. And also in this moment, so reminiscent of the clamor thirty years ago, we hear certain people standing up and saying we need to distinguish clearly between socialist democracy (社会主义民主) and Western democracy (西方民主).

What a striking echo of thirty years ago! Which should we accept, and which reject? Remember, Yang Hengjun has taught us that when we cannot see the road ahead, we must turn our gaze back on the past.

The difficulties facing us now are no less significant than those that faced us thirty years ago. It’s only that the problem now concerns political reform rather than economic reform.

Political reform is reform centering on democracy, freedom and rule of law. It is something that concerns the fate of 1.3 billion people, the fate of our nation, and the fate of every member of the Communist Party of China. If we lend any credence today to those vested power interests that would hold our nation hostage, if we listen to those people sitting in their rooms and relying on a book written by some German more than 100 years ago to chart a path along which 1.3 billion Chinese must travel, well then, the “dead end” that Premier Wen spoke about can’t be too far off.

The most recent edition of Seeking Truth (求是) includes an article bylined “Autumn Stone” (秋石) entitled, “The Basic Character and Superiority of the Democratic Politics of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” The article says that we must “make a clear distinction between the democratic politics of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the democracy of Western capitalism.” “Autumn Stone” is in fact the pen name for a certain Peking University professor working with several editors and journalists at Seeking Truth. The essay is a collective product of this group.

I’ve always had strong views on “refraining from disputation” (不争论). My feeling is that so long as everyone has the same basic animus, speaking up for our country and our people rather for their personal vested interests, then moderate, fair and reasonable debate should be encouraged. When I read this essay in Seeking Truth, however, I detected at many points an utter indifference to reality, a disregard for common sense, and even an outright spuriousness. I had to step up and say a few things, both as a citizen and as a Party member of more than twenty years.

Are there really only two kinds of democracy in the world?

To start off, I must acknowledge that the authors do concede that democracy is the global trend, and a goal Chinese have looked to for more than a century. As they point out, the key question is how to achieve democracy, and what kind of democracy. After that, they suggest that China has only two roads and models before it, one being democracy with Chinese characteristics, the other being a totally Western style of democracy (全盘西化的民主).

Having read up to that point I was completely at a loss for words, because they had — after the manner of a street fight — established their premise and then gone on to argue it through. Through this sleight of hand they remove the need for argument altogether. With their premise established at the outset, they’ve effectively won the argument.

Based on everything I know, the “totally Western” style of democracy the authors have such a problem with has precious few converts anywhere in our 1.3 billion population, including among those who are ardent supporters of democracy. Where are these people who are advocating the total Westernization of their country? Or advocating the total anything-ization of their country?

I would like to ask: When did America ever totally anglicize? Is French democracy a complete Americanization? Can the democratic systems of Europe and the democratic system of the United States be broad-brushed with this label “Western democracy”? Can we even say that Japan’s democracy, fashioned under the grip of the United States, is a “totally Americanized” form of democracy? The same question goes for the other democracies of Asia, Africa and Latin America, including Chinese Taiwan.

The authors use a falsely dualistic, black-and-white logic to establish a supposed “total Westernization” as their hated enemy. Then they set up democracy with Chinese characteristics as the only alternative to this monstrous enemy.

In fact, every country has its own unique character and circumstances. All countries show differences in degree of economic development. The qualities and characters of their people are different. Their historical factors are different. And this means that the democracies that emerge in various countries are different.

But the authors of the Seeking Truth article are concerned with more than just unique characteristics. Their objective is to launch an attack against the very concept of “democracy,” using nice-sounding phrases to steal away with the agenda. And who are you robbing of the agenda? If you really want to declare that “autocracy” is “democracy,” then the Chinese character for “black” might just as well mean “white.” Just wait and see how many countries in the world will argue this point with you.

What you really need to be clear about is this — Is your so-called democracy, regardless of its special characteristics, the same basic thing other countries with their own systems and understanding of democracy are talking about when they say “democracy”? If not, I suggest you use some other word. Why must you press your hot face against the cold backside of Western democracy? What is your purpose in trying to hijack the discourse power in terms of the definition of this word?

The principal here is simple. You can’t just pull an old, worn-out pair of shoes out from under the bed and say, look, this is democracy. You cannot brandish a rifle and force everyone to repeat after you, inculcating the idea into our children’s minds at school, that this old pair of shoes is “democracy.” What age do you think we live in? Calling an ass by a horse’s name is taking a page from the almanac of 2,000 years ago.

What is the “true people’s democracy”?

I don’t know where the fee came from for this great work in Seeking Truth, but not only does it call an ass by a horse’s name — it also plays the game of calling a horse by an asses name. The essay employs all sorts of terms that are neither here nor there. Like the “true people’s democracy.” You tell me, is that not a joke?

Democracy was defined in the Chinese-language dictionary long ago as “rule by the people,” but they want to take one “people” and use it to restrict another “people.” They don’t rest there either. They have to add on the word “true” as well. They leave our heads spinning. We can’t make out who “the people” are, or who the people who are the true people are. We’re all completely confused. They are the only ones who aren’t confused, because clearly it’s they who presume to represent “the people,” and to realize the “true people’s democracy.”

The authors say at the outset that they want to show that Western democracy is not the “true people’s democracy.” Actually, though, there’s no reason for them to bother. Look back decades and you’ll find that no Westerner has ever claimed that their form of democracy is the “true people’s democracy.”

The essay emphasizes over and over again that Western democracy is the democracy of the bourgeoisie, a democracy manipulated by the rich, and that “presidents are all people with money, or agents of people with money.” They offer no more evidence than that because one size fits all. If it’s the wealthy George W. Bush stepping into the presidency, he’s a rich man. And if it’s the once-poor Bill Clinton or Barack Obama stepping into the presidency, they are agents of the rich. You have only to step into the presidency to be an agent of the rich. Their logic is ever-triumphant.

They talk about the West’s democracy for-hire, and they talk about how Western publics have already recognized the fraudulent nature of Western democracy. They cite as evidence the fact that turnout for presidential elections in the United States stands at around 50 percent. This, incidentally, is the only place in the essay that they use figures from the West to disparage Western democracy. In China, of course, you can’t conduct polls, but you can in the United States. Wouldn’t you understand this if you just went over and asked Americans?

Not only does a weak public appetite for elections not suggest that the quality of democracy is poor, but quite the opposite, only in mature democratic nations would you see this sort of thing happen. In all newly-emerged democracies the level of election turnout is extremely high (just look at democratic countries outside the West), because these new voters want to get a handle on the direction of the country and ensure they get the leaders they want. But in the West, where civil society development is robust, election turnout is inevitably lower. Candidates standing for election all cater to the public, and their policy positions often show little clear difference, so voters find it difficult to make a choice. The vast majority of those who choose not to vote do so because they believe it makes very little difference who they pick.

To combat low voter turnout, Australia has imposed fines of 50 Australian dollars on those who fail to vote — that’s about 300 RMB — so Australia now has the highest voter turnout in the world. But Australia, with the world’s highest voter turnout, has now found itself in the same pickle, unable to distinguish the winners from the losers, with no party having a clear majority, much like the U.S. presidential elections 10 years ago. This tells us that the people have matured, and the candidates have also matured.

This attitude of apathy toward candidates is something quite different from what the writers of the Seeking Truth essay imagine to be hard evidence of the fundamental failure of democracy. These guys just can’t tell horses and cows apart. According to what they are suggesting, the voting “people” of the West have two choices before them. The first, everyone votes together and elects as president a candidate whose ambition is to realize socialism with American characteristics; The second, you advocate depriving them of this voting right they don’t seem to care for. I guarantee you that if you place these choices before them, every single American will spit in your face, and the whole country will turn out on election day.

Next year is the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese people’s pursuit of democracy and science. Over the past century China has traveled a winding and wicked path, one major reason being that our rulers have wielded false democracy to cheat the people, taking advantage of our lack of education and our economic frailty. Even today, this fraud is effective. But China has made progress toward democracy nevertheless, and we can see this in the progress the people of our country have made, in their ever-stronger sense of civic consciousness, and in the new appetite and understanding they have of democracy. They are no longer so easy to hoodwink.

And you choose this moment to reach under the bed and drag out this stinking pair of shoes. You say to the people of China, look, this is democracy.

I say to you as a Party member of twenty years, and as a citizen, that this “democracy” of yours will only bring chaos and destruction to us all.

This is a condensed version of an essay posted at Yang Hengjun’s Blog.

[Frontpage photo by Magalie L'Abbé available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

One Comment to “That old pair of shoes is not democracy”

  1. King Tubby says:

    Great, if windy reading, with too many barnyard metaphors.

    Re: Australian election. Just a pause moment occasioned by the fact that the two major political parties/brands are being hollowed out prior to the emergence of two new distinct trends ie. rural independants and Greens. It will be sorted in six months with a new election. Here in Australia we forward in time pretty quickly, unlike the US which contests the same old issues every decade of so. Every western democracy must be analysed in its own terms, even if one is able to discern common trends such as the new anti-Islamic voices emerging

    Being an amateur sinowatcher, believe that when/if democracy arrives in the PRC, it will have its own contours and trajectory, and will not be an imported model.

    Being a long-term Party member, you should be well aware that the this Seeking Truth crowd are utilising a particularly crude and reductionist interpretation of Marx, organised around a direct relationship between base and superstructure, resulting in ***false consciousness*** and hence apathy in the West. Just so Stalin 1950s. (References can be supplied on request.)

    Finally, with regard to emerging civil society in China and its major interface, the internet, I would not invest too much in that medium as a bearer of sustainable forms of Chinese democracy. Intranet conversations in China are corrosive, poisoned, managed, manipulated, not to mention predominately focussed on the worst of trash/celebrity culture, envy and trivia.

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