Experiments in democracy

China’s free market is doing fine, thank you. A free market without a free market in ideas, otherwise known as democracy, works. Some Western politicians seem to think that, simply by mimicking that system, they will be able to compete with the Chinese on an equal footing. Both premise and conclusion are flawed.

  • CC Enzo Jiang Can we keep up with the economic high speed train that is China by becoming less democratic? Tom Kenis thinks that this vision is based on an outdated image of China: the country is experimenting with more participation. CC Enzo Jiang

This year will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The communist experiment crumbled with scarcely a peep. The Western model had triumphed: a free market combined with a democratic political system proved unbeatable in providing for the needs and wants of populations. Communist China was already experimenting extensively with economic liberalization.

Sooner or later it too would have to come to the conclusion that a liberal economy without democratic reforms was like a carriage without a horse.

Twenty-five years after the ‘end of history’ as the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama called the victory of the ‘Western’ model, we are still waiting for Chinese democracy. Economically the country is steaming ahead: According to the latest GDP figures China plays second fiddle only to the United States. Its enlightened leaders are able to meticulously tweak the economic machine without the help of nosey citizens, without politicians whose performance is systematically evaluated at the ballot box.

The economic machine, averaging 9 percent annual growth over twenty-five years, is astounding. Were Fukuyama and others wide off the mark? Can a free economy without matching democracy thrive? Are markets needlessly curtailed by civic participation, neighbourhood committees, voyeuristic journalists, and independent courts that, according to some, so hobble Europe and America? Meanwhile not only the Chinese politburo believes democracy is bad for the economy.

The message seems to have struck a chord among politicians closer to home. In order to compete with this resurgent China, European and American workers must, according to classical dogma, become cheaper. Too much political freedom stands in the way of this. It is very difficult to convince wage earners, still the largest group among the population, to vote for parties that advocate lower wages. In other words Democracy sabotages itself economically.

Green and left-leaning folks are equally susceptible to envying a vigorous Chinese government planting windmills where they are needed, unburdened by neighbourhood committees, breaking ground on ever larger solar panel factories and halting entire industries when smoke gets into too many people’s eyes.

The above can explain why some governments are so eager to nibble away democratic achievements. A few examples: there is “too much public participation in major infrastructure development,” a Flemish member of parliament recently lamented. A Belgian online commenter was slapped with a so-called ‘Municipal Administrative Sanction’, a draconian parallel system of fines purporting to combat anti-social behaviour. The US ‘Occupy’ protests were swiftly scotched in the egg by means of legislation and tactics originally devised to combat terrorism. The list goes on.

While Western politicians are aping a hasty interpretation of the Chinese success story, the latter turns out to be somewhat less of a roaring success. In the summer of 2011, two Chinese high-speed trains collided with each other on an overpass, killing 40 and wounding 192. Research quickly pointed out corruption in procurement and mismanagement of the rail network as the main culprits. Even state newspapers failed to adhere to a hastily issued directive to limit coverage of the accident. Citizens freely expressed their displeasure on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Rail travellers dwindled and expansion of the high-speed rail network was put on the back burner. One of China’s flagship projects and a major pillar of national infrastructure development took a big hit.

A freer press could have revealed any malfeasance before the calamity. For the first time the Chinese government started realizing that a lack of democratic feedback systems can be a costly affair. Corruption erodes economic growth. For bloggers and tweeters a point system was put in place, similar to French driving licenses, allowing for a small number of infractions until one is held to account.

A door has been opened to allow potentially vital criticism, albeit to a very limited extent. Democracy it is not, but other experiments, like municipal elections, have already started. Is China meeting the West halfway while ‘our’ politicians are experimenting in the opposite direction? Was Fukuyama right after all? Sundry predictions matter little to the People’s Republic. Let alone the fact that some western politicians seem to be competing against a twenty-five year old snapshot of that country.

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Over de auteur

  • Schrijver, publicist & vertaler

    Tom Kenis heeft een achtergrond in Islamstudies en Internationale Betrekkingen. Hij woonde en werkte vier jaar in het Midden-Oosten en in Berlijn.