22 January 2011

Creeping democracy in China?

When we think of China, about the last thing we think of is democracy. We think of clothing, toys, electronic gear, and damn near every manufactured good on sale in the stores these days, but we don't think of democracy. Yet, according to an article in the Guardian, democracy may be creeping into the Chinese way of life.

China has more elections than any other country, but up until recently these elections meant little or nothing. They were local elections manipulated for the purposes of the Communist Party. Now, however, according to the article, these elections have been growing more competitive, with more independent candidates and greater use of the secret ballot. Furthermore, where there is real competition, the elections seem to be having positive effects. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has indicated elections may be extended to townships, the next political level.

The Chinese have also experimented with direct democracy. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin, the guru of deliberative polling, to select a scientifically-representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo for a citizens' assembly to decide how their city should spend a $6-million public works budget. The project was considered a huge success and repeated elsewhere. This is an exercise we could profit from ourselves.

Even the Communist Party is getting in on the act with competitive elections being held for party posts at the lower levels.

Some Chinese intellectuals are proposing models of democracy based on Confucian ideas, i.e government service based on merit, possibly in combination with Western models. One proposal is for a tricameral legislature with the legislators of one chamber selected by merit, the legislators of another elected by members of the Communist Party, and the legislators of the third elected by the Chinese people as a whole. Some observers have been so bold as to suggest the Chinese might ultimately develop a model superior to those of the West.

That, however, will take a long time. But then the Chinese have always taken the long view of history. I'm reminded of the famous story of former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked what he thought the influence of the French Revolution was on history, replied: "It's too early to tell."

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