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It goes without saying that politics in the West is perceived by many to be in a bad state. Recently, voters have been fed misinformation by an elite who pander to prejudices and emotions for power. Voters have felt disillusioned with the quick-fix promises offered by the last few decades’ canny politicians, they have felt disenfranchised with Liberalism, and thus people are look for problems within the system of Western democracy more generally. I want to start to balance out the debate. It has become taboo to ask, but what is wrong with our conception of democracy?

Many people feel that democracy is an integral part of our culture; it is in our blood. However, if we look at history it is not so clear-cut. The Ancient Greeks, thought of as the fathers of modern democracy, were mostly sceptical, especially the hero of Western democracy Socrates. He asked the question “would you have sailors plot the course of a ship or just a random citizen?” – only voters who were properly informed about the election should be allowed to vote. For him, universal democracy without qualification would inevitably favour the “sweet shop owner” over the “doctor”, the former promising short-term goodies, the latter long-term benefits. Even Athens’ example is not compatible with our modern conception of democracy: they only allowed free males over 30 the vote.

Democracy has not had an easy ride – it has been threatened by the French revolutionaries of the Enlightenment, the USA’s McCarthy era, and now, the choice we face today between freedom and security when combatting Islamic extremism. Socrates himself was so critical of the democratic state that it put him to death.

The second assumption is that the highest political goal for any country is democracy. This can lead to a kind of neo-colonialism in which countries such as the USA claim it is their moral duty to impose democracy on other countries, serving as an excuse for interventionalism. Each country has its own culture and history that should be respected, as a model suitable for one country is unsuitable for another. 

perhaps there is something we can learn from the Chinese approach

If individual wealth is the goal of the liberal market democracy, it is unsustainable. For a start, the wealth of Western countries, disproportionate to their size or resources, was derived from colonialism and the slave trade. Other world economies, some post-colonial, are now tailgating and even overtaking Western nations. Yet the material expectations of individuals that come with liberal market democracy are not realistic for the whole world; they are derived from a system of exploiting other states and the planet.

Exploitative democracy is incompatible with present day realities, and thusly, we need to start looking for ways to improve the current system. We should look to create new solutions, but we can also look to other countries. Let us take China as an example. In the West, we have a very one-sided view of Chinese politics as defined by oppressive authoritarian rule. We almost exclusively see images depicting repression of critics and minorities. Certainly this is an issue that should not be ignored, but it is also far from the whole picture. Although it has many faults, perhaps there is something we can learn from the Chinese approach.

XVII Congress of the CPC, Image: Wikimedia Commons

In Imperial China, entry exams were used to decide on governors, and the “Mandate of Heaven” gave an emperor legitimacy. This often boiled down to the people staying happy (and not revolting) so long as there was food and no natural disasters. Today, officials must pass tests and do well at each level to rise to the top, and the government has legitimacy as long as the majority of people feel that their welfare is being promoted. When the Chinese government realised that pollution was starting to compete with social mobility as a top priority, it promised to reduce emissions by 60% by 2030. Now, the BBC describes China as the new world environmental leader, especially after Americans elected a climate change denier.  This is the “mandate” in action. In fact, the Chinese word translating to democracy, minzhuzhuyi, is often used in China to describe its politics. Although it is true that this is used in propaganda, behind this is the idea that the country is run for the people.

Not many Westerners are aware that China has some democracy built into its system. Post-Mao China has been guided by principles of “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top.” Village-level elections are currently entrenched in a system of bribery, and there are cases of government restriction, but we can nevertheless learn from the ideal.  Corruption can also be a problem, but this was also a problem in India and many other countries around the world.

We should be educating voters, and giving them the means to educate themselves with the facts

I am not arguing that China’s model is perfect, but rather that we can take parts of it. This is not to dismiss their enormous number of problems with oppression, human rights and claims to disputed land for example. However, neither does it mean that we have nothing to learn from a country of largely stable politics despite its colossal size and diversity, which has seen a monumental rate of development since the 1990s, and does far better than the West in its policy of non-military intervention.

We need to be able to debate democracy openly and without fear of judgement. We should be educating voters, and giving them the means to educate themselves with the facts. But we should also become educated about other systems of government.  Perhaps we would have a richer system, in the true spirit of open and diverse democracy, if we stopped imposing our imperfect system on others and started learning a bit from theirs. If no-one on board is taught how to sail, we should not be surprised when the ship sinks. 

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