Democracy can’t Buy People

I have no strong doubts that America will “only” be the second or third largest economy within two to four decades. In the meantime, while the trends will be suggesting that, many people elsewhere in the world, including Westerners who are focused on economic power alone, will start placing their political bets on China, too. In the views of many, a society where human rights only rank second or third and where democracy is deemed an unnecessary luxury will appear to be more efficient than a democratic model. Many will easily forget or push aside all evidence that democracy may be an essential human right, or an important practise to avoid untenable living conditions of the “ordinary people”, and therefore, in the end, a stablilizing rather than a destabilizing factor in the life of a country. Many people won’t see either that even under an undemocratic – i. e. inefficient – form of government, peoples’ livelihoods can still hardly drop in China. Quite naturally, the only likely direction is upwards anyway, at least for some time to come, as long as most Chinese citizens are living close to the bottom of their individual potentials.

Radio Canada International QSL, 1988

Radio Canada International QSL, 1988

I got this feeling when I looked at the German press online yesterday. An article by Niall Ferguson, first published by Britain’s Financial Times (now only accessible for registered readers) on December 27, has since been published in German by the weekly Stern, the weekly Der Spiegel, the daily Die Welt, and probably a number of regional newspapers, too.

Niall Ferguson’s article doesn’t look wrong to me, but it can encourage short-sighted views of the future when it comes to the benefits that political concepts, rather than civilizations, can offer, or the drawbacks they can cause. The main factors which play a role in Ferguson’s article are money (American current account accounts, public expenditure and revenue) and military power (Afghanistan and Iraq). Even if democracy never becomes something most Chinese people would appreciate and fight for – and among many of them, national power may be viewed as a sufficient substitute for leading a full life individually -, China won’t be an attractive model for most other nations. A country or empire may be powerful – but it won’t be attractive elsewhere unless the citizens can live their lives to their full potentials.

That said, Taiwan before all other countries will be in a difficult position, unless a majority of its people actually like the idea of being “re-united” with China. Their window of opportunity to have their sovereignty internationally recognized – if the opportunity still exists at all -, has begun to shrink. Will the Taiwanese test their opportunities and risk to codify their sovereignty internationally? And how far will the rest of the world – most crucially America – be willing to support and help to defend them?

For those of us who live in democratic countries, China’s growing weight poses questions which would have seemed unimportant only a few years ago. It is unlikely that the average Chinese citizen will enjoy our standards of living in the foreseeable future. And besides, it is unlikely that our standards of living will remain as high as they are. We will need to save more, and to spend less – not only in America. There are ecological reasons for that, and economical reasons. Rises in productivity can’t be endless, as long as we are confined to this planet. Democracy stabilizes society when its promises are sustainable. But democracy may stop doing so if the promises made by its political class – in order to secure their election or reelection – become unsustainable. This question about sustainability has always been an issue, but it must become a central issue in our societies. Democracy isn’t here because Westerners were better people than the Chinese. And the matter of sustainability isn’t at all lofty. While China’s social insurance programs are facing huge challenges, they are only promising comparatively small benefits to the Chinese people. Our welfare systems are much less challenged than theirs, but the promises of our welfare systems to their clientele have become a great burden for every regular employee. If democracy shall stay, we must ask ourselves who we want to be, rather than what we want to own. Democracy can’t buy people. Democracy is either wanted, or it will go away.

Freedom is not a matter of where we live, and it is no matter of nationality or race. But it is, of course, a question about who governs us, which economic and political system we have, and into which direction we want to develop. As China is a totalitarian country, led by a “Communist” party which wants to stay in power (no matter if that will require Communist, Socialist or Confucian colors), its growing influence will require us to be vigorous competitors in terms of political concepts, and to some extent, in terms of power.

It doesn’t really matter how powerful the West’s position will be in the future. But there need to be democratic societies which are able to defend themselves, and which can convince the global public that people only live full rights in the light of human rights.

Once China is a country with a p0litical class that works to heal, rather than to cultivate the mortifications of its people, it can – and maybe should – lead the world. Otherwise, it shouldn’t get into that position.


How to Corrupt an Open Society, Aug. 29, 2009
The American Era isn’t over, October 30, 2008

6 Responses to “Democracy can’t Buy People”

  1. That last paragraph is the closest thing to my own position on China’s elevation to global power that I’ve read.

    I’ve got no problem with a new world order that looks up to Beijing, so long as the CCP learn the virtue of adopting a doctrine that instils in its people the principles of moral responsibility. Unfortunately, to my mind, they are light years from being a force for good, but potentially only decades from ruling the planet.


  2. Stuart, I have been following your debate with Richard of Pekingduck on this subject, and I have to say that I agree with you wholeheartedly. All of this China hype at the moment makes me very uneasy for several reasons:

    1) The China rules the world possibility can’t be substantiated
    2) Many people seem to greet the idea with excitement without considering what the consequences may be of a Beijing-centric world
    3) Many people seem to be attaching much too much importance to the notion that biggest economy equals best country. China publishes its GDP figures, and pundits follow them, as if GDP growth were a race.

    I think that consideration of number 2 may eventually come, but that it may be too late for people to take back the advantages that they are eager to accord to the Chinese at this moment.

    This aside, I personally suspect that while China is destined to get a whole lot more influential, that the current leadership is overstretching. Meanwhile, too many are willing to buy into China’s overstretch as they would buy into a bubble. Where the Chinese are the most lacking is in the closed political system. This makes me feel that, while China will continue to be an attractive model for dictatorships, the prospects of China for influencing more liberal societies in a soft power sense will be limited. Put away the rosy and doctored numbers, and the dragon looks a lot less appealing.

    As for the Americans, what they need is more confidence right now and a bit of innovation. It is becoming way too fashionable to write off the US as declining. The decline is happening relatively, but, in absolute terms, it is laughable to make such a claim. In fact, the reverse may be true. The country has a population that is growing at a reasonable rate (through immigration at least), a productive workforce, sufficient natural resources, a (relatively) educated populace, a prime piece of real estate, a prosperous agricultural sector, and a battle-hardened, advanced military. The resources of the country are far ahead of the UK, for example, which lost much of its influence with the independence of its colonies. IF the country ever gets around to reforming its profligacy, it will be in quite a good position to compete with anyone, especially if the Americans can put the legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan behind them without any other big goof-ups.


  3. The China Global Times sees a “tough year” ahead “for Sino-US ties”, as “there might be a policy shift, which would put more emphasis on power balance and military containment”, the paper quotes Zhang Jiye, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
    And that’s the right thing to do, Paul Krugman suggested late last year.
    If the CCP will be able to influence the world to a high degree depends on peoples’ minds, everywhere. I agree with Thomas that China’s system doesn’t have the makings of a bestseller. But we should be ready to compete, and we should do so cheerfully. Just complaining isn’t really a selling point. The need for competing should make us ask ourselves questions, too. If Western business people show soft spots for CCP propaganda, it is the CCP’s opportunity – but a problem we must address. I don’t like every bit of the shift from worshipping China (until 2007 or so) to becoming more critical of it, but I like the general direction the public debate has since taken.

    Thanks for your comments! I will be back to the serious business of teaching from tomorrow, and won’t find as much time as recently to post, but I’ll be happy to participate in discussions, here, there, and there.


  4. I think China and its people wishes to do its best economically and politically. This does not necessarily means that China aims to dominate and lead the world. In fact, China’s history shows that when at the peaks, it rather looked more inwardly than outwardly…this is no hallmark of a country and people who wants to lead the world in the political sphere.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: