Sunday, 30 January 2011

Democracy In China

Today's editorial in the Taipei Times by somebody called "Steven Hill" asserts the democratization of China in a tone intended to evoke mild optimism:
"Most non-Chinese would be surprised to learn that the country already holds more elections than any other in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China’s approximately 1 million villages — home to about 600 million voters — hold local elections every three years."
I must admit a slight degree of surprise to learn of that, but contrary to what Hill might expect, my surprise was not immediately flushed with optimistic colour. Quite the reverse in fact. My pessimism arises not from disappointment at the marginal powers of village committees in the overall scale of the PRC, but from the further impetus this will likely give to a parasitical ethics. I mean that ethics manifest in the Statist arrogation of the values of individual human beings in service to the growth of a democratic hive. Hence Hills' reassurance that such elections aren't actually rigged fails to field my concern at them:
"Critics scoff that local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials manipulate these elections, but according to research by Robert Benewick, a professor at the University of Sussex in England, village elections have been growing more competitive, with a greater number of independent candidates and increasing use of the secret ballot."
No - what I scoff at is the very fact that they are being undertaken at all; that they may be doing it 'properly' only makes it worse for the reason I have just given - it will further encourage the development of a parasitical ethic, whereby villagers may learn to clamour for, and therefore be easily bought off with, more State provision of their goods and services. That the provision of those goods and services may be limited (to basic infrastructure, for example) may be admitted, but my objection does not rest just on the claim that more such goods and services will instill a welfare, work-shy culture (though if taken to extremes it may), but more on the fact that the underlying ethics will strengthen the people's dependency on the State in other, more subtle ways. My conjecture is that it will undermine what remaining vestiges of independence and initiative local people may bring to dealing with social problems (I cite Yang Youde as an extreme [and excellent] example of such initiative).

So when Hill writes: ...
"For those elections that have been genuinely competitive, researchers claim to have found evidence of positive effects. For example, in a study that looked at 40 villages during a 16 year period, the economist Yang Yao (楊姚) found that the introduction of elections had led to increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing spending on “administrative costs” — bureaucratese for corruption — by 18 percent."
... I repudiate his insistence that these are "positive" effects. Understand: I am not against the production of goods and services typically thought of today as "public", such as infrastructure and schools for instance, but I am against their production by coercive and parasitical means.

Back to Hill:
"Since the CCP has a membership of 73 million people, such a “democratic vanguard” holds great potential. If internal elections become widespread, the lines of ideological disagreement within elite circles might become more clearly drawn, which could further spur calls for some kind of representative institutional structure. Rapid change in China already has resulted in a battle of ideas, pitting the coasts and cities against the countryside and inland provinces, and the rich against the poor."
Pitting Chinese people against one another in a collective clamour to get whatever they can out of some great, multifaceted democratic hive is precisely not what I would want to see. I would never wish that horror on the Chinese people or on anyone (except perhaps certain personages who already wish it upon themselves and, also, my reader - you and I). Rather, I would much prefer to see those other non-electoral reforms often associated with democracy introduced to the PRC right now, right at the very top, to help initiate a process of rationally deconstructing Chinese State institutions, and consequently of depoliticizing Chinese society.

The reforms I have in mind are those basics such as freedom of expression, of association, of assembly, judicial independence, habeas corpus and so on (reforms which have already been demanded under Charter 08) that are popularly associated with "democratization" but which are themselves yet crucially different in kind from electoral reforms. The electoral mechanism, typically regarded as the sine qua non of democratization, is an extremely dangerous thing, which, if it is to be admitted as part of any structural reform at all, ought to be severely circumscribed in scope by the extended application of rational principles. Hill points out that the idea of such circumscription is at least within the grasp of some Chinese intellectuals said to "have the ear" of the President and other senior politicians (though on the evidence of what follows it has to be said that Hill apparently knows less about Western constitutional thought than he presumes to):
"Of course, as Chinese democracy develops, it is unlikely to replicate the Western model. Confucian-inspired intellectuals like Jiang Qing (蔣慶), for example, have put forward an innovative proposal for a tricameral legislature. Legislators in one chamber would be selected on the basis of merit and competency and in the others on the basis of elections of some kind. One elected chamber might be reserved only for CCP members, the other for representatives elected by ordinary Chinese. Such a tricameral legislature, its proponents believe, would better ensure that political decisions are made by more educated and enlightened representatives, thereby avoiding the rank populism of Western-style elected factions."
I doubt however, that an appointed chamber of philosopher kings would constitute a more effective restraint upon the flow of power from the electoral mechanism, than other, more straightforward designs (such as a set of restricting amendments, as in the U.S.).

The reason why I denounce the electoral mechanism as dangerous goes back to my concern over the importance of clearly distinguishing two types of "freedom". The association of "freedom" with the electoral mechanism of "democracy", on which mechanism people can effectively vote themselves other people's produce (goods and services) via the mediation of politicians... the association of that mechanism with "freedom" turns entirely on popular acceptance of the weaker and more easily corrupted, "positive" conception of liberty in which a person's "freedom" is equated with what degree of control or power they have over a given problem. This is the ethical pivot behind what you see in the politics of both social welfare and corporate welfare; it was a useful tool to the Frankfurt Marxists in their drive toward the politicization of language and their political exploitation of minority groups. In short, the popular and loose acceptance of this conception of liberty is what has given impetus to the distortion of government in the U.S. from a constitutional republic of limited government to an increasingly unlimited democratic tyranny of the kind which de Tocqueville warned against.

A similar warning should be given to the Chinese, and people like Hill are making too much fucking noise for that warning to be heard clearly.


  1. And the fact (I haven't read the entire article, so if Hill mentions this, then I apologize for the redundancy) that village elections are for government posts while the party still directs policy through the village party committees. Essentially people vote for village administrators who have their proverbial balls in the proverbial party vice (if we can consider what the party does as "legislation"). In essence it amounts to the vice president being "elected"--even though candidates are usually chosen by the party beforehand--and the president and congress appointed by . . . other presidents and congresses.

  2. No, Hill doesn't mention that in his article.

    In any case, the gist of my post was that I regard it as bad news to learn of the spread of the electoral mechanism throughout China, rather than reforms to reduce and restrict politicization.

  3. Sure, Mike. I simply think the two are hand-in-hand. Either way, this looks like an awful piece of misinformed writing.

  4. I mean politicization of such "elections" and the fact that they are essentially windowdressing. (This is Nathan Novak, by the way.) The reason I say this is that it becomes a political issue for most who know little about the actual situation within China--Hill, for example--and then gets turned into some major political event (when it isn't). This was an interesting issue back in the early part of the last decade, but Hill misses the fact that most scholarly research work has essentially downplayed these "elections'" importance because they are still owned and operated by the party.

    If they were real, they'd be less important politically. The CCP would try to downplay their existence because it would be viewed as a threat to the established order--i.e., the party.

    His piece is awful and misinformed. Sorry; I should have been clearer.

  5. Alright Nathan - glad to see you have a blog now. Why don't you upload your editorial pieces for the Taipei Times onto your blog? That way readers can compare the published pieces to how they were originally written so that editorial changes become transparent. But be warned though: I might pop in to knock you about on occasion!

  6. Do so. I appreciate all comments so long as their civil. Shouldn't be a problem with you, though.

    I'm new to blogging, so if/when you get a chance to give pointers, let me know.


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