Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Democracy, Chinese Style

It will not come as a surprise, but apparently the Prime Minister of Australia does not read this blog.

Had Tony Abbott done so he would not have embarrassed himself when commenting on some remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Economist has the story:

RECENTLY Tony Abbott, the prime minister of Australia, embarrassed himself a little by gushing over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s talk of China becoming “democratic”. Specifically Mr Xi said China had the goal of becoming “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by the middle of the century. Mr Abbott responded in wonderment that he had never before heard of a Chinese leader promising full democracy by 2050. Australia’s prime minister would have benefited from an explanation of what China’s leader means by “democracy”. What did Mr Xi really mean?

As I have been wont to point out, China does not really have a concept of liberal democracy. And it does not share our notion of human rights. These have never really been practiced in the Middle Kingdom.

As another group of pro-democracy demonstrators see their protest die out with a whimper—this time in Hong Kong—one needs to appreciate how alien these Western notions are to China.

The Economist elucidates the matter:

The word “democracy”, or “minzhu”, is relatively new in Chinese, added to the language by Japanese writers during Japan’s Meiji Restoration more than a century ago (along with the word “freedom”, or "ziyou"). In the early 1900s “democracy” had the same meaning as it did in the West—and after the fall of the Qing dynasty China even held real elections in 1912-13. But democracy didn’t stick. The victor of those polls, Song Jiaoren, was assassinated before he could become prime minister, and decades of turmoil and civil war followed. In leading the communists to power Mao incorporated the word "democracy” into party-speak to gain popular support. But what Mao actually meant in 1949 became clear when he declared that China would be ruled by a “people’s democratic dictatorship”.

And also:

The Chinese government has long said it protects “human rights”. It has a Western-sounding constitution that says the country enjoys the “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly” and so on. In October, the Communist Party’s Central Committee held a plenary session on “rule of law”, in which it fully endorsed the constitution. But China prefers a narrow economic definition of “human rights”, and none of these declared freedoms, nor the authority of the constitution itself, goes so far as to protect anyone who challenges the Communist Party’s rule. That is why Ilham Tohti, a university professor, was sentenced to life imprisonment in September for criticising the party’s ethnic policies.

Of course, the People’s Republic of China is not exactly what we would call a republic either.

By democracy, the Chinese leadership means the will the people as embodied in the Communist party. It feels a lot like Rousseau’s concept of the “general will.” Therein Rousseau was referring to the will of the people, not as expressed by the people but as known by the people’s rulers.

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