There is much discussion about Western Democracy v Chinese Autocracy. One Man One Vote v Party Rule. The narrative goes like this. The West has fought long and hard for the right to vote into power – and out of power – its political leaders. China by comparison has had its leaders foisted on its people. The West has freedom. The Chinese are in chains. In the West the people are in control and in China, the Party is in control – the starting point for a topical discussion about democracy and freedom and governance. And there is a context for having this discussion today – it is the change in the balance of world power.
The old norms are under attack as China rises and the US falls. Something very significant is about to happen as China becomes by 2030 the largest economy in the world. Sometimes people fail to see history as it happens and, instead, see it only in retrospect. Rather like a child growing up – it is not a straight line progression but a series of jumps. No question, the moment when the US surrenders its top position as the world’s biggest economic power will have a big impact on the US psyche. No one likes to be overtaken – least of all the US and least of all by a Communist country.
Back, however, to the question of authoritarian government versus democratic government. This is a key issue, and one on which the West takes satisfaction, – the belief that the argument is on their side. After all, the West reminds itself, “we have the rule of law, the separation of powers, a political system which respects the wishes of the people who have the last word – at the ballot box. We are fair, reasonable and democratic. Our system will always prevail”.
That is the theory. In practice, questions are being asked. And we come back to Trump and Covid-19 and a figure of 500,000+ deaths. Is this a medical issue or a governance issue? In one sense it is medical because the deaths have resulted from a virus but, in a much bigger sense, it is an issue of governmental credibility. How come the sophisticated US government with its Constitution, its Supreme Court, its modern means of communication and advanced medical system has seen so many Americans die. They knew about the virus in January 2020, the medical warnings were there, the experience of Italy and the UK was on their screens and yet the decisive action never happened. As time passes, more and more questions will be asked about the failings of the US (and the UK) government and the US democratic system of government.
But there is a bigger point. The US and the West are confident that the people of China must be unhappy and ever-willing to swap their Party-controlled authoritarian government for the democratic procedures of the US. The US has operated on the principle of “Seen One Communist, Seen Them All”. Their thinking is mechanical, inflexible and ultimately flawed. The US comforts itself because they think they have been here before. The USSR presented a challenge to the US and it was seen off – Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Gorbachev rose and challenged and failed. The same will happen with China and Xi Jinping will follow the same path to failure – goes the US narrative.
In truth, the people of China are content and supportive of their system of government. The evidence is contained in two reports by established US organisations;-
First – The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that China rose to the top of the Trust Index among the 28 markets surveyed, with an 84% rating among the general population. China was also the market that saw the most significant increases in trust across all of the key institutions: government, media, NGOs and business. The UK figure was 34%.
Second, The Harvard Kennedy School (also known as the John F. Kennedy School of Government and HKS) is the Public Policy School of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In an article published by the School entitled “A Turbulent Decade” Yinjian Zhang states “China’s performance in the realms of governance and the economy has buttressed the legitimacy of the Chinese government for decades…in recent years, the Chinese government has enjoyed increased support not only because of its own performance but also from the perception that other countries are performing badly”
The Chinese people are not groaning under the dictatorship of the Communist Party. On the contrary, they are happy with their lot and trusting of their government.
There is a further item of evidence. I recall an interview that Jeremy Paxman carried out on UK BBC2 during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. He was interviewing four successful female business executives. They were well-dressed and pleased to take the questions. They were exuding bonhomie and a sense of fulfilment. Paxman, who was looking for evidence of unrest or disenchantment, was becoming frustrated. Eventually, he got onto the subject of votes and politics and exclaimed “But you are not free to vote out your government”. They were quite taken aback. “But why should we want to?” came the reply. Paxman was puzzled – very puzzled. The West, too, is very puzzled.
But there is a further relevant point. The Turbulent Decade report by Yinjian Zhang found that “for many Chinese citizens, knowledge about democratic countries obtained through unofficial channels such as foreign news reports, foreign op-eds or personal experiences may lead to unfavourable attitudes toward democracy and. unintendedly strengthens official [Chinese] propaganda. Even in the Chinese diaspora where people should be immune to official [Chinese] propaganda, observers have noticed a bizarre phenomenon – “those who go abroad often become patriotic”. Some pioneering studies confirm that the experience of living under a democratic regime, such as studying abroad, could lead to increased support for the Chinese government.”
So, two summary points in the conclusion. First, in China, the people are content with the Party leadership and their system of government. Second, the experience of Chinese citizens travelling to Western countries is to increase, and not decrease, their support for their own Party-controlled democracy in China.
Look out for my upcoming article on the Uyghurs.