China isn’t ready for democracy – Vote buying, low quality people, and other excuses

The idea that democracy doesn’t fit China’s national condition seems to be a weekly feature in the Global Times (like today’s article). The arguments provided in these pieces not only show a disgusting contempt for the common Chinese person (we’ll call them “laobaixing (老百姓) from here on), but also expose the deeper flaws in the current electoral-system which is a faux-democracy at best.

At present, China’s political system allows for choosing representatives at the local government level, these candidates though are handpicked by the Party. In the last round of elections there were several independent candidates, but many of these were harassed by the police and marginalized in the election. These elected officials are partially responsible for selecting the higher levels of gov’t although they too face a limited choice of candidates, and are frequently told how to vote. As a student in one of my wife’s classes stated with misguided pride, “In China, we don’t have to vote for our president.” In China the results of an election are often known before the first vote is cast.

The gov’t is interested in providing an appearance of reform while maintaining the current structure that ensures Party officials have the final say in village decisions. Voting for local officials who are established as supporting the Party means that this small concession appears as a step towards democracy, without fundamentally changing the higher levels of power.

Vote Buying

Many people have pointed to the fact that China’s poor would be easily swayed by money from politicians. Evan Osnos, from the New Yorker, covered a recent case of election fraud in Central China where two candidates reportedly paid a total of 9,000rmb per voter to secure votes in their campaign. As government positions offer lucrative opportunities for collecting bribes and other illicit financial gains, it is not surprising that some are willing to pay for these posts. In fact, the amount paid in this case indicates that some officials are able to make more than 5,000rmb per constituent from their office.

The Party argues that this is another reason that Democracy shouldn’t be expanded. The poor are simply too easy to buy, and the rich would just buy the elections leading to a Chinese Oligarchy. How is this different than the current system? As Bloomberg reported today,

“The net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government.”

This also ignores the facts on the ground. In many of the elections over the past year the most popular independent candidates were not gaining support because of their ability to buy votes, instead they were people advocating the construction of convenient marketsclean governance, and airing the complaints of the laobaixing. Unfortunately, none of these people actually managed to run for election, as they were arbitrarily disqualified from the races, ignoring the current election laws.

This indicates that perhaps the real reforms come after the establishment of a functioning democracy, and are not possible without it. Democracy, as a political system, can survive the initial turbulence as it adapts to the “unique” problems of a country. Advocates acknowledge that problems like corruption are not magically wiped away with a political shift, but there is some indication that democracy is useful in supporting efforts to limit it (18 of the 20 least corrupt countries are democracies).

That the laobaixing must wait for China’s national condition to improve, is an unfounded claim that ignores the history of dozens of successful democracies.

Low Quality People

As popular blogger Han Han argued at the start of the year, China isn’t ready for democracy, because the people aren’t capable of making their own good decisions (Charlie Custer, from, wrote an excellent post exploring this particular issue). This idea has been put forth time and again by Party sympathizers, that simply the character of the average laobaixing is too low to make these kinds of decisions (Similar arguments were made in the US around the turn of the century in relation to voting rights for minorities and women).

The part of this argument that I find the most sickening, is that many Chinese are poorly educated and are therefore ill-equipped for democracy. But who is responsible for the current state of China’s educational system? The very people who would lose the most in a democracy.

Given this, it is also worth noting that China’s current system seems incapable of promoting people worthy of public service. With rampant corruption leading to weekly scandals that effect the lives of the laobaixing, what evidence is there that democracy would make things worse? Are farmers really more likely to vote for candidates that can’t protect their land rights? Would urbanites put up with officials that approve the construction of heavily polluting factories that send their children to the hospital?

In fact, the results of low-level elections have already achieved encouraging results in the countryside. As John Kennedy noted in a 2001 study, village elections result in leaders that are more accountable to the villagers, and results in more equitable land distribution (cited in this 2009 paper by Kevin O’brien and Rongbin Han which is worth reading). The problem is that elected village leaders are still dominated by local Party secretaries in a way that minimizes the voice of the laobaixing.

Last week when I was talking with a cabbie we somehow ended up on the topic of gun ownership in the US, she told me that “in China, the quality of the people is too low. If you give them guns there will be chaos.” I explained that our right to gun ownership stems from our revolution, and that in theory we could use them to overthrow our government if it stops representing our interests. She nodded and added, “I think in China this is what the government is really afraid of.” To the Party, votes are no less dangerous.

19 responses to “China isn’t ready for democracy – Vote buying, low quality people, and other excuses”

  1. swissecon says:

    When the people fear their government, there is tyranny;
    when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

  2. C. says:

    I’m not sure it’s an educational issue so much as it is an issue of the herd mentality that emerges in non-logocentric societies.

    I think the experiences of Singapore and Taiwan are particularly instructive. I’m not sure either can be described as democracies so much as plutarchy. (But to be fair, I think America’s also been one for the past 30 years.)

  3. sinostand says:

    What bugs me is that defenders of the status quo often present democracy as an either-or-proposition. You can accept this dictatorship which has improved your life, or take western (usually American) style democracy, which would wreak havoc because of China’s “special circumstances.” It’s true. If you inserted American democracy in China overnight, it would be a disaster. But how about starting with transparent democracy within the party and letting lower party members (about 5% of the population) vote? From the party’s view, these “voters” already been screened as politically reliable and intelligent. Or how about having a recall system where people can vote out bad city or provincial leaders with a high enough percentage – like some countries do with judges? There are any number of ways China could begin to democratize incrementally and safely without opening floodgates. But the party puts forth one of its many black and white choices that basically boils down to “Our way or chaos.” And this is from people who’ve done very well under the status quo.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      No disagreement here on the imposition of flawed binaries. RE the idea of transparent democracy in the Party, it might be interesting to explore means of decision making other than voting. As you are aware, voting does not = democracy. Of course there are decision making apparatuses within the Party that would appear to exclude many of the members from meaningful participation, but that does not mean that Hu Jintao or a cabal at the top are dictating everything in the absence of discussion. I’d like to hear more about the nature of decision making in the Party. That account would have to take into consideration the deep sense of discomfort with not presenting a unified front. I don’t think I’m far off base in suggesting that anything that unanimity is viewed with deep suspicion in mature democracies. I wonder to what extent that “Chinese” discomfort with non-harmony helps us to understand predictions of chaos from the democracy pessimists.

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  5. Matt says:

    Definitely agree with what sinostand wrote above about incremental steps towards democracy.

    What I see as the toughest question, one that I really don’t hear answered on this blog or in the China Geeks post referenced is this: are the problems that China will face for the next 20+ years sufficiently complex that full-on democracy, voted on by “low-suzhi” citizens, would result in environmental, economic or political disaester?

    In that question I’d emphasize the complexity of the problems rather than the suzhi of the people. The fact is, the world has never seen the lives of so many people, the consumption of so many resources, the production of so many goods, the nature of so many cities changing in such a short period of time. Expectations for constantly rising standards of living are so high that any misstep (as in, 4% GDP growth for a year) could result in mass dissatisfaction, mass unemployment and violent chaos. Maybe that’s a nightmare-scenario that the party has drilled into people’s heads, but it seems plausible given the levels of unrest and the general tumult in the fastest-changing society in history.

    It’s hard for this westerner to get his head around, but is it possible that in a situation this unique multi-party elections would be too short-sighted to manage the problems the country will face over the next 20 years? Is it possible that you need people who are relatively insulated from the swings of public opinion to guide the progress of the country?

    That comes at a high cost (read: rampant corruption, lack of immediate accountability, suppression of competing viewpoints). I think in a situation like this we need far more shades of gray to describe the trade-offs between “stability” and freedom.

    • Tom says:

      It’s a really big and thought provoking question.

      I think that there would be a trade off between greater freedom and satisfaction. That perhaps it functions something like at 10% GDP growth I’m willing to accept that facebook is blocked, but with greater freedoms and protection of individual rights 4% growth is acceptable.

      Another angle worth discussing, is whether or not China’s current political/economic model is working on addressing those problems. On the economic side, world bank says no. On the environmental side, it seems to already be a disaster, and the current system seems woefully incapable of holding local gov’ts responsible with environmental standards.

      It is worth considering that just because American style democracy isn’t the answer (and you’ll note that I never claimed it was) it’s also possible that Chinese autocracy doesn’t work either. Instead I think a very likely scenario is that the Party would still control central planning, but that there is direct oversight of local gov’t by the voters.

      Keep in mind, for a democracy to function, only 51% of the people need to be rational, I think most countries are capable of that.

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    I’m hoping I can present a bit of knowledge helpful to working through the questions posed here, on China Geeks, and by HanHan. Before doing so, the argument in HanHan and many other sources that China’s people are somehow “not ready” for democracy is quite superficial and not hard to dismiss. I think that Custer and Tom both dealt with that argument adequately. My understanding of the defenders position is that they don’t deny democracy as an ultimate goal so much as they cling to the idea that the only legitimate way to achieve that goal is through the leadership of the Party. The justification through the low suzhi is pure sophistry. On the other hand, the question of the institutional conditions of possibility of the emergence of democracy is a really tough one, one that does make us wonder if “China” is ready for democracy. The problem of economic inequality, for example, does present serious barriers to the development of democracy.

    On the issue of “quality,” my own experience in writing for academic audiences on the concept of suzhi is that it is best to not translate it to “quality” when writing in English. Doing so invites a lot of misunderstanding. As many here know, suzhi does not translate well into English. What we call “quality” is better translated as zhiliang (质量), a term applied to things rather than people. To clarify somewhat, as a person, one can have high suzhi (or low), but one cannot have a high or low suzhi computer, although one may attempt to radiate high suzhi by sitting in Starbucks with an iPad or Macbook. The distribution (one might say the political economy) of suzhi can be analyzed along familiar lines. For example, growing up in the countryside implies that one has lower suzhi than someone from Beijing. In the English world, attributing “low quality” to those born into certain communities would rightly be seen as racist. But, while there is a link between suzhi and scientific racism of the past, suzhi does not operate in the same way. Anyone, in theory, can develop high suzhi. It is a concept that has emerged specifically in the concept of post-Mao China and is connected the perceived need to develop/advance the nation through education, where education is conceived as a process of instilling in the citizenry the requisite qualities that the nation/the people need. In my own research, my suspicion that suzhi is seen as innate did not bear out. Parents report that, while there is a sense in which suzhi is innate, i.e., the circumstances into which one is born overdetermine the possibility of developing high suzhi, most important are practices of family education and schooling.

    Having said all of this, I’m not defending the concept. A critical perspective would notice that, viewed as a resource or capital, high suzhi is not equally available to all, despite government efforts (or lack of). Hopefully I’ve laid this out clearly and without spending too much of people’s time. A very good history of the concept is presented by Andrew Kipnis in Suzhi: A Keyword Approach. A careful reading of the article will no doubt really my summary above is less than delicate.

  7. […] there’s an interesting blog post on whether or not China is ready for democracy. Yes, I know, a tired subject, but this post is quite thoughtful and knowledgeable. I have never […]

  8. PeakVT says:

    I think it’s right to say that converting China to a democracy tomorrow wouldn’t turn out well. However, that’s no excuse for the Communist Party not trying to build the foundations. Or maybe it is doing just that. I don’t know enough to say. But the Party should accept that China will become a democracy in the next 30-50 years and see to it that the transition is smooth. After all, the Party and its top members have the most to lose, and will likely lose the most if the transition isn’t smooth.

  9. dudepp says:

    If we set aside the huge corruption barrior, i think china would have to incorporate a sort of “united states option” if full democracy was ever implemented, where seperate provinces would have there own policies, ruling governors etc.due to differences in culture or ethnicites, though that could inevitably lead to the separation of china (sort of like the russian empire provinces, or scotland).
    back to the 3 kingdoms.

    sidenote: a woman cabbie? well i never!

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      It’s an interesting idea, dudepp. It’s worth pointing out that China (without democratic governance) is already a governance structure of this kind (there are at least 5 levels of governance, 2 systems…some would say three) with at least nominal recognition of the features you suggest. I think we sometimes confuse “one Party” (although even it has its localized factions) with “one government.” Interesting as well, this system has its similarities with the U.S. If you’re suggesting a federal model, better to look at a place like Canada (not the only example of this) where the national gov’t has only two powers with which to make itself indispensable, i.e., taxation/purse and military. Most of daily life is governed by provincially developed policy.

  10. gregorylent says:

    what the heck IS democracy?

    india democracy, functions on the basis of money and muscle

    usa democracy, functions solely on the basis of money …. huge money.

    china, should it mistakenly adapt democracy, whatever that is, would be brutal.

    • PeakVT says:

      Democracy is a form government where the citizens collectively control how their country is governed. And having a say in how one’s country is governed is run is a human right. Just because some countries (or many, or most) have implemented democracy poorly doesn’t mean the general concept is invalid

      I’m sure some people are tired of this quote, but it’s still a good summation:

      “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” –WInston Churchill

      • Sara says:

        Polls of Iraqis and general man on the seetrt interviews indicatemost of those fourteen million already have lost faith in the government.Sounds a lot like America.Proof positive that democracy is working.Thanks for supporting my proposition!!!

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