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August 16, 2013, supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather in the center of Cairo to protest against the clearance of demonstrators. / Xinhua

Overcoming Difficulties in the Study of Democracy

By Su Changhe

English Edition of Qiushi Journal,
Central Committee, Communist Party of China,
Vol.5 No.4 Oct 1, 2013

I. From Africa to the United States

In October 2012, I had the chance to attend the Second China-Africa Think-Tanks Forum in Africa. After the conference, I travelled to the United States to observe the presidential election there. 

At the Think-Tanks Forum in Ethiopia, I remember hearing certain African scholars go on about Africa’s civil society and democratic transition. The forum was being held in a resort compound in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Leaving the compound, it was not long before I came across impoverished everyday people living in squalor. The state in which these people were living came in stark contrast to the talk of democracy that had taken place in the conference hall. I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the huge gap between academia and the real world.

The year 2012 was a big year for elections. This election fever began with general elections in Russia and France towards the beginning of the year, and came to a conclusion with the US and Japanese elections towards the end of the year. But while it all seemed so “perfect,” a feeling of democracy “fatigue” has nonetheless set in for many people. Democratic transition has become a topic of considerable interest among scholars in China over the past few years. For over a year, I have been a regular attendant at various academic symposiums on democracy held in China. The contrast I have experienced between reality and academia has been the source of some uncertainty in my mind over popular topics concerning democracy. As a researcher of diplomacy and international relations, democracy is certainly not my field of expertise. However, I do believe that looking at democracy from the perspective of diplomacy and international relations could have a meaningful bearing on how we think about the development of democracy of various countries in the age of globalization.

II. Misconceptions in the study of democracy

The academic study of democracy has long been centered around the democratic transition of developing countries. This gives the impression that democratic transition only concerns developing countries, and that it is not an issue for developed countries. In their studies, scholars, the media, and social groups tend to subconsciously regard Western-style democracy as the sole benchmark for gauging democracy. In their minds, the so-called path to democracy for developing countries must be to follow the standard that has been set by Western-style democracy. These research tendencies have proven seriously misleading for developing countries, with many paying bitterly as a result. The number of developing countries who have sealed their own tombs with the “democracy” they tried to emulate is not small either.   

A large-scale global industry has formed around the study of democracy. Of course, the agenda of these studies has been set by a small minority of Western countries for developing countries to follow. Moreover, the benchmark for appraising democracy is determined entirely by a small handful of countries. This involves a range of appraisal mechanisms, and a contingent of campaigners who are paid by various foundations to go around the world delivering speeches and selling the case for democracy. Thus, democracy, together with the social sciences founded on its basis, is more like a propaganda tool employed by the West than anything else, and the resulting knowledge bubble is far from small. Whenever the West, driven by its own interests, plans to intervene militarily in another country in the name of “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” this propaganda tool springs into action, relentlessly labeling the country in question as authoritarian and autocratic. When this happens, the country on the receiving end is never far from civil war and chaos. Scholars of diplomacy and international relations are almost constantly looking at countries and regions that have been thrown into chaos owing to external intervention. Faced with developing countries that have descended into killing and destitution as a result of foreign intervention, any scholar versed in the basics of politics who still believes that this is due to a lack of “democracy,” or to the need to constantly enhance “democracy,” as opposed to turning to external intervention for the answers, is making an argument that cannot be justified in reason or logic.

Under the Western-style appraisal mechanisms of democracy, there is only one precondition that needs to be met for a developing country to be considered a “democracy,” or to “graduate” from the class of authoritarian countries: that country must show obedience to Western countries, and must give up its independent foreign and domestic policies. Any country that does so is immediately rewarded with “international” praise. As far as international public opinion is concerned, some countries are able to become democracies overnight. But those who do not do what they are told may find themselves being put back on the “authoritarian” list without prior warning, which is what happened to Russia several years ago. Various appraisal mechanisms are like leashes tied around the necks of developing countries and emerging markets. If one of these countries refuses to do as it is told, the holders of the leash will not hesitate to tighten the knot.    

When Chinese academics study democracy in China, they tend to subconsciously see the West as being the perfect model for democracy. Sometimes they even subconsciously place themselves on the non-democratic side of the scale, a mentality that leads to a sense of inferiority in global academic exchanges. The result is that they are unable to hold their heads high in front of their teachers. I remember one time being at an event with scholars from English-speaking countries. As per routine, they began wielding their leash, putting questions to me about censorship and freedom of speech in China. It just happened to be around the time when the Muslim world was up in arms over the film the Innocence of Muslims. I responded by asking the scholars a question: If you had even the most basic respect for the religious beliefs of others, and if you had the necessary censorship in your countries to prevent such insulting material from going public, would it not have been possible to prevent the US Ambassador to Libya from being killed? My question left them in silence. In the age of globalism, all countries must seriously consider the issue of restraint and self-restraint in the expression of public opinion. Any country failing to do so has no credibility to talk about freedom of speech. 

So, it is evident that developing countries need to free themselves from this leash. This being the case, they need to liberate their minds from overly simplistic distinctions such as “democratic and non-democratic,” and “democratic West, authoritarian non-West.” And they need to free themselves from their superiority-inferiority mentality. Only then will they genuinely be able to approach the development of democracy on the basis of their own national conditions.

III. The retrogression of Western-style democracy and the re-democratization movement

Before we are genuinely able to boast a spirit of freedom and an independent national character, we must untie ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy. To do this, we must first downgrade the democracy that a small number of Western countries preach from “universal knowledge” to “local knowledge.” For a considerable period of time, the US has relied on diplomatic initiatives to turn American-style democracy from local knowledge into universal knowledge. If all of the world’s countries, north, south, east, and west, were able to cherish the democracy that they have built on the basis of their own national conditions and history, and if they were able to develop a new and more advanced theory of democracy, the so-called universal theory of democracy that is currently prevalent would naturally be reduced to a local theory of democracy. Admittedly, this downgrading will be a long and drawn-out process. The most important thing, therefore, is that researchers and practitioners start on this now. 

It will be impossible for us to free ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy unless we are able to think independently and communicate as equals in academic activities. Do the small minority of Western countries that have always been viewed as a paradigm of democracy not have the potential for democratic transition? In other words, are the democratic systems in these countries undergoing a process of retrogression? Going a step further, at a time when academics are speculating as to which developing region will see the emergence of “democracy’s fourth wave,” I personally am more inclined to make the assumption that this next wave of democratization is most likely to appear in the West. Without reform, it is possible that the standing of Western-style democracy in human political civilization will go into decline. Of course, most academics throughout the world, especially those engaged in the study of comparative politics, are busy devoting all their energies to the lack of democracy in developing countries. Few have the courage to go out on a limb and raise the retrogression of Western-style democracy and the democratic transition that the West is facing as a serious topic for academic discussion. Do those scholars who study ways of gauging the quality of democracy dare to apply those benchmarks to developed Western countries, instead of just developing countries?

There are indeed signs that Western-style democracy is retrogressing. According to the logical reasoning that has been established by the discourse of Western-style democracy, all problems in developing countries can be attributed to a lack of democracy. The same logic also dictates that many problems in the West, such as political polarization, the alienation of the social elite from the general public, high levels of national debt, irresponsible promises by politicians, falling voter turnout, the monopolization of public opinion, and authoritarian intervention in other countries, are the result of the system of democracy having gone wrong. From the perspective of international relations, Western-style democracy has clashed with people’s hopes for a world order of peace and development since its very inception. Being established on the foundation of exclusive, territorial politics, this system allows Western countries to legitimately discharge the negativities of their domestic political systems into international politics, and show absolutely no regard for the concerns, feelings, and interests of other countries. For this reason, this system is a major source of international conflict, and a domestic obstacle preventing the responsible participation of these countries in global governance. From the perspective of international relations, seeing how the US Federal Reserve has attempted to shift the crisis with round after round of quantitative easing, any observer with a basic understanding of politics will be hard-pressed to go on believing the Wall Street theory that a central bank should form policy independently, or go on believing that the US is a responsible country.

So, scholars of comparative politics in developing countries need to start researching issues such as democratic transition and the retrogression of democracy in countries that practice Western-style democracy. On this basis, they need to provide more rational suggestions with regard to re-democratization movements in these countries—which is by no means impossible—and even establish an agenda for them in the research of democracy. Only then will scholars of comparative politics from developing countries win the respect of the international academic community.  

IV. Shifting the agenda in the study of democracy    

The retrogression and decline of Western-style democracy should come as a warning to developing countries that are still exploring their path of national development. Any country that blindly copies this system will eventually encounter the same difficulties that Western countries are experiencing today. The kind of democracy that is just a game for the rich, that causes constantly falling turnout, that forces the morality out of politics, that makes people feel small and insignificant, that is increasingly used to legally bully people, that creates conflict and division, and that gives rise to more and more “lawful” wars, is absolutely not what the human race aspires towards in the pursuit of fine politics. This kind of democracy is a disaster for human civilization, and under absolutely no circumstances can China embrace it. 

Therefore, we need to rethink the current agenda in the research of democracy, and seek to bring about a change in direction. Chinese scholars must free themselves from meaningless debate over Western-style democracy, and work hard to shift the research of democracy back in the direction of national governance, a classical topic in political science that has more of a bearing on national development.

To do this, it is worth giving more consideration to China’s democratic development on the basis of the political resources that China already boasts. The word “democracy,” which in Chinese is made up of the characters for “people” and “rule,” has its own unique meaning in the political context of China. Breaking the word down, we can see that the word has at least three closely-related meanings. The first is “rule of the country by the people,” also known as “rule by the people,” which represents the foundation of the state. The second is “rule on behalf of the people,” which implies that the government must maintain close ties with the people and rely on the people. Only on the basis of these two conditions can “the position of the people as masters of the country” be truly realized. The notion of “rule on behalf of the people,” which is manifested in a political elite that maintains close ties with the people and serves the public, is an inherent political resource that not all countries can claim to enjoy. Many political elites from developing countries go on about democracy, civil society, NGOs, and elections when they are attending international meetings, but they have little sentiment with regard to “rule on behalf of the people” and “rule by the people.” Severe alienation from the public is a common phenomenon in these countries, and it is not difficult to understand why this leads to political degradation and social unrest. Maintaining close links to the public is an important means for preserving the vitality of democracy. In China, this close bond can be attributed to two things: the spirit of compassion for the people that China’s intellectual elite has preserved since ancient times; and the mass line, a distinct form of democratic practice conceived by the Communist Party of China. In the world’s democracies, if the ruling elite becomes alienated from the people, and if democracy becomes a game for a minority of 1% who show no regard for the wellbeing of the people and who even view the votes of the poor with open contempt, then it is hardly surprising to see this so-called democracy go into decline.

Another word that requires more consideration is “election.” When we research the topic of elections, we seem to devote all our thoughts to the practice of “one person, one vote.” We make the assumption that the word election simply means to hold a popular vote. And we assume that once we have a vote, a great deal of problems will be able to be resolved with great ease. Actually, the word for “election” in Chinese is much deeper in meaning than its English equivalent, being composed of two words, “select,” and “recommend.” China’s national governance, appointments, and policy making activities involve both “selection” as well as “recommendation,” with special emphasis being given to the latter. This is the quintessence of the election system. Of the world’s successful countries, not a single one relies entirely on votes. But if we look at countries gripped in chaos, we can see that every single one demonstrates a dogmatic belief in votes. Researchers of Western politics should be aware that “recommendation” also exists widely in Europe and the US; these countries are not run solely on the basis of votes. I have always thought that we need to thoroughly study the practice of “recommendation” in the American system. There is definitely a great deal that can be learned from this. If we fail to gain a clear understanding of “recommendation,” and instead focus all our attention on the more eye-catching aspect of “votes,” we will succeed only in oversimplifying US politics. Simply learning from the “votes” aspect of politics in the US will do nothing but lead us astray as we pursue our own path of political development.

In summary, in the development of democracy from generation to generation, the role of different peoples is to inherit and then pass on ideas. Even in Africa, there are scholars who believe that Africa once had its own indigenous democracy. However, these indigenous resources were destroyed following the introduction of Western-style democracy. This is something that is worthy of deep thought. 

Contemporary Chinese scholars have the fortune of living in a historic time that is witnessing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Would we not be a laughing stock to foreign observers and our later generations if we were to totally neglect the path and system that are fuelling this drive forwards? 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.11, 2013)

The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.

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Category : China / Democracy / Elections / Socialism

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