[Viewpoint] China’s right to self-determinationMany people who live under a democratic government that champions multiparty elections and free speech assume all nations should accept a similar form of government. Americans, Europeans, Koreans, Japanese and so many others love democracy and everything it stands for. But should they conclude that China has erred by not fully implementing democratic ideals?
For supporters of democracies, they may answer with a resounding “yes.” Yet, perhaps their preconceived notions have blinded them from the reality that China has enjoyed remarkable economic growth over the past few decades and many Chinese feel optimistic about the country’s direction, despite Beijing’s stranglehold on one-party rule.
Since I arrived in Beijing one year ago, the biggest surprise has been discovering how many Chinese openly criticize many aspects of their country and how few of them believe the solution would be to usher in an era of a full-fledged democracy. They maintain hope the Chinese government can effectively resolve problems.
One should note they are sincere since they will tell a foreign-born reporter their long list of grievances. They complain about entrenched corruption, high real-estate prices, surging inflation, improper oversight of food and drug safety, along with many other societal ills. Yet, they believe the government can fix these problems as well.
That’s the paradox many foreign residents of mainland China struggle to comprehend. But to find an answer, one should ask ordinary Chinese, without a political agenda, to explain. Here’s what some are saying: They contend that no government can create a utopian society, so why should they expect miracle cures from any government?
Some ask, “is democracy the best type of government?” They point to major flaws of democratic countries that include rampant crime in the United States, a prevailing debt crisis all over Europe, frequent unstable leadership changes of the Japanese government, violent political demonstrations in Korea as well as out-of-control corruption in the Philippines and Thailand.
In the midst of political turmoil and a downturn of the global economy, China remains stable with a strong economy. Many Chinese worry more about their jobs, families, friends and issues relating to the daily quality of life rather than pondering how to bring democracy to their homeland. They prefer watching popular Chinese TV dramas or dating shows instead of tuning into politically oriented TV programming.
For some Chinese, democracy does not symbolize the solution. But even the most ardent supporters of democracy should realize that their ideals cannot bring everyone to the promised land of perpetual happiness. Even voting patterns show a glaring contradiction.
Whether people admit to it or not, many voters elect officials based on deciding between the lesser of two evils. They vote for the candidate they despise the least.
They lean towards one political affiliation because they believe the opposing party is worse. They go to the polls thinking, “I vote for candidate A since I hate candidate B.” They don’t think, “I’m voting for candidate A because the person is the most qualified for the job.”
However, these same voters continue to hold faith in democracy. But historical and cultural reasons may explain this phenomenon. The United States was founded on the basic principles of democracy and its constitution protects these rights as “inalienable.”
Many European, Asian and South American countries have converted from repressive and corrupt forms of government into successful and stable democracies. They see a one-party government as a return to the bad old days.
Nevertheless, many Chinese take a different view and endorse their government that enforces one-party rule. They are aware of the benefits of democracy but they also know about its flaws. They insist that since the national economy is running smoothly, why fix something that isn’t broken.
Meanwhile, many do hope for more political reforms and freedoms but without any desire to overthrow the government. They simply seek a government that remains pragmatic by adapting and adjusting accordingly.
Yet many advocates of democracy conclude that the Chinese are incorrect - but they don’t recognize that the Chinese, not outsiders, deserve the right to determine what form of government should rule over them. The Chinese feel frustrated when foreign countries dictate a political agenda over their domestic policies.
Perhaps a China Daily article, published a few months ago, can best explain their perspective. A reporter asked a Chinese government official about his thoughts on the American attitudes toward China. He said, “When American politicians visit China, they always talk about bringing in American-style democracy for the country. They ignore that they are invited guests and we are their hosts. But how would they feel if our government officials visited Washington as invited guests and we tell them that they must get rid of democracy and support one-party rule? Just imagine their reactions.”
In other words, all countries have the right to determine their sovereignty. If citizens support democracy, let them keep this form of government. However, if most Chinese don’t favor a multiparty democracy, then they have every right to make that judgment on their own terms.
*The writer is a freelance columnist based in Beijing.
By Tom McGregor