Democracy ― apply liberally

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Democracy ― apply liberally


Lee Sang-eon
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Every year, the United States and China wage a battle of human rights. The United States publishes the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and addresses the human rights condition in China, and a few days later, China publishes the Human Rights Records of the United States. This year was no exception — the United States published the report on April 20 and China struck back four days later. The United States criticized China’s imprisonment of anti-government activists, executions without proper legal process, limited freedom of speech, assembly, association and religion as well as forced abortion. In return, China highlighted the gun violence, racial discrimination and wealth disparity of the United States.

On human rights concerns, Chinese diplomats say that China better protects human rights than the United States, where many unsheltered people die without getting proper medical treatment. This year’s Chinese report states that there are 550,000 homeless people in the United States. China’s claim sounds convincing. But it is hard to trust as the discrimination of minority ethnic groups and ever-widening wealth disparity in China is not reported accurately. Chinese media or civic groups do not address human rights conditions there.

China claims to advocate democracy, but when there are rumors that a promising politician has disappeared and is imprisoned, no media outlets report it. If the Chinese government wants to keep something secret, it cannot be searched on the internet. Autonomy of the people and human dignity are often ignored.

The United States cannot be described as a perfect human rights state, but the American public at least knows what’s going on and what their problems are.


Korean history textbooks are displayed on a bookshelf. [AP/YONHAP]

Western democracies are different from countries with their own take on democracy — such as China — as they are based on liberal democratic values. Choi June-sun, a professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University Law School, explains the difference between democracy and liberal democracy. “In a democracy, the citizens exercise power. Liberalism is the philosophy of individuals having rights to choices and duty of responsibilities to pursue self-realization for the future. Liberal democracy is the democracy that guarantees this.”

In “Political Liberalism,” American political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) traced the origin of liberalism from the 16th- and 17th-century religious reform and consequent religious tolerance. The basic spirit is the liberation from the dogmatic violence of killing or imprisoning those with different beliefs. If he is right, the history of liberalism is 200 years longer than democracy, where citizens are the owners of the nation.

In the proposed guideline for a history textbook, some critics have complained that liberal democracy is replaced with just democracy. The phrases in question are “understand the development process of democracy in Korea” in the middle school textbook and “understand the peaceful regime change after the June Democratization Movement and the development of democracy” in the high school textbook. According to the guideline, the textbooks need to focus on the state power structure and the election system.

If this is changed to “understand the development process of liberal democracy,” the textbook can contain the anti-liberal history of the persecution of political rivals, oppression of basic civil rights, restriction of freedom of philosophy, tortures and massacres, forced media mergers and press control, not to mention the great civil journey to correct the faults.

Schools need to teach liberal democracy properly. Only then can students learn how terrible the intelligence agencies’ manipulation of public opinion, blacklisting cultural and artistic figures and presidential abuse of power are. Only then can they grow up to be citizens who know the danger of power abuse and online trolling.

JoongAng Sunday, May 5~6, Page 34
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