04/01/2014 03:23 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2014

Helmut Schmidt: 'I Would Not Sell Democracy To The Chinese' -- Part I

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Recently, the Chinese scholar Wang Hui sat down for a conversation with Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s elder statesman, in Hamburg.

Until 2007, Wang Hui was editor of the influential journal, Dushu, and is author of the seminal four-volume study, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought.” Helmut Schmidt, 95, was chancellor of Germany from 1974-1982 and visited China several times to meet Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

A version of this conversation appeared in Chinese in

PART I: “I Would Not Sell Democracy to the Chinese”

WANG HUI: I need your wisdom on this issue. The debate over political reform is raging not only among intellectuals, but within the Communist Party itself. Everybody knows that political reform is needed. But how can it be carried out? What will be your suggestion for the political reform in China?

HELMUT SCHMIDT: (Joking) Thank God I am not in the place of Xi Jinping! There are too many problems at the same time. On the one hand I think it is astonishing and encouraging that you are required to change the leadership every 10 years and that you replace the elder leaders by younger ones. Nobody stays in power any more as long as Mao of Deng.

On the other hand as a foreigner, as the European as I am, I really have no in depth knowledge of Xi Jinping, and I don’t know what kind of people he has surrounded himself with.

WANG: What about the political party system?

SCHMIDT: I think that Deng was not clear enough when he said “yes we want a democratic nation, but with Chinese characteristics.” What that meant was unclear. What are the Chinese characteristics? I think you have to find your own way, and you are already an important factor of the world’s economy whether you like it or not.

It is a fact and you cannot stop your reform and opening up which relies for now by growing through exporting. If you try, you will create tens of millions of unemployed people. What you are doing wrong to the world’s economy with your trade surplus is only a little less wrong than the Germans. We have a greater surplus in our balance of trade than you. It’s ridiculous.

WANG: You said that it is very difficult for Xi Jinping because he is in a very complicated situation with so much that needs to be done at the same time. Some people in China have different views about political reform.

Some want to copy the Western multi-party system. Others argue that China needs democracy at the local level and some mechanism on the top level, but not necessarily elections at the national level. What is your suggestion in this respect?

SCHMIDT: Democracy is not the end point of mankind. There may be developments in many different directions in the coming centuries. Democracy has only existed for about 200 years. It started out with the American Declaration of Independence. The Americans got their ideas from the Europeans, in the main from the French, the Dutch and the British.

But democracy has a number of serious failures. For instance, you have to be elected every four years and you have to be re-elected after the next four years. So you try to tell the people what they would like to hear. The multi-party system is not the crown of progress, but it is the best we have right now. I would fight for maintaining it, but I would not sell it to the Chinese.

"Democracy has a number of serious failures. For instance, you have to be elected every four years and you have to be re-elected after the next four years. So you try to tell the people what they would like to hear. The multi-party system is not the crown of progress, but it is the best we have right now. I would fight for maintaining it, but I would not sell it to the Chinese."

The British have sold it to the Indians and to the Pakistanis and the Dutch tried to sell it to the Indonesians. Democracy is not really working in India. I would not tell the Egyptians to introduce democracy; nor would I pitch it to the other Muslim countries like Malaysia, Iran and Pakistan. It is a Western invention. It was not invented by Confucius. It was invented by Montesquieu and by other Frenchmen. It was invented by John Locke and by the Dutch people.

WANG: Very few Western leaders talk about these issues like you do.

SCHMIDT: That does not necessarily mean that I am wrong.

The critical thing about Western democracy is the fact that you usually have a transition of power without bloodshed. That is an enormous advantage. But still democracy as we know it was only invented recently in the West, historical speaking. It did not really work in ancient Rome. It functioned for less than 200 years in ancient Athens. And then it had not functioned in any other country in the world until the Americans declared independence from the British monarchy.

Even in the time of Pericles in ancient Athens you had slaves. You had to be a citizen of Athens, and for every citizen of Athens there were at least three people who did not have the right to vote and at least one third were slaves.

Even in America, slavery was officially accepted until the middle of the 19th century. The Civil War in the American democracy was about slavery. Don’t forget that. And by the middle of this century you will see that the Mexicans and their children and the Afro-Americans and their children will together be one half of the American electorate. And whoever is president will have to play to the ears of these electors. America will change from a world power into something different. China will also change. And whether you become a democracy or not remains to be seen. My feeling is that you will not become a democracy.

WANG: In both the multiparty system in the West and the system of multiparty cooperation under one party rule in China, the representative-ness of political parties have diminished. Most parties today look like state-parties where the spoils are doled out tot he organized special interests that have captured the state. Parties are no longer politial organizations representing various social forces.

The Chinese Communist Party, for instance, is no longer the Communist Party in its 20th century sense. It is a state party in the sense that it is almost completely integrated into the framework of the state, and functions as such, rather than as a political organization. And this has occurred across the world. What we witness is the political system detaching itself from society.

We need to think of a different kind of politics. Democracy is a very positive value, but it is not for everybody. In this sense, I do not align myself with liberal democrats, nor traditional socialism.

Many might believe that the Communist Party still recognizes socialism as positive, and that we can convert the Party back to its earlier tradition. This is impossible, because there are so many different interest groups within the Party. When the Party is no longer the representative of the people, we need autonomous organizations of workers and peasants and other social organizations to express their voice in policy-making in the public sphere. I call these “post-parties.” And we need all policy to be made not only by the Party, but also by the Congress that represents broader interests.

Do you think that we may see the emergence of a “post party” system?

SCHMIDT: You are certainly in a post-communist system but you have not entered the new era. I also doubt that you will remain a one party system either. A great event can always happen. In the history of China you endured many enormous changes and I'm sure you will in the future as well.

WANG: What is your comment on the power of the media in the contemporary world?

SCHMIDT: Right now, they are too powerful. I believe in the representative type of democracy. The media are undermining that type of democracy. Particularly since the computerization of the world, the impact of media has grown enormously. The printed books and the printed media have become less important. Why should somebody read Laozi or Confucius if he can Google?

WANG: Developments in the media seem to have made politics more difficult. With the internet you get the instant reaction to what you did. This is also a big challenge for Chinese politicians. There is a paradox. On the one hand, because of the outcry on Weibo the Chinese government may sound stubborn and unresponsive. But sometimes the government has made too many compromises, the results of which were not necessarily good, in order to please public opinion.

SCHMIDT: Also in China, the government needs to please the people.

WANG: Now very much so.