When I lived in China, the evening news always followed a formula: ten minutes on instability in the rest of the world (labor protests in France! Monks running wild in Burma! Indian farmers lighting themselves on fire!); ten minutes on slow, systematic progress within China thanks to the stability created by the singular authority of the Communist Party; ten minutes on a dancing child or a kitten saved from a tree.
The news was formulaic and monotonous. It was also effective. My Chinese friends had all absorbed the general message: life is far from fair in China, but the Communist Party is keeping things stable. Without the Party, we will have nothing but chaos and misery. Democracy, I often heard, could be dangerous. What would a billion peasants vote for, if they were allowed to vote?
The Communist Party is, of course, far from alone in sending this message. Dictators and authoritarian regimes have long insisted that they alone insure the welfare of their subjects. Louis XV put things bluntly as he argued in favor of the French monarchy: Après moi, le deluge. Hosni Mubarak was just as blunt. (If he spoke French, we would have heard après moi, le Muslim Fraternité.) The ignorant, unwashed masses are turbulent; we're all better off with the status quo, protected by the enlightened and unelected few.
Are these dictators wrong? Chinese elites don't think so. Neither do some Americans. "A stable China," writes Helen Wang in Forbes, "is not only in the interest of the Chinese people, but also in the interest of the people of the world." John McCain agrees in his own way, labeling the Saffron Revolution a virus. And White House support for Mubarak lasted until he was completely cooked.
Democracy, it seems, is not such a good idea for certain people (though I don't know how Wang, McCain, or Joe Biden figure out which people).
Maybe the Chinese need Big Brother. Maybe they want him. After all, the country hasn't had so much as a democratic peep since all of this began. As one of my favorite bloggers put it, "there is no national opposition strong enough and organized enough to brew a cup of jasmine tea, let alone lead a Jasmine Revolution." (For a nice argument on the other side, check here).
Maybe Muslims need autocracy as well. Maybe stability means more than political freedom. Maybe some cultures or countries are just not capable of. . . of what? Responsible democracy?
One of my favorite students in China took the English name Machine. "I don't want to vote," he once told me. "I don't know enough about the world. I just want the leaders to do their best, and I trust them."
Machine is Beijing's kind of citizen. Washington D.C.'s too, perhaps.