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Democracy in China: They Just Say No

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Through the Looking Glass

Chinese values exist in a parallel universe, one in which our white is their black and their black our white. The United States and China can form a symbiotic relationship, one that benefits mankind and stabilizes the rest of the century, but only if the U.S. rejects cultural absolutism. When we open our eyes to how they perceive things, we will not like what we see. But we have no choice, unless we prefer conflict to coexistence.

China is not evolving toward democracy in the Western sense (i.e., one-man-one-vote, not merely distaste for corruption). Even more unsettling to Americans is that new-generation Chinese, in some ways so much "like us," do not want democracy. We advertising folk fancy ourselves quasi-anthropologists, perched at the intersection of commerce and culture. During my nine years in Shanghai, I have learned how to sell Nikes to mainland teenagers (avoid U.S.-style brash rebellion) and HSBC Premier accounts to the nouveau riche (alchemize superior service into status projection). By probing minds for "insight" -- i.e., deep motivations that explain behavior -- we can sell more Kellogg's cold cereal and Lipton milk tea. But we can also, almost inadvertently, uncover riddles that lie at the heart of China's surging, irrepressibly dynamic economy.

Like the United States, China boasts an upwardly mobile population and continental scale. Its burgeoning highway system looks and feels just like ours. But China's worldview is radically different from America's. To ensure a harmonious 21st century, we must avoid rash assumptions that Chinese, in their hearts, want to become Americans. They want to be modern. They want to be international. But they don't want to be Western. And this isn't just because the Communist Party says so.

There are three reasons why democracy, within the next several decades, will not take root in the PRC.

Learning from Others:
First, and most circumstantial, the Chinese look around at what democracy has wreaked in non-Western nations, and they are not amused. In their eyes, the Russian economy collapsed under the weight of democratic folly and only regained momentum with the strong arm of Vladimir Putin. India's vibrant elections are regarded as the cause of its dilapidated infrastructure and bloated bureaucracy, not the cure. And the natural disasters hammering Indonesia, from tsunamis to earthquakes, are almost seen as omens of heavenly displeasure.

Cultural Imperatives: Second, Tang Dynasty poetry, checkerboard city layouts, calligraphy, gaudy neo-rococo interiors, Hello Kitty clubs, the Cults of Mao and Yao, porcelain cups and "Buick hip" did not pop up by accident. China boasts a cultural blueprint that stretches back 5,000 years, and it is not democracy-friendly. The country, pounded year after year by drought, famine and invasion, has always regarded the (outside) world as dangerous. It has never taken survival for granted and, when threatened, defends its turf through ruthless mobilization of resources, both material and human. Chinese philosophy and religion are, therefore, morally relativistic (ends justify means). Each strand mandates stability and balance, never sanctioning "pursuit of happiness." Universal human rights are dangerous, not noble.

As encapsulated in the ba gua and Yi Jing, Daoism's universe has an exquisite natural design, and man must never tinker with it, lest chaos erupt. Confucianism, the elaborate hierarchical code dictating human interaction, concerns societal order. In both, the basic productive unit of society is the clan, not the individual. As a result, even today, basic property rights are a subject of debate. Broader individual rights, the propagation of which underpins democratic institutions such as independent judiciaries and capital markets, are regarded with suspicion. (In the PRC, diamond engagement rings have caught on because they represent enduring commitment, not romantic love. Western marriage is seen as narcissistic.)

Trust in Leadership:
Third, to the Chinese, robust central authority is efficiency's linchpin. That's why behemoth brands are revered -- Microsoft is trusted more than Mao -- and challenger brands usually fail. Singapore's "managed democracy," not Western liberalism, is often cited as a model for political reform. True, many admire the stability of America's political structure, but few acknowledge--or even grasp--the link between bottom-up, representative democracy and U.S.-style "checks and balances."

Therefore, the middle class, perhaps 10 percent of the total population, is not itching for democratic reform. Yes, they demand protection of financial interests. They rail against corruption, particularly at the provincial and municipal levels. They might even stage a protest or two. However, in Han eyes, any weakening of central command militates against stable economic advancement. Indeed, the majority of young, educated mainlanders endorse President Hu Jintao's technocratic savvy and support his government's authoritarianism.

Is All Lost?

Are we doomed to clash with a budding superpower? No. The Chinese are, if nothing else, supremely pragmatic (in its understated way, the Party is saying no to both North Korea and Iran) and blessed with an expansive worldview. They recognize their own interests are furthered via integration with multilateral institutions such as the WTO (compliance, on the whole, has been laudable) and the WHO (for the first time, its director-general, Margaret Chan, is Chinese). They are masters of relentless incrementalism, as both the gradual-yet-inexorable depreciation of renminbi and steady crawl up the manufacturing-value chain attest.

But the Chinese economy and government will continue to evolve at a pace and in a direction that accommodates cultural imperatives and contemporary circumstances. Any hectoring about human rights, let alone Jeffersonian democracy, will elicit wan, tired smiles. However, if we are able to help the Chinese understand the relationship between, say, "rule of law" and efficient capital allocation, mainland audiences will listen. They may even bestow the title "Friend of China" upon shrewd Western leaders who know one country cannot shape another in its own image.

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