THE BLOG
10/22/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Misled Democracy Could Jeopardize Hong Kong's Future

Anthony Kwan via Getty Images
china focus

SHANGHAI -- There is so much confusion and misconception about the democratization of developing countries, that Hong Kong's citizens run the risk of being misled. This could jeopardize Hong Kong's future unless there is a national campaign to educate the general public about the realities of democratization.

In late June, in a picturesque mountain resort on the outskirts of Munich in Germany, the famous Marshall Forum held a seminar on China. This author gave a talk on the rise of China and its international influence. After the speech, a European scholar asked: "When do you think China will achieve democratization?" I responded: "how would you define democratization?" He seemed a little impatient: "It's very simple: one person one vote, general election, multiple political parties who take turns to be in power." Then, he added, "At least this is based on our European values."

I said I fully understood and respected European values, but then reminded the questioner: "China also has its own values, one of which is to seek truth from facts." I went on to say: "We have been searching through the historical facts for quite some time, in fact, I have visited more than one hundred countries, but we have not found one single example of a developing country achieving modernization through democratization as you defined it.

INDIA IS WAY BEHIND

At this moment, an American scholar injected in a loud voice: "India." Then I asked him: "Have you been to India, sir?" He said no. I explained: "I've been to India twice, crisscrossing the country from north to south, and then from east to west. My opinion is that India lags behind China by at least 20 years, or even 30 years. The magnitude and extent of poverty I witnessed in just the two cities of Mumbai and Calcutta, adds up to more than all the poverty I have seen in China for the last 20 years."

Another scholar said: "Botswana." I asked: "Have you been there?" "No," he replied. I said, "I have. Not only that, I was privileged to have met the President of Botswana. It is a small country with a population of only 1.7 million. Botswana did indeed implement a Western democratic system with no major upheaval. This country is very rich in resources, and has a relatively simple ethnic composition. But even with such favorable conditions, Botswana is still a very poor developing country with an average life expectancy of less than 40 years!"

"What about Costa Rica?" Another scholar asked. "Have you ever been there?" The answer was again "No." The author added: "I visited Costa Rica in 2002. That too is a small country with a population of just 4 million. Compared with other countries in Central America, Costa Rica has a relatively stable political system, and is quite strong economically speaking, with more than 90 percent of the population of European descent.

Altogether, Costa Rica has a pretty high starting point. Unfortunately, Costa Rica is still a rather backward country. There is a big gap between the rich and the poor, with 20 percent of the population still living in poverty. Its capital San Jose gives an impression of a big village with lots of tin houses and slums."

WHERE DEMOCRACY HAS FAILED

After that I took the offensive and asked: "Would you like for me to cite examples of failures in the application of western style democratization in developing countries? I could cite 10, 20, or 30 or more examples." I went on to talk about democracies established under the stewardship or heavy influence of the United States such as the Philippines, Liberia, Haiti and today's Iraq.

At this point, some listeners began nodding, some shook their heads, but no one stood up and offered a counter argument. After that, I challenged the participants: "All of you are from developed countries, can you give me just one example of which developed country achieved democratization either before or during modernization?" Again no one answered.

WOMEN ONLY GOT TO VOTE IN SWITZERLAND IN 1971

Thereupon I said: "African Americans only had discrimination removed from their right to vote as late as 1965; in Switzerland, women won their right to vote in 1971! If the West wants to promote a revolutionary conversion to the western style of democracy to the rest of the world, perhaps it would help if there is a clear explanation as to why the democratization processes that have taken place in the West have, without exception, all followed a gradual evolutionary path, and were only fully realized after successfully achieving modernization. When we all have thoroughly investigated the above phenomenon and understood the answers, then and only then might we be able to find a common language with which to discuss the issue."

After that, I brought up a purely hypothetical situation: "If China were to adopt universal suffrage today, what would happen?" Assuming that there will be no civil war or the breaking apart of China into four or five pieces, China will likely elect a government favored by the farmers because the farmers have by far the largest majority. I have no bias towards the farmers because practically all Chinese are descendants of farmers from no more than three or four generations ago. Even Chairman Mao Zedong who led numerous farmer's revolutions said: "The issue is with educating the farmers." Without that, a government elected by the farmers may not be able to lead a great modernized nation. I would think that all of you probably understand this better than I do."

LIMITED VS. UNLIMITED PARTICIPATION

In fact, if anyone were to take the time to read a few of the introductory books on the concepts of Western democracy, you will find that most of the gurus on Western democracy, from Montesquieu to Schumpeter, are not in favor of democracy for the sake of democracy. They all felt that democracy is just a program, an arrangement, a rule of the game, and is characterized by "limited participation" rather than "unlimited participation."

Of course there are idealists like Rousseau, calling for relentless revolution to achieve complete democratic rights for the people. For this, France paid a very heavy price. In the end, what was achieved was not Rousseau's desired pure democracy, but rather the pragmatic application of democracy as a tool.

University of Pennsylvania professor Edward Mansfield and Columbia University professor Jack Schneider recently published a book, "Election to Conflict -- Why Emerging Democracies Go to War." The basic point of the book is: The process of going towards the Western democratic model is a likely cause of internal conflict or external war, because politicians would like to play a "populist" card, as it is easy to get votes.

Throughout the 1990s, war began soon after various countries held free elections: war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ecuador and Peru, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as the massacre in Burundi and Rwanda, causing the loss of more than one million lives, and of course the painful division and war at Yugoslavia. I visited all the countries of the former Yugoslavia last year, the number killed in the war in Bosnia alone, was over 10 million people by the most conservative estimate! It had the largest number of war casualties in Europe after World War II.

Look at China. By going its own way, the size of its economy increased tenfold in less than 30 years. The quality of life amongst its general population has significantly increased. There are still a variety of problems, some quite serious, but China's rise is there for the whole world to see. The majority of the Chinese people are optimistic about the future of the country. China's relative success has won it the precious right for its leaders to speak up. In other words, China can now discuss various issues with the West on an equal basis which is: If you are right, I shall listen to you; but if you are wrong, you'd better listen to me. If China had blindly accepted all the suggestions from the West, it is quite possible that China would have long disintegrated.

ARE CHINESE "DEMOCRATIC" PAGANS?

The same principle applies to the issue of democratization. The West seems to have trouble getting rid of this, "I am orthodox, others are pagan" mode of thinking. This mode of thinking historically has led to countless wars, and it almost destroyed Western civilization itself. The West should have learned a lot from these extremely expensive and painful lessons, but the West, especially the United States, does not seem to have done so. If the West really wants to promote democracy in developing countries, it should sum up the history of its own democratic development.

One key issue is the order of the democratization process: The natural evolution of the Western democratic societies could be summed up this way: The first step is to develop the economy and the educational system. The second step is the establishment of the general culture for the citizens and the rule of law. The last step is democratization. If the above order is out of place, a society has to pay a severely heavy price. Now, the West is asking the Third World to achieve democratization in one step. This is the equivalent of making the final step the first or merging all three steps into one. The end result would be chaos.

This piece also appeared in China US Focus.

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