In a “mini-debate” posted at Dissent Magazine, Daniel A. Bell and Michael Walzer contend the question: Should the international community do more to support democracy in China?
Bell establishes the parameters for the discussion by defining ‘democracy’ as “free and fair competitive elections at the national level” and ‘promotion’ to mean “moral criticism of a non-democratic status quo.” Unsurprisingly, given his other writings, Bell’s answer is no, and he argues this by comparing China to despicable regimes in Burma and Zimbabwe, while outlining five conditions which he feels do justify ‘moral criticism’ in the service of democratization.
I’ve listed the five below and sketched out Bell’s defense of the Chinese system with Walzer’s responses:
- The target country must be led by an outlaw regime. (Bell: Not when compared to the Burmese junta or the Robert Mugabe. Walzer: What is the threshold for moral criticism? Need it be so rigorous?)
- Outsiders can confidently predict that the rulers would lose democratic elections. (Bell: The urban elite LOVE the CCP. Walzer: If full political freedoms were granted, the CCP would lose power with two to three election cycles.)
- There is an obvious political alternative. (Bell: Been in China awhile and haven’t found one yet. Nobody seems to be getting organized. Walzer: Democratization is a long process and alternatives at their inception might not be so obvious when they develop in an authoritarian regime.)
- Regime change would improve the people’s material well-being. (Bell: China has lifted millions of out of poverty. Walzer: How would things such as independent labor unions or democratic political parties undercut economic growth in China?)
- The transition to democracy won’t be bad for foreigners by which Bell means “the rest of the world.” Bell: Democratically-elected leaders are bound by the narrow vision of their local constituents, whereas oligarchies made up of morally superior elites have the wisdom to think globally. Walzer: Democratization in a great power has benefits for its immediate neighbors citing Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, as well as (less convincingly) Georgia and Armenia.
In the end, Bell has narrowed the debate such that it’s a bit of a trap. He agrees with Walzer about “the need for more freedoms of speech and association in China,” but adds “the argument here is whether the international community should support national level elections in China: meaning that the democratically chosen leader would hold all the trump cards.”
Surely there is more to democracy than this? What of local or provincial elections? What about encouraging China to end its tight control on the media, permit open discussion of sensitive topics, allow for free assembly and the right to peacefully demonstrate, and to provide its citizens unhindered access to the courts to pursue these rights while at the same time freeing the judiciary to make decisions on the merits of the case rather than the political requirements of the local Party secretary? Do these not count as forms of democratization?
Looking at this question as a historian, I am struck by a few things not specifically touched upon in the original piece. First of all: What is and what is not a “truly awful” regime? Bell defines it here as one that violates “basic rights,” of which he lists one: ‘right to food and basic means of subsistence.’ This of course cuts to the heart of a larger debate: Is there a set of basic (inalienable, if you will) human rights to which all human beings are entitled and that cannot be sacrificed to satisfy other ends?
Viewed from another angle, that of historical comparison, how much credit should today’s CCP receive just because it’s less repressive than before? In a recent essay, Theodore Dalrymple describes how the Russian author Vladmir Voinovich once satirized (the sadly and recently departed) Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn for the latter’s romantic attachment to a pre-Soviet Russian nationalism.
“Voinovich was alluding to the fact that, were it not for the horrors of Bolshevism, the pre-revolutionary Russian political tradition would be regarded as so brutal that no sensitive person of good will could be a Russian nationalist. As it was, the Bolsheviks regularly killed in a few minutes more people than the Romanovs managed in a century, giving pre-revolutionary Russian history the retrospective luster of decency, wisdom, and compassion that it did not in the least deserve.”
This can go both ways. Hu Jintao is not Mao, but does the Chinese government and the Communist Party get a free pass because imprisoning dissenters seems quite minor compared to the millions who died and suffered under the Mao regime? Are we to commit ourselves to a moral race to the bottom, establishing the lowest common denominator of misery and suffering before finding the gumption to speak up and say “Enough”?
By way of wrapping up an admittedly disjointed essay composed of the orts and leavings of last night’s bedside reading, Orville Schell has this to say on China’s “Post-Olympic Challenge“:
“I fear that China’s leaders and people will continue to feel a certain gnawing, inchoate sense of deficiency and incompleteness in their quest for global respect until they find the strength to begin addressing the crucial, but elusive, issue of making China an ethical, as well as an economic and military, power. For a country steeped in millennia of Confucianism, the need for ethical leadership should be clear.
To fully address the question of the moral and ethical base of a new form of Chinese governance, China’s government and its people must be able to look back freely and come to terms with their recent history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the events of 1989, Tibet, and other sensitive issues. They must also freely be able to discuss the future and what kind of society they wish to see rise from the ashes of Mao’s revolution.
I make these somewhat critical observations about China not with any sense of moral superiority or a wish to relieve myself of the responsibility to level the same critique at my own country’s recent failures. As most of the world knows, America’s quest to maintain its claim to the title of “greatness,” has, of late, also been elusive.
Arriving from different staring points, both the United States and China now find themselves confronting a similar challenge: restoring global trust and respect. Their success inevitably requires directly confronting their evident moral failures.
If many of those same viewers who have been impressed by China’s successes in Beijing now also find themselves recoiling at the idea of a stronger and more prideful China, that is understandable. For strength unalloyed by checks and balances — and by a capacity for self-critical reflection about the rightness and wrongness of state action — can be unnerving. Many Americans, too, have recently had to learn this.”