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Democracy in China?
Wednesday, 04 July 2012 14:09

An old friend of mine recently assured me that the Chinese people are not interested in democracy.  They only want prosperity and stability.  He is of course an Australian businessman who has profited greatly from China's authoritarian capitalism.

I wonder how he interprets the recent protests in Hong Kong and China?

In the longstanding debates about Asian culture and values, some cultural theorists have argued that Confucianism and democracy are not compatible.  None other than Samuel Huntington believed that classical Confucianism is fundamentally antidemocratic, especially because it gives precedence to the group above the individual, and because of its family-oriented, patriarchal traditions, and its absence of a legal framework that stands above the state.

Against that Francis Fukuyama has noted that Confucianism's emphasis on education and tolerance are fully consistent with education.  In any event, two Confucian countries, Taiwan and Korea, have made remarkable transformations from autocratic to a democratic systems these past couple of decades.

Just last week marked 15 years since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.  China's President Hu Jintao made the trip to Hong Kong to swear in businessman CY Leung as the territory's new leader.  On this occasion, the annual pro-democracy march through the streets of Hong Kong was bolstered by anger towards Beijing.  Estimates of those who attended the rally range from 82,000 to 400,000 people, a big increase on previous years.  Supporters of the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned in mainland China, sat peacefully in the lotus position, before joining in the protest with their marching band.

The protesters list of grievances is long.  One-party rule in China.  Lack of democracy in Hong Kong.  The system used to choose Hong Kong's leader, which is designed to install Beijing's choice through a so-called electoral college of 1,200 business leaders and other influential citizens, mostly loyal to Beijing.  Justice and the rule of law -- the Chinese government is allegedly interfering with the workings of the Hong Kong government.  Record property prices.  An increasing wealth gap.  A string of political scandals.

Moving now to Shifang city in Sichuan, mainland China, officials have been forced to halt the construction of a copper alloy plant following violent protests by several thousand local residents and students over environmental and health concerns.

This is not the first time that protests over the environmental impact of heavy industry plants have broken out in China.  Last year, the authorities were forced to close a chemical plant in the north-eastern city of Dalian following similar protests.  The government sent out armed police and riot police.

Hundreds of villagers in Haining in Zhejiang province staged protests for three days in September 2011 against a solar panel factory after large numbers of fish turned up dead in a local river.  Villagers had accused the manufacturer of dumping toxic chemicals into the water.

China's growing middle class is increasingly worried about air and water pollution, and are concerned about the impact it will have on their children and are increasingly prepared to protest.

How do we assess all of this?

Political theorists would tell us that as a country develops a middle class, there would be a natural demand for democracy, freedom and good governance.  Then others would say that really does not apply to China.  As mentioned above, many argue that Chinese are more concerned with prosperity and stability than freedom.  And the Chinese Communist Party has co-opted the richer members of Chinese society by allowing them to join the Party, meaning that they are not likely to oppose the current system from which they benefit.

Much of this speculation ignores how the world has changed, and some of the lessons of the Arab Spring.  Hong Kong and mainland Chinese are now much better educated than they have ever been historically.  Thanks to the Internet, they are also very well-informed and connected to each other.  In particular, they are very well aware of China's massive gaps betwen rich and poor, grotesque corruption, human rights abuses and other abuses of power.

Also, notwithstanding their Confucian culture, Chinese people, especially youth, are not afraid to express their grievances.  All too often the central government will "point the finger" at guilty local officials, but it is not clear how long this will work.

One of the lessons of the Arab Spring (and all revolutions) is that a relatively small section of a population in an urban center or centers, if sufficiently motivated and mobilized, can carry out nationwide change.

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