In the Western Liberal tradition, the right to vote, freedom of worship, and a free press usually constitute the essence of “democracy.” But when citizens actually vote, they are electing officials funded by a small group of wealthy individuals who own the media, thus molding public opinion. The result of free and open elections in most countries usually means that one (conservative) or the other (liberal) political party forms a government whose policies are designed to maintain the existing social order and institutions that serve the privileged few at the top of the social pyramid, and the regime becomes in reality less benevolent as we descend the social pyramid. Is this democracy designed to serve all of the people, a democracy the West wants to export to China and the world?
Does it mean the same thing to the life of a millionaire in a large western Chinese city vs. a miner, a peasant, a dissident intellectual to label the regime “authoritarian” or “totalitarian”? And is it not true that a single mother living in the projects in any large Western city does not have the same view of the degree to which the government of her country is benevolent in comparison with a millionaire’s view of the government, a millionaire enjoying the privileges society offers him? Does not social class largely influence how the individual sees society and its institutions?
Many scholars have raised this issue about regimes from ancient times to the present. Gustave Glotz, Ancient Greece at Work (1926) and Robert Flaceliere, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles (1965) argued that Athens during the Golden Age of Pericles served the interests of the commercial class to the detriment of slaves, metics (foreigners) and of course workers and peasants who were free citizens but whose social status precluded them from effectively enjoying the benefits of democracy. Although Athenian Democracy served a handful of male citizens to the detriment of the vast majority of the population of Athens, many in the non-privileged groups enjoyed freedoms that were unheard of in other city-states like Sparta.
The same issue that Glotz and Flaceliere raised about Athenian democracy under Pericles can be raised today about societies that define themselves “democratic” and judge others to be authoritarian. Radio Free Europe and other US government agencies and communications networks list China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Pakistan as authoritarian. The Nobel Peace Price this year went to a Chinese dissident, indicating to send a message to Beijing about its refusal to permit freedom of expression. There are those who in fact maintain that China remains totalitarian because it has a single political party and restricts basic individual freedoms. I will not bore readers with encyclopedic definitions because there are different definitions for these terms by different scholars, and I have no doubt people have their own definitions based on their ideological convictions.
Authoritarianism is a term that historically has been linked to regimes with conservative, pro-status quo policies, imposing restrictions on basic freedoms, civil rights and human rights. Authoritarian regimes operated in but were not limited to Eastern Europe and Balkans, especially during the interwar era. Latin America, Africa and some places in Asia in the post-WWII era were under US-backed authoritarian regimes that enjoyed the backing of the military and traditional elites, and suppressed political opposition to the one-party state. In contrast to authoritarianism, the term totalitarian that implies a police state is a product of the early Cold War and used in American text books and officially by the government to identify the Communist bloc with the Axis powers that Communists helped to defeat. To this day, many people, especially in the US, fail to see the difference between Communist regimes and Fascist or Nazi, and some bunch together military dictatorships that lack any coherent ideology with regimes driven by ideology. This is indeed the case with Republican Tea Party activists trying to deflect focus from their own extreme right-wing positions so that their opponents will not link them to Fascism.
Where does China of the early 21st century fit in politically and ideologically? Is Marxist ideology the driving force behind Chinese political, economic, and social policy today, or is it such a mixed bag of influences in every domain of public affairs that it is difficult to label China as having a single coherent ideology? How does China as a society compare with Taiwan, for example, that also had an authoritarian tradition and gradually evolved into a more pluralistic society?
To develop a strong capitalist economy, Taiwan as well as South Korea transitioned from an authoritarian state to the current multi-party structure free election model that the West loves to praise. But is “democracy” the same in Taiwan and South Korea as it is in Norway, and for that matter is democracy in Norway the same as it is in US? Is there a single model of democracy, and if so, is it the US model?
Like all societies whose regime and institutions are influenced by non-native ideologies, China from the Napier Mission in 1834 designed to open markets to British trade, mainly opium that led to the Opium War, until Mao’s forces defeated Western imperialism in 1949, suffered massive social problems with endemic poverty, narcotics, prostitution, crime and above all the degradation of foreign exploitation that ravaged all parts of China. Rebuilding institutions on the manner that Mao and the Chinese Communist officials at the central government and local levels understood and interpreted Marxism was an experiment that had social costs and benefits, and represented as much continuity as it did change.
Chinese philosophers (Wing-Tsin Chan, Chinese Philosophy), maintain that the value system that evolved under Maoist China was built on the existing quilt of various philosophies and values (mainly Confucian), admittedly much more collectivist and far less individualistic than what Westerners preferred from ancient Athens to modern America. Collectivism is a deeply rooted ancient value in society and a part of what some Chinese philosophers believe constitutes the cultural heritage that they define as “democratic, scientific, and people-oriented” (Wing-Tsin Chan, 780-781). Writing in the 1960s and influenced by East Asian scholar John King Fairbanks, Immanuel C. Y. Hsu writes: “Historical continuity manifests itself in many ways. The once sacrosanct imperial ruler is replaced by a defied party leader, and the old bureaucracy by party elite and cadre. Political indoctrination to ensure conformity of thought can be construed as a modern variation of the ideological orthodoxy of Confucianism.” (The Rise of Modern China, 1970) In short, historical continuity is inevitable in society while social discontinuity takes a very long time to evolve.
China of the early 21st century is much more diverse, complex, and much more open to Western influences than it was 40 years ago when Hsu was writing. There are in China certain freedoms, including travel, seeking employment, buying homes and commodities, starting a business, becoming wealthy, immigrating, and expressing ideas within established perimeters. As long as there is no social unrest or active and open government opposition, does the Chinese regime really care what the individual thinks, what religion they practice, what they do in their private lives that are becoming increasingly like those of Westerners for those immersed in the spirit of hedonistic values and pop culture? Of course, China is still practicing restrictive policies in some cases very repressive toward minorities. But to a certain degree so do “Western democracies” or countries that the US actively supports and labels “democratic” but that the UN lists as egregiously violating human rights–Israel for example.
China is certainly no open society when it comes to permitting public debate on the need for a multi-party system, and it opposes social-political opposition designed to challenge the one-party state. But to some degree this is also true in countries that label themselves “democratic,” but they employ very subtle mechanisms of silencing the opposition, including everything from elaborate and rigid legal and judicial system to a media that reflects official policy and challenges the regime only within the system. While absolute freedom of speech, expression and worship are indeed great for a society to practice and all societies have restrictions that regiment freedoms allowing them to operate within an existing framework, a much more fundamental question for China, indeed all societies, is the degree to which social justice exists and the state is benevolent.
Freedom in any form is great, but you cannot eat freedom if you are unemployed and penniless, you cannot use freedom as shelter, you cannot buy life’s necessities with it, you cannot buy good legal assistance when in trouble as do the wealthy, you cannot educate your children with it; all you can do is celebrate freedom for its own sake while others are enjoying the tangible privileges of freedom. What good is the freedom to speak publicly when the institutions are not listening because you live on society’s margins? What good is democracy if by invoking its noble cause the state launches wars against other countries?
Ireland has democracy within its own traditions and institutions, but what does it mean to the millions now threatened with loss of jobs and lower income? The essential question is whether in China today the lives of people in general are better off than they were when it was divided into spheres of influence by Western imperialist nations selling everything from Jesus to opium and ravaging the country while delivering the gospel of Christ and commerce, while depriving the nation and its people of a future. With all its faults as a statist country that imposes restrictions on the individual and group opposition, China today has a better future than many western democracies. The solutions for China’s problems cannot come from the US or the Nobel Commission, they cannot be exported from the West like automobiles and corn, but can only come from the Chinese people who will determine their own destiny within the context of their own traditions and institutions.