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‘China seeks different democracy from West’

Following China’s economic rise, the world is keeping watch over its system of government, and how it has successfully adapted to the international capitalist environment from socialism.

China’s political development is thought to have far-reaching consequences for Korea in diplomacy, trade and people exchanges, as bilateral relations are deepening.

According to Wang Shaoguang, professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, China pursues a different kind of democracy from the West, one he claims not only serves people’s needs better, but is capable of solving the evolving challenges of the globe.

Wang has criticized for decades the “modernization theory” of Western scholarship, which assumes that economic development will spark democratic reforms. Criticizing the theory as culturally hegemonic, he instead argues that each nation pursue its own polity based on traditions.

“Three decades earlier, in reference to communist repression, the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said there’s no other political alternative to Western democracy,” Wang said at a seminar, “China’s democracy under Xi Jinping,” at Sungkyunkwan University on Tuesday.

“But the world has since witnessed a flourishing of different political structures at the blight of liberal democracy. Many studies have demonstrated unique aspects of East Asian politics within Confucian culture.”

Wang is an internationally acclaimed scholar on Chinese politics, having received his bachelor’s law degree from Peking University and doctorate of political science from Cornell University. He has taught at Yale University, as well as Tsinghua University and Chongqing University in China.

Professor Lee Hee-ok, who teaches Chinese politics at Sungkyunkwan University, and heads the “Good Democracy in Asia Project,” said that Wang’s perspective sheds light on China’s aspirations as well as the future of regional politics.

The true meaning of democracy, according to Wang, is that people become owners of their destiny. As to what the ownership means and its method, nations and regions will have varying interpretations, he said.

The adjective in front of the word democracy ― for example, liberal, social, parliamentary or participatory ― expresses each country’s unique circumstances; China’s political style is not unconventional, as there has been a wide variety of experimentations throughout history, he said. 

(From left) Panelists Chun Sung-heung, Wang Shaoguang, Lee Hee-ok and Kang Miong-sei speak at the seminar, “China’s democracy under Xi Jinping,” at Sungkyunkwan University on Tuesday. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)
(From left) Panelists Chun Sung-heung, Wang Shaoguang, Lee Hee-ok and Kang Miong-sei speak at the seminar, “China’s democracy under Xi Jinping,” at Sungkyunkwan University on Tuesday. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

In contrast to the West’s “representative” democracy, which focuses on the formal electoral process and entitles politicians as the guardian of popular interest, China has a “representational” democracy, which tries to substantiate needs by having an “able, accountable, accessible and autonomous” government.

The CPC’s top leader ― president, general secretary and military chairman ― is selected through a rigorous process after proving competence in regional posts.

“A good government is one that works, and can respond to the actual demands,” Wang said. In advising a more open-minded and open-ended understanding of democracy, he stressed that the more important question should be centered on the good governance.

He added that even after people’s income rises significantly in China, the concept of good governance will not shift toward the Western model.

The way the Chinese leadership addresses demands is through the “mass line” ― equivalent to the West’s “citizen participation” ― where party cadres live and work at selected units to cultivate people’s lifestyles and living conditions.

The mass line has seen a revival under President Xi Jinping, Wang said, adding that members of the Politburo Standing Committee ― China’s de facto decision-making body ― conduct monthly field investigations outside of Beijing, while lower-ranking officials conduct them more frequently.

Xi spent his teenage years in Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), where millions of youths, called the Red Guards, were “sent down” from cities to the countryside to learn rural ways of life.

In a fierce debate that followed, Korean scholars critiqued Wang’s view, echoing the Western scholarship perspective.

“The core concern of today’s academia is upgrading the quality of democracy,” said Kang Miong-sei, director of think-tank Sejong Institute. “As China’s per capita income rises from the current $7,500 to over $15,000 mark, its democracy should move from being party-centered to people-centered, and supply-driven to demand-driven. The party should let people speak and decide.”

Chun Sung-heung, professor of political science at Sogang University in Seoul, chimed in, saying that “Despite professor Wang’s assertion that China’s democracy is pragmatic and substantive, I do not believe China practices democracy.”

He added, “Democracy is an institution that allows people to exercise their rights. What China seeks is a system that manages the stability and development of the state and society.”

Wang, while referring to political philosophers Aristotle and Montesquieu, who warned the danger of elected officials becoming oligarchs, counterargued by criticizing the weakness of Western democracy.

“Should democracy focus on the individual or the group? The democracies of Athens, the Roman Republic and the Italian city-states always existed in relation to the larger society and state.”

The Community Party of China, which has ruled since 1949 in a one-party dictatorship, serves people’s needs in harmony with the society’s long-term goals, claimed Wang. He cited the high support for the government by the Chinese people ― validated empirically across age and time ― which runs counter to the notion that the government is authoritarian.

The modern liberal democracy is in a quagmire, he emphasized, because citizens often do not vote rationally; the vested bipartisan structure is inapt at representing voters’ interests; and politicians are not held accountable to their pledges.

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)
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