BEIJING: Whatever the effects of political turmoil in Thailand, they are not helping the cause of democracy in China. The images of pro-democracy protesters and the subsequent military crackdown in downtown Bangkok have been openly shown in Chinese media without any apparent bias. Indeed, there is no need to embellish the political message for China.
If a relatively well-off and religious country known as the “land of smiles” can so rapidly degenerate into bloody class warfare, what would happen if the Chinese Communist Party lost its monopoly on power? It is not hard to imagine a Chinese-style red-shirt rebellion, with populist leaders tapping resentment and hot-headed youth torching symbols of power and privilege in Beijing. If multi-party democracy leads to violent and uncompromising electoral blocs, then most reflective people will prefer one-party rule that ensures social stability.
Still, it would be a mistake for the Chinese government to treat the events in Thailand as an excuse to postpone political reform. The gap between rich and poor is about the same in both countries, and there are tens of thousands of class-based “illegal disturbances” in China every year.
The Chinese government is promoting social welfare in the countryside, but it must also give more institutional expression to social grievances. That requires more representation by farmers and workers in the National People’s Congress and sub-national legislative organs, more freedom for public-spirited journalists to investigate cases of social injustice, and more freedom for civic organizations to act on behalf of the environment and those who do not benefit from economic reform.
Can China open up without going the way of multi-party rule? In fact, the great nineteenth-century British political thinker John Stuart Mill advocated liberal government without multi-party rule. In his classic work Considerations on Representative Government, he denounced “the shibboleth of the party.” In a democracy, the party of the majority is most likely to be constituted by those “who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class interest.”
Instead of multi-party politics, Mill favored democratic elections constrained by such mechanisms as extra votes for the educated and institutional mechanisms to protect the rights of minorities. In Mill’s view, an open society ruled mainly by educated elites is the most desirable form of government.
In a similar vein, the Confucian tradition has long emphasized the value of political meritocracy. Confucius himself emphasized that everybody should have an equal opportunity to be educated. But not everybody will emerge with an equal ability to make informed moral and political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political process is to select those with above-average morality and ability. In subsequent Chinese history, the meritocratic ideal was institutionalized by means of the Imperial examination system.
Confucians do not oppose electoral democracy, but they argue that it must be constrained by meritocratically selected political leaders who look after the interests of non-voters. Democracies can do a good job of representing the interests of voters, but nobody represents the interests of non-voters — including future generations and foreigners (consider global warming) — who are affected by government policies. That should be the task of meritocratically selected elites.
As it happens, the Chinese Communist Party is becoming more meritocratic. Since the 1980s, an increasing proportion of new cadres have university degrees, and cadres are promoted partly on the basis of examinations. But choosing educated elites is only part of the story.
The elites are also supposed to rule in the interest of all, and to allow for their voices to be heard. In practice, it means a more open and representative political system, but not necessarily multi-party politics.
Daniel A. Bell is Professor of Political Theory at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and author of China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.