Signposts to the Future – Elections

This is the third in a series of posts devoted to building a foundation on which to erect a reasoned prediction of China’s economic, social, and political future.


One of the questions I am frequently asked by Americans is some form of the following:  “Will they ever have elections in China?”  And I used to answer, “Hard to say.”  Now, however, my immediate thought is, ‘Why?’

As a young American I lived near a SAC base that was home to a squadron of nuclear-laden B-52s and, later, cruise missiles.  So I was well practiced at huddling under my elementary school desk in preparation for a potential Soviet nuclear invasion.  And I was well schooled in the knowledge that the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict were both fought over the need to contain Communism.  So I am well versed on the argument for democracy and sincerely in favor of the theory behind it.

As Yogi Berra so insightfully put it, however, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.  In practice there is.”  And so it is, in my experience, with popular elections.  Ideal in theory.  In practice, not so much.

In general I believe the Chinese feel similarly about their political system.  It may not be perfect but they’re in no hurry to replace it.

Commerce, commerce, everywhere.
Commerce, commerce, everywhere.

Most of the Chinese I have met in my time here, in fact, seem little interested in politics at all.  Part of the reason, of course, is that they’re simply too busy making money.  And part of the reason is the overwhelming pragmatism and self-awareness that is such a refreshing component of Chinese culture that often surfaces in a ‘be careful what you wish for’ perspective about such change in general.

Having said that, there are, in fact, nine officially recognized political parties in China, although the eight minority parties all take their cue from the Communist Party of China, or CPC.  And they do hold elections here, although only at the local level.  Still, it is believed by some that China is home to the largest democratically empowered constituency in the world.

It is true that the CPC can exert influence over local elections, but their methods for doing so are no more morally offensive than the election-fixing gerrymandering openly practiced by the U.S. political parties.

In the end, I have yet to hear any Chinese person opine for the right to vote.  The Chinese I have discussed the topic with over the years seem dumbfounded, understandably so, by the American party system and its constant vitriol, endemic paralysis, and circus-like political conventions.  Based solely on the headlines flowing out of Washington on a daily basis it is, on the surface, hard to justify that ours is the political system that all should aspire to.

Many still work tirelessly just to provide basic food and shelter.
Many still work tirelessly just to provide basic food and shelter.

The most commonly offered argument against broad-based popular elections in China is that a sizeable slice of the population is not yet educated enough to use the power of the vote effectively.  And while that is sometimes dismissed as an easy excuse, there is some merit in the argument.  At the very least, when so many people have yet to scale the first two rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (i.e. the need for shelter, food, and water) the odds of self-serving manipulation are greatly enhanced.

Privately, however, that is seldom the justification put forth by the Chinese with whom I have broached the topic.  Their arguments tend to fall into two categories.

The first has to do with the perception that a democratically elected government would, by definition, be weaker than the current one.  It’s an argument not without merit when you consider the current state of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the government shutdown recently witnessed in Washington, and the paralysis that has gripped Greece and other democratically elected governments in the European Zone.

And without a strong central government, the logic goes, “we’ll collapse in anarchy,” as one Chinese colleague put it.  “Look at our history.  Left to our own devices we fight.

Fair enough.

How would you organize a popular election among 1.3 billion people?
How would you organize a popular election among 1.3 billion people?

And if a U.S. presidential election costs $7 billion dollars and more than a full year of endless campaigning, what would it take in a country with 4 times as many voters who are less mobile, frequently working miles from their homes, and toiling in jobs that leave them little time to go to the polls.  Even if it could be pulled off there is little doubt that these realities would skew the results.  And what would they gain from that huge investment of time and money?

A better record of human rights?  This is a global issue that deserves our unwavering attention.  But to suggest that the Chinese own the problem is both unfair and disingenuous.  Whenever the U.S. releases a report critical of China’s human rights record China Daily has no difficulty compiling an equally lengthy and convincing counter-claim about the U.S.’s treatment of women, minorities, and the incarcerated youth, to name just a few of the categories in which the U.S. is open to some finger-wagging.

Corruption?  To be sure, I am no fan of corruption.  I know what it looks like, although I must quickly add that I run a fairly large business here and have never resorted to it.  Sometimes things take a little longer, but they always get done.  For every corrupt official there are scores of others who are simply doing their jobs and are genuinely committed to its eradication.

But is the West so immune from such influences, or do they just call it something else?  How is it that senior government officials can move so easily from their government posts to lucrative private sector jobs to which they bring little other than their access to government power?  How is it that an ex-president can make $150,000 per speech when a Nobel laureate receives a small fraction of that amount for performing the same duties?

More accountability to the people?  After witnessing it first hand I would suggest that the Chinese government is arguably more responsible to the needs of the people and society at large than most democratically elected governments.  They have, after all, lifted more than 300 million people out of poverty in less than a generation and they have raised the country from political and economic isolation to world power.

That, of course, may not require accountability.  I believe, nonetheless, that the Chinese government is ultimately more accountable to its people for the simple and logical reason that I call ‘the hostage factor.’

In a multi-party democracy, if those in political power are not accountable to their constituents the electorate can and will vote them out of office.  That is, however, a minor deterrent since they are not, in the end, thrown out of government and can use the next election to re-gain their power.  (Or go into the private sector and influence government affairs behind the scenes.)  It happens all the time.

Under a single-party system, on the other hand, the ruling estate faces the same dilemma a hostage-taker does.  A hostage provides leverage.  Until you make good on your threat and dispose of it.  Then, in one fell swoop, your leverage evaporates and the hordes waiting outside rush in and drag you off to jail.

If the party loses power in a single party system the same thing happens.  They lose it completely.  And they lose it forever.  There will be no fresh election for them four years hence.  They will not be welcomed into lucrative private sector jobs.  They will be lucky to get out with their lives, much less their freedom.

The hurdle for rebellion, of course, is naturally higher than the hurdle for new elections.  The latter are, in fact, mandated by law.  It is far from insurmountable, however.  The history books are full of unaccountable leaders who paid the price for their insensitivities.  There are numerous examples in the last decade alone.

The government must be sensitive to the needs of the people.  And is.
The government must be sensitive to the needs of the people. And is.

So when the leaders of China say that they are concerned about popular issues like the environment and the unequal distribution of wealth I am inclined to take them at their word.  Theirs is an electorate unafraid of conflict and change.  Certainly that is a more powerful motivator than the threat of losing an election only to go off and make a gazillion dollars peddling your access in the private sector.

To be clear, it is not my desire to slam American politicians or the American political system.  First and foremost, I am an American.  If I’ve learned anything in my time in China, however, it is that there are few universal solutions.  And popular elections, I’ve come to believe, are not one of them.

But to the point of the future of China, I believe the Chinese have realized this all along.  While I do believe the CPC faces many threats to its power, all of which it is clearly aware of, the cry for popular elections is not one of them.

More on the real threats as the series unfolds.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.


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