Article: Selling Democracy to China – What do democratic principles look like in China

In Democracy, Education by TechnoOwl

Democracy has only existed for about 200 years. It started with the American Declaration of Independence. The Americans got their ideas from the Europeans, mostly from the French, the Dutch and the British. But democracy has a number of serious failures. For instance, you have to be elected every four years and you have to be re-elected the next four years. So you try to tell the people what they would like to hear. The multi-party system is not the crown of progress, but it is the best we have right now. I would fight for maintaining it, but I would not sell it to the Chinese.”

Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor, Federal Republic of Germany.

In 2005, Germany transferred her high speed rail technology to China. Today, China’s HSR is bigger, faster, safer and cheaper than Germany’s, runs entirely on Chinese intellectual property and Chinese trains are displacing Germany’s in the world market.

Coincidentally, in 2005, The Carter Center began transferringAmerica’s democracy knowhow to China. Today, China’s democracy is bigger, faster, safer and cheaper than ours and runs entirely on Chinese intellectual property. There’s a potentially huge market for an improved version. Might Chinese democracy displace America’s? Should we be surprised if the Chinese model becomes competitive? For three thousand years no subject has preoccupied their elite more than governance. From their perspective, Deng’s 1977 comment about Western democracy, “It’s too soon to tell,” was simple common sense.

Barely forty years later, perhaps we can tell. Only twenty percent of citizens in newly-democratic Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Poland and Bulgaria, trust their governments. Even fewer Britons trust Parliament and less than ten percent of us trust Congress. Western democracy is losing legitimacy because governments’ agenda have remained at odds with their citizens’ agenda for decades but, as Margaret Thatcher would have said, there was no alternative.


Now there is an alternative and, if we compare American democracy to China’s on seven axes–constitutional, elective, popular, procedural, operational, substantive and financial–we can at least begin the conversation.

Constitutionally, China’s constitution stipulates, “The State organs of the People’s Republic of China apply the principle of democratic centralism. The National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels are constituted through democratic elections. They are responsible to the people and subject to their supervision. All administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the State are created by the people’s congresses to which they are responsible and by which they are supervised”. America’s founders carefully omitted the word ‘democracy’ from all Constitutional documents. For at least paying lip service to democracy, we must award a point to China.

Electively, China’s bigger, more transparent elections were designed and supervised by The Carter Center which continues to expand the franchise at the behest of Premier Wen Jiabao, who told them in 2012, “The experience of many villages shows farmers can succeed in directly electing village committees. If people can manage a village well they can manage a township and a county. We must encourage people to experiment boldly and test democracy in practice”. Today, 3,200 democratically elected Congressional representatives must vote, almost unanimously, to approve all senior appointments and all legislation. In the U.S., wealthy, unelected people propose and fund candidates for election. An unelected Electoral College chooses the chief executive. China 2–USA 0.

Popularly, the Chinese, who still bear scars of recent governance mistakes, will tell you that it was when Mao, Deng and the Qing Emperor ignored experts that they got the country into trouble. Today, Chinese democracy resembles Proctor and Gamble more than Pericles. There are more than a thousand polling firms in China and its government spends prolifically on surveys, as author Jeff J. Brown says, “My Beijing neighborhood committee and town hall are constantly putting up announcements, inviting groups of people–renters, homeowners, over seventies, women under forty, those with or without medical insurance, retirees–to answer surveys. The CPC is the world’s biggest pollster for a reason: China’s democratic ‘dictatorship of the people’ is highly engaged at the day-to-day, citizen-on-the-street level. I know, because I live in a middle class Chinese community and I question them all the time. I find their government much more responsive and democratic than the dog-and-pony shows back home, and I mean that seriously”. Even the imperious Mao would remind colleagues, “If we don’t investigate public opinion we have no right to voice our own opinion. Public opinion is our guideline for action,” which is why Five Year Plans are the results of intensive polling. Citizens’ sixty-two percent voter participation suggests that they think their votes count. Princeton’s Gilens and Page, on the other hand, examining the causes of Americans’ fifty-two percent voter participation, found ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have a near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy’. China 3–USA 0.


Procedurally, The Chinese engineers, economists, statisticians and sociologists who develop policies practice democracy among themselves and the top seven decision makers–appointed independently of each other and with a collective 200 years governing experience–require at least six votes to send legislation to Congress. If President Xi claimed that global warming is a hoax he would be regarded as autocratic, not democratic. If he wants a new climate policy and persuades five colleagues to support it, he can push it into the trials pipeline but, without solid trial data, he can’t propose legislation and the popularly elected, unpaid congress has proven willing to delay leaders’ pet projects for decades. Data-driven democracy has steadily narrowed the gap between public expectations and government capacity, which is why Chinese support for government policies stands at 96 percent, higher than even Switzerland’s or Singapore’s and far higher than our twenty percent. China 4–USA 0.

Operationally, American presidents resemble the medieval monarchs upon whom their office was modeled, as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, observed, “We elect a king for four years and give him absolute power within certain limits which, after all, he can interpret for himself”. Our presidents hire and fire all senior officials, secretly ban fifty thousand citizens from flying, order people kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and assassinated and take the country to war. No Chinese leader, not even Mao at his peak, could do any of those things. The president cannot even choose his prime minister (always his strongest rival for the presidency), can only make decisions with 6–1 or 7–0 support from colleagues and can’t hire or fire officials, elect, assign or suspend members of Congress.

President Obama’s healthcare initiative relied on his popularity and promises whereas, as Stanford VC Robin Daverman explains, China’s initiatives rely on math: “China is a giant trial portfolio with millions of trials going on everywhere. Today, innovations in everything from healthcare to poverty reduction, education, energy, trade and transportation are being trialled in different communities. Every one of China’s 662 cities is experimenting: Shanghai with free trade zones, Guizhou with poverty reduction, twenty-three cities with education reforms, Northeastern provinces with SOE reform: pilot schools, pilot cities, pilot hospitals, pilot markets, pilot everything. Mayors and governors, the Primary Investigators, share their ‘lab results’ at the Central Party School and publish them in ‘scientific journals,’ the State-owned newspapers. Major policies undergo ‘clinical trials,’ beginning in small towns that generate and analyze test data. If the stats look good, they’ll add test sites and do long-term follow-ups. They test and tweak for 10-30 years then ask the 3,000-member People’s Congress to review the data and authorize national trials in three major provinces. If a national trial is successful the State Council [China’s Brains Trust] polishes the plan and takes it back to the 3,000 Congresspeople for a final vote. It’s very transparent and, if you have good data and I don’t, your bill gets passed and mine doesn’t. People’s Congress votes are nearly unanimous because the legislation is backed by reams of data. This allows China to accomplish a great deal in a short time: your winning solution will be quickly propagated throughout the country, you’ll be a front page hero and you’ll be invited to high-level meetings in Beijing and promoted. As you can imagine, the competition to find solutions is intense”. Operationally, data-driven legislation wins hands down. China 5–USA 0.

Substantively, China has won her battle for survival and is now militarily and economically impregnable, so authoritarian giants like Mao and Deng are no longer needed. Today, researchers, experts, media, academics, stakeholders and obstreperous citizens set the agenda. Since 2000, China has allowed foreigners to conduct surveys and publish apolitical results without submitting their questionnaires and Harvard’s Tony Saich, who’s been polling there for over a decade reports, in Governing China,that ninety-six per cent of Chinese are satisfied with their national government and, according to Edelman’s 2016 Report, almost ninety percent of Chinese trust it. World Values Surveys found that eighty-three percent say China is run for their benefit rather than for the benefit of special groups–compared to thirty-eight percent of Americans. China 6–USA 0.

Financially (we exclude financial democracy from polite conversation but the Chinese don’t), ninety-five percent of poor Chinese own their homes and landand the Chinese own, in common, the commanding heights of their economy– banks, insurers and utilities. And Inequality is being effectively addressed. In its 2017 study, Global Inequality Dynamics, America’s National Bureau of Economic Research reports that, though the bottom half of Chinese saw their share of national income fall from twenty-seven percent to fifteen percent after 1980, Americans’ share collapsed from twenty percent to twelve percent. Simultaneously, China’s top one percent captured thirteen percent of all personal income, but America’s elite grabbed twenty percent. Since those figures were compiled, China has eliminated urban povertyand, the World Bank adds, “We can reasonably expect the virtual elimination of extreme poverty in [rural] China by 2022”. Every Chinese–not just the poor–has doubled her income every ten years for the past 40 years, an extraordinary improvement in income mobility and the inverse of our experience. In the U.S., says Stanford’s Raj Chetty, “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s. Absolute income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution, with the largest declines for families in the middle class”. China 7–USA 0.

Whether or not we’re willing to call China’s 20th century system democratic, it’s clear that they’ve improved on our quaint, eighteenth century model. How long before they start selling the new, improved version?

From CHINA 2020: Everything You Know is Wrong. Forthcoming.

Original Article by Godfree Roberts