‘In the aftermath of COVID-19, the fragility of Chinese style democracy remains. For the first time since the Deng era, China is not setting any growth targets for the year, a concession to the enormous economic blow the virus has dealt to every country it has touched.’
NO, I am not referring to the Philippines. Rather, I am describing China – yes, the People’s Republic of China that was established in October 1949 following a civil war that saw the Nationalist government escape to the island of Formosa, which they renamed the Republic of China.
In the aftermath of the civil war, the Communist Party of China established its control over the Chinese mainland and proceeded to rule the former “Middle Kingdom” uninterrupted for the last 71 years.
I am sure some will ask why I refer to the PROC as a “democracy,” albeit a fragile one. My answer is simple: Democracy, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Equating democracy with the values of Western liberalism, whether those established by the French or American revolutions, may be limiting our understanding of democracy especially as it is appreciated by the people who live under its “rule.”
There will always be an outsider who, looking in, will say that this or that political entity is “not democratic.” Heck, there will always be an insider who will complain that the society in which he lives is NOT democratic, that media is being gagged and that freedom of speech is being curtailed.
But for good or ill assessing a society as being or not being democratic ISN’T as simple as that. To paraphrase a wag, democracy is not like virginity – it’s not a black or white status. Because you can be less, or more, democratic.
So now let’s look at China through a democratic lens and appreciate how fragile it is.
While the Chinese state is overwhelmingly a Han state, China has minority groups that have significant influence of their own. Muslim minorities, for example, who can find support from neighbouring countries and non-State actors who for one reason or another could decide to stir up some trouble within China.
There also is the divide between coastal China and inner, more rural, China, a divide that the late futurist Alvin Toffler warned could be a fault line that could splinter the Chinese state.
Some say there is the north and south divide, with southerners being the more enterprising of the two.
Then there is the generational divide: the civil war veterans are almost all gone and soon China’s population will be composed of more people who were born AFTER the Cultural Revolution.
Thinking of all that, situate yourself in Beijing in 1989, as a high ranking member of the ruling party and at a time when the Iron Curtain was falling apart all over Europe. How would you react when you wake up one day to student-led demonstrations right at the heart of your capital city? That the Party decided to deal firmly and harshly with the demonstrators is not surprising; and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later must have given the hardliners the ultimate “satisfaction” that their actions were necessary to save the State (and the party).
In the aftermath of COVID-19, the fragility of Chinese style democracy remains. For the first time since the Deng era, China is not setting any growth targets for the year, a concession to the enormous economic blow the virus has dealt to every country it has touched. Its markets abroad have collapsed, as the global economy teeters on the edge of recession, while its own domestic economy will require enormous pump-priming from the Bank of China. And then you add Donald Trump and his election-year antics of laying the blame for COVID-19 on China’s doorstep coupled with his trade war. The sum total is an outlook far different from what it was barely five months ago as the country was preparing for the Lunar New Year.
Yes, China looks very different from societies we are accustomed to looking at and holding up as symbols of democracy. But that it looks different doesn’t make it less of an example as the Western models we have studied and familiarized ourselves with growing up. It is the elephant in the room – in the region actually – that we can no longer ignore. But we need to take the trouble of understanding it better because this fragile democracy will continue to impact our future (as well as the world’s) long after a vaccine has been found for the virus that spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan and has brought the world close to its knees.