Op-Ed Contributors

Don't rush into democracy at will

By Zhang Weiying (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-29 07:54
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China's 30 years of economic reform has gone through several stages - from price liberalization, enterprise regrouping and opening up to redistribution of power between the central and local governments. The next 30 years, I suppose, will see the focus shift to political reform. It is only logical that economic reform precedes political reform.

Although political reform has been attached great importance since the Deng Xiaoping era, it has not progressed enough. The slow pace, however, was not unexpected because the country had to build a learning curve to transform into a market economy and understand labor division.

There is a great hue and cry to democratize the political system further, because democracy is usually mistaken to be the panacea for all political ills. But democratization of a political system is only an optional means rather than the end. Let's take a crude example. In market economy, we have the freedom to choose what and where to eat. On the contrary, if more than 50 percent of the people reach a consensus on a dinner menu or restaurant, the others will have no choice but to bow to the will of the majority. That means democracy could at times deprive the minority group of its rights even at the cost of sacrificing efficiency.

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Thus, marketization of the economy is the more urgent task. If a country endeavors to establish political democracy and takes its benefits for granted before marketizing its economy in the real sense, the public will look to governments at different levels to solve problems that they actually could settle themselves.

There is not much sense in immediately reforming governments' functions and efficiency through radical democratization, because history shows success is hard to come by this way. Almost every surviving democracy that was built before the establishment of market economy has gone through a bumpy and treacherous road. The corollary is: To avoid the treacherous journey before realizing political democracy, a country has to marketize its economy completely.

Democratization should be based on citizens' rudimentary consciousness of responsibility, which first takes form, even though gradually, among the middle class. In fact, the history of the past 200 years is a history of the rising middle class. Economic globalization is nothing but the globalization of the middle class. Democracy entails a strong sense of responsibility among citizens, for your vote could create a great impact on others or even the entire community.

Without a strong middle class, the poor could become fickle in nature and be manipulated because of their needs. Such a situation could be easily exploited by the rich and powerful to reverse the reform process or at least prevent it from progressing further. What we would confront then is political status quo or stagnation.

Since the middle class is sandwiched between the rich and the poor, it acts as the buffer between the two extreme strata of society. If the middle class is not strong enough, the rich could give fairness and justice a silent burial or the poor could rise in revolt. In either case, chaos will descend on society. And only a mature market economy can ensure a middle class that is strong enough to fulfill its social responsibilities. So without a mature market economy neither can China complete its political democratization nor can the middle class perform its role.

Establishing the rule of law is the core task before complete democracy can be ushered in. Unfortunately, we have been undermining the authority of the courts in many cases. A large number of disputes could be settled only after higher authorities or governments intervened. But improper or uncalled-for government interference or intervention in social conflicts or problems often leads to social disorder. Only by making the judiciary foolproof can social stability be ensured. For that, social problems have to be settled as individual cases rather than complex collective issues. The authority of law and courts are the primary forces that can eliminate social complications.

Tang Degang, a researcher in macro-history theory, says China has undergone two grand structural transformations in its history. The first took about 200 years to complete. The transformation from feudalism to a system of prefectures and counties started during the reign of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), and ended with Hanwudi, the founding father of Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24). The second transformation can be said to have begun with the First Opium War in 1840 and, as history shows, would need at least 200 years to complete. Which means it can be completed only by 2040. That makes the next 30 years the last chapter in the transformation and, like the past 30 years, the most important.

It may not be a once-and-for-all change, though, because the country could still have a huge number of technical issues to solve even after choosing the right direction.

The author is director of Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. This is an edited version of his speech at the Annual Meeting of China's Reform (2009).

(China Daily 01/29/2010 page8)