Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 1

As a powerful state which is not electoralist, it is not surprising that China produces political theory which rejects the equation of democracy with elections. It is characteristic of the weakness of Western political science that it makes no serious attempt to explore and engage with this theory.

Wang Shaoguang is a prominent Chinese political scientist. His article “Representative and Representational Democracy” was originally published in the Chinese language social science journal “Open Times” in 2014. A translation to English of the article appears on the website “Reading the China Dream” which regularly translates articles by Chinese establishment intellectuals. The article makes several intertwined arguments regarding democracy and elections. While focusing, naturally, on the Chinese system as an alternative to the Western electoralist system, Wang does make a mention of sortition as well.

In the following excerpts Wang first notes the crisis of the Western government system and makes the straightforward observation, often avoided in the West, that the Chinese system enjoys more popular support than most Western governments. Rather surprisingly, it seems to me, instead of translating this fact to a frontal attack on the Western system, Wang then makes the apologetic (and fairly familiar) multi-culturalist argument that democracy is perceived differently in different cultures. Wang asserts that while the formality of elections is a main feature of the Western or American conception of democracy, in the East “substantive” aspects are considered essential.

Today, even though Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative” and Fukuyama’s “End of History” have already become standing jokes in academic and intellectual circles, their variants proliferate and circulate constantly. Though most people no longer use these particular expressions, many still firmly believe that the “today” of Western capitalist countries is the “tomorrow” of other countries (including China).

The [opposite] worldview is embodied in two different slogans used in the “rethinking globalization” movement: “one no, many yeses” and “another world is possible.” What is rejected here is precisely the economic and political liberalism trumpeted by Thatcher and Fukuyama. The opposition between these two worldviews is reflected first in their different perspectives on capitalism. After the 2008 financial crisis, the first worldview is already on the defensive. However, when it comes to the question of democracy, the first worldview seems to be as unyielding as before. Even though it is common for Western electorates to lack faith in officials chosen through competitive elections, even though some Western thinkers have called for overcoming “electoral democracy” — advocating participatory democracy, consultative democracy, and sortition[*] — the majority of people still think that Western-style representative democracy is currently the only desirable and feasible democratic system, and that differences between countries amount to different forms of representative democracy. Regardless of whether one employs a presidential or parliamentary system, power-holders can only emerge out of competitive elections between different parties. This worldview is mainstream not only in Western countries, but is quite influential in other countries as well (including China).

This article’s basic argument is that representative democracy is a gilded-cage democracy, which should not be, nor can be, the only form of democracy.[5] Conversely, though it has many flaws, the representational democracy that China is practicing has tremendous untapped potential, signifying that another form of democracy is possible.

[*] Translators’ Note: Sortition is a term that denotes the selection of political officials at random by drawing lots from a larger pool of qualified people. It was a characteristic of Athenian democracy, based on the notion that allotting qualified people at random to governing bodies would prevent elections from being corrupted by oligarchic networks of power who could buy and sell votes. For a more detailed discussion, see Hansen, Mogen Hermans, “Direct Democracy, Ancient and Modern,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to the Politics of Democratization in Europe: Concepts and Histories, Kari Palonen et. al., eds., Abingdon: Routledge, 2008, pp. 37-54.

Mainstream Western ideology has a seemingly self-evident basic assumption: only leaders chosen through a system of competitive elections can enjoy legitimacy,[6] and authoritarian systems cannot possibly win the widespread support of the people. But a significant amount of empirical survey data indicates that the “authoritarian” Chinese system has continually received the support of an overwhelming majority of the common people.

In recent years, the world’s largest independent public relations firm, Edelman International Public Relations Co., Ltd., has published the annual “Edelman Trust Barometer,” the latest of which was released in early 2013. The report found that the Chinese public’s trust in government rose six percentage points in 2012, reaching 81%, ranking second only to Singapore and, thus, second among all surveyed countries. This is much higher than the 53% of public trust in government in the US. Taking an average from all the countries surveyed, public trust in government is a mere 48%. As a matter of fact, over the years of the Edelman Survey, Chinese public trust in government has been among the highest worldwide.

We can draw two conclusions from this: 1) either an “authoritarian” system is much more popular with the people than are many “democratic” systems; or 2) a system that is highly supported by the people has nonetheless been labeled “authoritarian.” Both of these conclusions appear to be contradictory.

The original meaning of democracy is that the people are the masters of their own affairs. Yet if one asks people from different cultures what “the people as masters” means and how to carry it out, their understandings diverge. In today’s world, the overwhelming majority of people agree with the notion that “democracy is a good thing,” but understanding what is “good” and what is “democratic” is very different. We must not take for granted that since we all like democracy, we must all be supporting the same thing. Many people in the West arrogantly believe that only their understanding of democracy is true, and that there is only one correct understanding of democracy: this is a form of cultural hegemony. Empirical studies show that the concept of democracy in East Asia has unique features [16], that the concept of democracy within the Confucian cultural sphere has unique features[17], and that the same goes for the concept of democracy in China.[18] If one does not seek after the kind of democracy that the Chinese themselves understand, but instead constantly schemes to replicate in China the kind of democracy that Westerners understand, they cannot be called “democrats” in any sense because they are betraying the will of the people, which is contrary to the first law of democracy—that the people are the masters.

We can understand democracy in two ways, as formal democracy or as substantive democracy. The former concerns itself with so-called democratic features, whereas the latter concerns whether policy has produced results that meet the needs of the broad popular masses. In light of this, to which category does Chinese people’s understanding of democracy belong? The “Asian Barometer Survey” contains questions that touch precisely upon these two different kinds of understanding.

[The survey shows] that for the vast majority of [Mainland] Chinese people, “democracy” means substantive democracy rather something which is a democracy in name only. What is interesting is that even though Chinese-Taiwan has a different political system, the way Taiwanese people understand democracy is not terribly different from the way people on the Mainland do.[19] In other nations in East Asia, support for formal [i.e. Western style representative] democracy is greater, slightly exceeding fifty percent, Thailand being the only country in which that number exceeds two-thirds of the people.

In comparison solely with their Asian neighbors, the substantive understanding of democracy of the Chinese people is not particularly exceptional. However, when compared with Americans, its uniqueness stands out. [D]ata from […] from polls conducted in America in 2010 as well as in China in 2011 [testing how] people understand democracy in a formal (Group A) or substantive manner (Group B) [shows] that Americans put greater emphasis on formal democracy, while Chinese people give more weight to whether democracy can bring tangible benefits to the people.

13 Responses

  1. Thanks, Yoram for posting this. I’ve come across the view that if it ain’t formal democracy, then no matter what the people think, it ain’t democracy. This seems suspiciously close to invalidating all referenda on the grounds that “The People (Demos). What do they know? Only us experts can decide.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Conall,

    Yes. The clutching at arbitrary, empty formalisms is one way in which those comfortable with the oligarchical status quo seek to fend off democratization. The “deliberative democracy” agenda is another such tactic. And in fact the “radical” “participative democracy” agenda has much the same effect. Both the deliberative and the participative democracy agendas lack any specifics, or at least any meaningful specifics, making them useful as slogans and as a way to dissipate energy, but not as paths toward democratization.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Is it not true that a benevolent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government? It obviates all need for regulation, oversight or citizen participation. No wonder Singaporeans are satisfied, thus far, with the results.
    However …
    In the long term, without means to control the inevitable decline of its benevolence and without means of the beneficiaries to replace its formerly benevolent dictatorship, horrors loom.
    The opposite — a sortitioned republic — concludes, I would say inevitably with, at worst: We get what we deserve, only as good as we (all of us) are.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. >We get what we deserve, only as good as we (all of us) are.

    True, but there is another (Madisonian) tradition that argues that the institutions of governance can be structured in such a way as to obviate the reliance on human goodness. Ancient republicanism did presuppose virtue, whereas us moderns have to make do with virtù. And, following Mandeville, private vices can become public benefits.

    Like

  5. As Chinese intellectuals living under the “People’s Republic” (which is neither the people’s nor a republic) cannot criticize their political system, at least not beyond certain limits, without serious repercussions, what people like Wang Shaoguang can say is very limited.

    As Yoram suggests, it is perhaps odd that he does not more forcefully critique the Western Establishment claim that democracy means rule by popularly elected politicians (that’s my description of it, not Wang’s). Possibly he can’t provide a more robust critique because doing so would imply not only something quite different from that, but also something quite different from what exists in China.

    His claim that there is “substantive democracy” in China, meaning that the communist party leadership produces “results that meet the needs of the broad popular masses” is the old Soviet Union and Maoist China subterfuge purporting that those one party police states were democracies.

    Like

  6. Simon,

    Since elections are not part of the Chinese system, I don’t see why Wang would be constrained from making a full-throated attack on elections. It seems to me he really is not ready to reject electoralism outright.

    As for producing “results that meet the needs of the broad popular masses”: this seems to me a pretty good definition of democracy, provided that it is the people themselves who get to determine whether the policy serves their needs (their values, their interests), rather than some elite arbiter. In the case of present day China it appears that the Chinese people are in fact much more satisfied with public policy in their country than are people in most electoralist countries. This by any reasonable interpretation should mean that most Western states are farther away from being democracies than China is. It is only Western dogma that is blind a-priori to this straightforward understanding of the observed facts.

    Like

  7. Yoram:> As for producing “results that meet the needs of the broad popular masses”: this seems to me a pretty good definition of democracy, provided that it is the people themselves who get to determine whether the policy serves their needs (their values, their interests), rather than some elite arbiter.

    Seems pretty good to me too. And is why China is not a democracy.

    Are the Chinese “satisfied” with their government because they don’t want to be visited by the police about how they answered the survey (in the Chinese police state I believe all phone calls and internet are monitored), or because the party and state run a reasonably effective propaganda system, and do a good job of preventing independent media from reaching anyone?

    Most of the Chinese in Hong Kong where there is more freedom are not enamored with living under the same system that reigns to their north. Most of the Chinese in Taiwan have the same opinion. As did the students slaughtered in Tiananmen Square.

    Like

  8. Hunh? So a benign dictator who provides corruption-free public goods (for example by executing any public officials suspected of corruption, even without a trial or due process), and massacres widely hated ethnic minorities, and prohibits free speech, and any public involvement with decision-making, is running a “democracy” as long as the large majority of the population is satisfied with the policy results? That is a unique definition of the word “democracy.”

    Like

  9. Terry:> That is a unique definition of the word “democracy.”

    Yes indeed. For some time I have been pointing out that Yoram’s definition of democracy (any government that acts in the interests of “the people”) is simply wrong — etymologically, formally and in practice. Note that there are no structural constraints and/or requirement for “the people” to have an active role in their own governance, and any method of tracking public opinion, including raw polling data, is sufficient to determine if the political system is “democratic”.

    The sortition movement needs to distance itself from this dangerous nonsense.

    Like

  10. Terry,

    > Hunh? So a benign dictator …

    Rushing to the keyboard to produce a ritual condemnation of the enemies (if only ideological) of the West, you have created a hybrid of two standard clichés of that dogma: the underhanded “benevolent dictator” and the dreaded “oppressive masses”.

    The “benevolent dictator”, who manages to always please the people, is not a dictator at all but a public servant. As for the “oppressive masses” – yes, it is quite possible that large majorities in a population would support oppressive policies. The people as a whole, like individuals in it, are not angels. The notion that “a democracy” must produce “good results” according to some abstract liberal standard (and thus some sort of a liberal elite must overrule the oppressive public) is a standard elitist anti-democratic argument. It is only Western dogma that has managed to turn this oligarchical notion into a “democratic” ideal.

    Moving beyond these clichés, I would hope we can agree on the following simple condition:

    A regime whose policies are seen by the people as not following their interests and values is by definition non-democratic regardless of the procedures and institutional arrangements of that regime – whether those are electoral, sortition-based, co-optational or otherwise.

    Like

  11. Simon,

    > Are the Chinese “satisfied” with their government because they don’t want to be visited by the police […], or because the party and state run a reasonably effective propaganda system, and do a good job of preventing independent media from reaching anyone?

    While the possibility that the Chinese are coerced into pretending they are satisfied cannot be dismissed, the notion that the Chinese’s sincere opinion can be overruled or second-guessed because they are manipulated into believing they are satisfied must be rejected as inherently anti-democratic.

    > Most of the Chinese in Hong Kong where there is more freedom are not enamored with living under the same system that reigns to their north. Most of the Chinese in Taiwan have the same opinion. As did the students slaughtered in Tiananmen Square.

    Different groups of people have different opinions. Must the Mainland Chinese accept the opinions of the residents of Hong Kong or Taiwan? Maybe it is those latter groups that are manipulated into holding false notions?

    Once we start walking down the “duped by the government” street, we are no longer democrats.

    Like

  12. Yoram:> The “benevolent dictator”, who manages to always please the people, is not a dictator at all but a public servant.

    The term “dictator” (like the Greek term “tyrant”) has only acquired pejorative connotations in modernity. Dictatorships are characterized by the concentration of power in a single person, so a benevolent dictator is still a dictator (even though he is a public servant). Democracy, by contrast, refers to power being in the hands of the people (and has no inherent connection to benign/oppressive policies or the servicing of interests). If we’re going to use the lexicon of political theory, then we can’t just redefine it to suit ourselves.

    Like

  13. Yoram:> Once we start walking down the “duped by the government” street, we are no longer democrats.

    Unless, of course, they are of the hated “electoralist” variant, as it would appear that communist governments do not dupe their citizens.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: