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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

James Leach: China Democracy Speech


US official recommends a decentralized American model for China



I link to an excellent speech given by United States Representative James A. Leach Chairman, Congressional-Executive Commission on China and Chairman, House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in which he discuses the prospects of the democratisation of China and whether "decentralized democracy" is a possible model for a developing and evolving China.

Whilst at the end I feel I have learnt more about democracy in America than it's prospects in China the speech does require you to think deeply about the whole question. In particular his analysis of China-Taiwan-US relations is very insightful.

In essence Leach's position can be summed up in one quote from his speech

It is my thesis that just as Americans would be wise to learn from older elements of Chinese civilization, particularly as we contend with modern problems of family break-down and urban violence, the Chinese might want to review the possibility that the decentralized American model of democratic government fits their society better than it fits smaller, more homogenous countries, including those in Europe.

With respect to my American readers, we are quite used to America and Americans championing the US model of democracy as being the creme de la creme the "piece de resistance" of democratic models and, at first glance, this quote would lead you to believe that this tradition is being maintained. However, in this instance, Leach is able to develop a reasonable thesis or at least one worthy of deeper consideration.

I have long pondered a "democratic model" for China and I am not backward in saying that I do not consider myself learned enough to go toe to toe with the likes of Leach on such matters. I do however have certain gut feelings.

Firstly the likes of democracy in the United States and Australia was forged by what I would call "social individualism" that is, by people who prided themselves on surviving as an individual or family unit in a new land but mindful of a commonality of experience, of objectives and even in many instances of survival.

This would be exemplified in Australia at least by the "lowest of the low" feeling he has the right to slap the prime minister on the back and say 'hey mate you better pick your game up". Neither the prime minister or any Australian would be unduely surprised by such an action. This individualism however is tempered by social connectivity, again, in Australia the tradition of "mateship" or in America "patriotism"

The Chinese are not like this. They have not experienced the "pioneering" spirit' born of American's and Australian's unique colonial histories where reliance on self was important for survival but so also was reliance on "community". That is not to say they the Chinese are not highly individualistic. A mistake many westerners make is believing that being in a population the size of China's one must, by the very nature of living in such a crowded land, be socially minded. But the reverse is true. The very size and history of China has meant that the Chinese for survival have developed a culture of "dog eat dog" where your main consideration, and perhaps only allegiance, is to yourself and your immediate family. This goes a long way in understanding their positions on the rights of the individual being subordinate to that of the mass and in such particular instances as capital punishment.

I believe you only have to look, for example, at the popularity of team sports in Australia and America vis a vis China. Mahjong and gambling are very big in China, why?. Because they are "one on one", each man for himself.

As Leach points out in his example of a Tiananman Square protester when being asked for his definition of the democracy that they were demonstrating for his answer was "less corruption", not universal suffrage, not "liberte, egalite, fraternite" just less corruption. As Leach alludes to, without probably understanding the juxtaposition to his own thesis, ideas of democracy and what one expects from democracy differ, both over time and over cultures.

The point I am labouring to make is that whilst the American system, the Australian system,the Westminster system whatever, works well for those particular countries we must not be blinkered in the belief that these are the be all and end all of systems for China.The Chinese are historically and cultural at the other end of the spectrum to America or Australia and as such have different expectations and levels of satisfaction on different aspects of life.

However, just as the ancient Greek system of democracy differs from modern theories of democracy, so may China's ultimate model differ as well. Different, but, democracy nonetheless.
Life and history is about evolution. Evolution of species and evolution of thoughts and political systems.

Leach's speech got me thinking at least and may I suggest you have a read as well and perhaps if you feel inclined share your thoughts.


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Leach Democracy Speech