Global diplomats, politicians and scholars discuss dilemmas and developments in democracy
By Li Wenhan  ·  2024-03-25  ·   Source: NO.13 MARCH 28, 2024
The Third International Forum on Democracy: The Shared Human Values is underway in Beijing on March 20 (XINHUA)

On his deathbed, an American rancher asked his son, "What if the pigs complain about their food, the cattle find their work too heavy and the hens are unhappy with their messy coop?" His son replied, "We could change the food, reduce the workload and clean up the henhouse."

The rancher shook his head and said, "You don't have to do anything. Just give them the vote to decide whether you or your wife should be in charge of them. They'll believe they have a say on this farm."

This allegory mocks Western democracy, which highlights the centrality of voting. But does democracy entail more than just voting?

This was one of the central questions discussed at the International Forum on Democracy: The Shared Human Values, held in Beijing on March 20. At the event, over 200 participants, including politicians, diplomats, scholars and other experts on democracy from around the world, brainstormed and exchanged views on democracy-related issues.

This year's event is the third edition of the annual forum, which was first launched in 2021. The forum was hosted by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council Information Office and co-organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China Media Group and China International Communications Group (CICG).

Li Shulei, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and head of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, delivered a keynote speech at the opening ceremony.

"Democracy stands as a crucial symbol of the advancement of human civilization, and that the CPC has led the Chinese people to embark on a democratic development path with Chinese characteristics," Li said

He further stressed that democracy is a common value for all humanity, aiming to safeguard and enhance global consensus.

"China fully respects the right of people in all countries to independently choose their own development path, and is against countries creating divisions and spreading prejudices in the international community under the guise of democracy," Li continued, saying, "It's not only about what verbal promises people receive during elections but also about how many of those promises are fulfilled afterward."

Democracy in diversity

"Democracy is not a simple formula, nor does it have a universal solution. A strong democracy can only flourish within the context of a country's specific national conditions. Sustainable democracy can only be achieved through the ongoing resolution of its own challenges," Du Zhanyuan, President of CICG, said at the forum.

In the course of his research across Asia, Africa and Europe, Du has observed that each country, developing or developed, encounters unique obstacles on its path to democracy. Developing nations grapple with developmental issues, while more advanced economies are ensnared in partisan conflicts and political polarization.

A report conducted by the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies, released during the forum's closing ceremony, supports his observation. Among the 9,200 respondents from 23 countries, 95.7 percent expressed the belief that each country should adopt democracy and modernization models tailored to its national conditions.

Former Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of the Malaysian Parliament Ong Tee Keat noted China supports the diversity of democratic practice. "It sees the nexus between the attainment of people's aspirations and the level of social development that is capable of supporting it," he told the forum.

"This is particularly pertinent in the case of the Global South, where the relatively young nations formerly colonized by the Western powers have to prioritize the basic subsistence needs of the people vis-à-vis the ballot box," he explained.

"The word 'democracy' has been used for over 3,000 years with a whole lot of different definitions. The one I'm working to today is the one that I see most commonly in Chinese media, leaders' speeches and so on. It is 'hear the people' and it seems to me a pretty good simple definition of democracy," Stephen Perry, President Emeritus of Britain's 48 Group Club, said.

He said he believed the democracy of hearing the people is simpler in China than it is in the West because Chinese leaders have done an enormous amount of research into what the people are thinking, feeling, experiencing and desiring.

"So I think China is on its way to a good form of democracy. It hears its people and it tends to do what its people want," Perry said. "My message is that Chinese democracy and governance work, and that there's a lot about it that we can learn from. We should be studying China, not trying to lecture China," he said.

Democracy in disguise

Ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi stated, "Those who know don't speak, and those who speak do not know." Alexander Lomanov, Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, said he believes that the West has discussed democracy excessively.

According to him, Western nations often assert their commitment to safeguarding democracy; "however, it's essential to consider those who remain silent, refraining from constantly invoking democracy for political purposes. We should focus on those who genuinely seek shared human values and support the diverse and collective development of society."

Ong said Western democracy has been holding sway on the world stage for the past seven decades since World War II (1939-45), adding that the present model of electoral democracy is widely touted as Western creation and has ever since been made the one-size-fits-all benchmark for democratic rule worldwide.

"Unfortunately, this turns out to be a fallacy. The cohesive transplant of electoral democracy, either through military intervention or brutal regime change, as was initiated by Washington in the developing world, has only added more failed states and ensuing humanitarian disasters to the lists," he noted.

On February 17, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Munich Security Conference: "If you're not at the table in the international system, you're going to be on the menu."

"People's wellbeing and aspirations are nowhere to be seen," Ong added.

"While the U.S. has been taking pride in its brand of electoral democracy, alongside making it a common value to rally its like-minded allies globally against China, the ubiquitous, pathetic scenes of illicit drug abuse, vicious squalor posed by the street vagabonds and the prevailing looting of shops in the name of so-called '$0 shopping' in some American cities have, however, presented to the world the dysfunctionality of its democratic governance."

Lee Camp is an American writer, news journalist and comedian. He said that one 2014 Princeton study found that the American people have "near-zero" impact on government policies and actions. He gave an example that around 63 percent of Americans want Israel to "end genocide" in Gaza immediately, but people of neither party in Congress are trying to stop it.

"This might explain why a recent Gallup (an American analytics and advisory company) poll found: Twelve percent of Americans think U.S. Congress is doing a good job. That's about the same percentage of people who think it's a good idea to climb Mount Everest (Qomolangma) with socks," Camp said.

Wang Shaoguang, Professor Emeritus at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, attributed the failure to influence decision makers to unequal possession of resources.

Participation is the primary means through which citizens influence decision-makers, typically through methods such as voting, Wang explained.

However, he argued that achieving broad participation within Western societies remains an ideal rather than a reality. Wang highlighted that numerous studies conducted in the West demonstrate significant inequalities in participation, with those possessing greater resources disproportionately exerting more influence compared to those with fewer resources.

As a consequence of unequal participation, Wang said, there is unequal representation in decision-making processes, ultimately leading to disparities in influence over lawmakers.

He pointed out how Chinese officials go into the masses to gather their requests. "In China, officials are required to go to the frontlines, visit the villages and local communities," he said.

In decision-making, instead of waiting for members of the public to approach and influence them, decision-makers should proactively engage with all sectors of society. This approach helps to reduce the inequality stemming from differences in the ability to participate.

"This allows officials to know what ordinary people think, what they are doing and integrate this knowledge into the decision-making process of government at all levels," Wang added.

(Print Edition Title: Democracy or Demo-crazy?)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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