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Is democracy overrated? Is China overtaking the West because they are NOT democratic?

Western democracies suffer from many weaknesses: politicians excessively focused on the short term and just getting re-elected, hung parliaments which cannot agree on legislation and thus very little gets done. Furthermore, maybe the average voter is not sufficiently knowledgable about public policy and macro-economic planning to be qualified to vote for the best candidate.

China, on the other hand, has a generally unified government which can act decisively. It can act with a medium term and long term focus in order to create policies and make investments in infrastructure which maximize the well being of the country.

Will democracy and all of its weaknesses cause the downfall of the West when faced with the tough competition created by the Chinese?

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    Oct 7 2011: Maybe problem isn't democracy, but people's knowledge about public policy. And they should be able to see politician's decisions. Media could play an important role, but instead we have "trash" TV programs all day.
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    Oct 9 2011: It doesn't matter if a country is democratic or not,what we need are good leaders to lead the country.Sometimes it is necessary to crack the whip but if the power is concentrated with one single party as you say then it will definitely lead to corruption because no one will be able to question it.As einstein said ""dictators of genius are succeeded by scoundrels".Democracy even though it is slow it is much better.
    Dictatorship is like marriage,if you can find the right girl ( I mean the dictator) then your marriage life will be sweet or else it will be a disaster.The problem is most of the people are unable to find the right partner.
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    Oct 7 2011: the state is a beast. in democracy, this beast is kept on short leash by people. this is better than having the beast freely roaming around. but the best is if there is no beast at all.
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    Oct 7 2011: Democracy overrated? I don't believe so, especially from the perspective of freedom being the most important 'right.'

    China is overtaking the west because they have a stringent way of doing things, and it happens to be helping them economically. Democratic nations just tend to have a delay in applying certain things.

    I think the major problem right now is the lack of intellectual progress within democratic nations, especially the USA - it seems to be hindering ANY sort of action.
  • Oct 7 2011: .. part 1...

    Yes I agree that democracy has many problems, however I don't know of a better system to run society to allow for both political and economical freedom with preservation of human rights.

    Democracy is a tool and a framework with amazing potential. Society is one of the most complex systems and I think it is naive to think that one can plan it with any high degree of accuracy. Therefore mistakes are made, whether in democracy or not. Now in democracy those mistakes can be corrected sooner than later. In a one party/no freedom system in China people will suffer for decade(s) just because someone at the top has an idea they really like.

    I think most people prefer freedom over wealth as long as they have basic needs met. Hong Kong is a good example, where people do not want the system of mainland China but rather they want to determine their destiny themselves.

    Theoretically, democracy can allow for a dicator (like Hittler) because as a tool, it is up to its people how they use it. If no one cares about politics or educate themselves about local and national issues than politicians/lobbyists will do how they please. However, the beuaty and huge potential of democracy is the power it gives to its people to engage and change things. One great example is the US where people currently demonstrate against strong links between financial sector/rich people and the government.

    Now in terms of China's growth, it is great to finally see that its most poor population has the ability to migrate to cities to work in factories/get education and have a better life. China's current growth, therefore is a catchup in terms of debt the communist party created over the decades. It is a catchup to basic infrastructure and lifestyle that people elsewhere consider normal. Eventually this growth will most likely follow patern seen in developed countries because there is much less room for growth.

    continued....
  • Oct 7 2011: ..part 2...

    Economist has a good article (that I can't find) but one here explains some of it as well:
    www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/05/chinas_economy_1

    Now if one does not consider freedom and individual rights important then communist model might make sense.

    It will be interesting to see what happens to China's political system once it grows a strong and educated middle class. I hope Chinese will be able to dtermine their destiny eventually and prosper at the same time =)
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    Oct 17 2011: Fascinating, Thomas. Thank you for providing this list of goals. It sounds as if they are taking these goals seriously, and working towards them. Is that right? In other words, do they measure progress against these goals and make decisions accordingly if they're not on track towards their desired outcomes? If so, how often do they do that?

    Also, you say young people have adopted the 'lets make a difference' mindset. How has this been achieved on a national scale? Is it through creating a sense of nationalism, outreach campaigns, rewards, etc.? Or something else?
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    Oct 15 2011: Reply to Thomas Jones and Jonathan Kao:

    Yes, Thomas! You made my next point, which thrills me. I was not suggesting China is ahead because it is not a democracy, but that it's all about how we make decisions! That's what the US lacks. I am not familiar with how decisions are made in China, and will refer to you and others for that, but the process you describe sounds about right - if they are making those decisions towards a shared goal.

    If a shared goal has been agreed upon - (and ideally it is holistic, towards quality of life, economy and environment) - a critical key to a successful outcome is rather vigilant monitoring and making changes along the way. In order to ensure the best outcome, it should include all the people involved - which is how you describe the process in China. This fascinates me. It is not the fastest process but, in the long run and in my experience, it's the best way to get where one is headed - in the end. I'm now curious as to whether or not their decisions are firmly planted in a common goal when they're making these decisions...


    I knew you lived in China - I recall you kindly helping someone who needed help going into that market. I thought you were very kind for doing so.
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      Oct 17 2011: Hi Linda,

      Sorry for the late reply, I haven't checked this conversation for a while.

      China does have a unique system and it does seem to work on many levels. They do have specific goals, for example:

      -- GDP to grow by 7 percent annually on average;
      -- More than 45 million jobs to be created in urban areas;
      -- Urban registered unemployment to be kept no higher than 5 percent;
      -- Prices to be kept generally stable.
      -- Rise in domestic consumption;
      -- Breakthrough in emerging strategic industries;
      -- Service sector value-added output to account for 47 percent of GDP, up 4 percentage points;
      -- Urbanization rate to reach 51.5 percent, up 4 percentage points.
      -- Expenditure on research and development to account for 2.2 percent GDP;
      -- Every 10,000 people to have 3.3 patents.
      -- Non-fossil fuel to account for 11.4 percent of primary energy consumption;
      -- Water consumption per unit of value-added industrial output to be cut by 30 percent;
      -- Energy consumption per unit of GDP to be cut by 16 percent;
      -- Carbon dioxide emission per unit of GDP to be cut by 17 percent;
      -- Forest coverage rate to rise to 21.66 percent and forest stock to increase by 600 million cubic meters.

      Those are all from the draft of China's 12th Five-Year Plan for 2011-2015.

      It is expected that "everyone" will help the country reach its established goals.

      For the most part, people do. And, of course, there are people who take advantage of the system. They tend to be the ones we hear about. But effort is made towards constant improvement and the young people are really getting into the whole "let's make a difference" mindset.

      I still live here, by the way. [EDIT: Oops! I just figured out when you said you knew I "LIVED THERE" you weren't using the past tense.]

      It's a very cool place.
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        Oct 17 2011: Fascinating, Thomas. Thank you for providing this list of goals. It sounds as if they are taking these goals seriously, and working towards them. Is that right? In other words, do they measure progress against these goals and make decisions accordingly if they're not on track towards their desired outcomes? If so, how often do they do that?

        Also, you say young people have adopted the 'lets make a difference' mindset. How has this been achieved on a national scale? Is it through creating a sense of nationalism, outreach campaigns, rewards, etc.? Or something else?
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          Oct 17 2011: HI Linda,

          The system here seems to be a combination of "rigid structure" and almost chaotic freedom. People at all levels get involved in decision making, feel they are entitled to get involved, and expect to be heard. This is reflected in virtually everything from how much they should pay for electricity to who gets selected (or elected) to political office.

          The formal structures used in China you can look up on Wiki but, as you can see, the goals and objectives are reviewed and re-framed every five years. The vision is MUCH longer than that. And performance is measured between plenary sessions.

          It's not a perfect system but it is, obviously, effective.

          I'm not sure how the kids are getting "plugged in" to issues like ecological responsibility, and so on, but I suspect it is through the school system. My interaction with young people tends to be with high school- or university-age kids and they are already very proactive and engaged.

          PS The list of goals is partial.
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    Oct 15 2011: Reply to Linda Hesthag Ellwein and Jonathan Kao:

    I know we are having a conversation and, as such, our discourse is somewhat colloquial so let me just check in with you guys:

    Do you think Hu Jintao (the current Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China) simply decides what is going to happen, issues a decree, and then his minions do his bidding?

    If so, it doesn't actually work that way.

    I agree with you, Western-style democracies are latterly, demonstrably inefficient and China is currently enjoying exceptional growth by any standard we wish to mention. But to say this growth is attributable to a lack of democracy and the presence of an authoritarian leader is to almost completely misunderstand China and the Chinese "system."

    In my opinion, China is, if anything, too democratic. The notion that it is not democratic is a misconception because it is (most definitely) not a Western-style democracy.

    I have mentioned many times in other conversations that "the people" participate in virtually every decision ... at every level of governance. Everyone has their say, a consensus is reached, a decision is made, and action is taken. BUT if circumstances change, say a new player gets involved, the price of raw materials change, or whatever, the whole process starts up again. It is quite challenging for a "Western Mind" (like mine) to get used to this because a firm decision made one day can evaporate the next. For the "Chinese Mind" this is a common occurrence and to be expected.

    So to answer the question: Is China overtaking the West because they are NOT democratic?

    No because China is democratic.

    To attribute China's ascendance, or The West's decline, to any one thing - including democracy and how it is practiced - is simplistic.

    It's way more complicated than that.

    ----------
    EDIT: I live in China and have done for about 3 years.
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    Oct 15 2011: Response to Jonathan Kao. Reply is not working properly.

    Very well said, Jonathan. I'm often looked at crossways for saying a democracy is not necessarily the best mechanism for achieving the best possible outcome. In a democracy such as the US, decisions are made by popular opinion. Some believe this is what drives a free market economy. I say it is the fastest way to achieve mediocrity if a nation is not working towards a defined and agreed upon shared goal. As you said, a strong and wise leader with a clear vision can take a nation where it wants to go much faster than countless conflicting goals and a bureaucratic government, mired in red tape, trying to please everyone. Compromise is not win/win, it's lose/lose, particularly when it's not the long term goal they seek, but ideology.

    I think it boils down to how we make decisions - something we have not yet figured out how to do well. Trying to please everyone without the end in mind, while watering down the best possible outcome at every turn can result in collective entropy, lethargy and conflict. On the other hand, an authoritarian leader without clarity and a purposeful vision that serves the greater good will take a country down just as fast.
  • Oct 15 2011: In short, China is overtaking the US not necessarily because democracy is flawed, but for a multiltude of reasons, first and foremost that they are simply better capitalists then we are.

    They have a clean slate in the modern world, having only really joining the modern economy fifty odd years ago. And with 1.6 billion people, statistically there is a larger chance for people that are innovative, smart, and hard-working. The sheer amount of human resources accommodates the factories we see there today.

    Furthermore, being half-Chinese myself, I understand that the yearn and desire for perfection is much higher in China than in the US and the rest of the West. When my mom tells me that I am going to get a 4.0, I'm getting a 4.0. No questions asked. Perfection is not expected, for the Chinese are not robots, but each child, and later, adult, is expected to reach his or her full potential.

    Now lets get to the economic growth part. In the US, democracy is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it hinders the speed that things get passed. Unless there is a bill that is completely agreed upon, it is very very difficult to pass anything (especially with our current Republican congress. But thats another story). But on the other hand, it is easy to be innovative and struggle. When one idea fails, we try to find a better, more agreeable solution.

    China is the polar opposite. If something is going to be done, ITS GOING TO BE DONE. The West seems to have a phobia of all authoritarian governments, as we are reminded of the former Soviet Union, Stalin, etc. But if the authoritarian leader is correct in his thoughts, a nation can become very successful very fast.
  • Oct 11 2011: Each system has its own flaws. Democracy is overrated yes...but in a different way that this contest applies. It is overrated in the sense that its very system promotes power struggles & selfishness than what it was intended to...empowering the people. Americans do not control the country directly but through electing a President...not because that you all elected him makes him capable of ruling the country. This is like coming up with a system and forcing oneself to believe that the system works....this is WRONG.

    China's growth is a little overrated as well. It's a country with huge potential but it does not know how to fully optimize it. There are lots of resource waste in China at every level. Yes it will probably overtake America but it will NOT be as spectacular as westerners predicts since China is still far from optimizing its resource ;)
  • Oct 8 2011: Ask someone who doesn't have the rights to democracy if it is overrated? Can they read this conversation in China? China is taking over the role of the worlds "super-power" and in due time will have to deal with a society that will fight for their own personal freedoms. Only time will tell but the uprisings in the middle east could be a good litmus test.