Friday, January 19, 2018

Choice of the people?

WHILE millions were involved in the election of the American president—as volunteers, officials, voters and financiers—just a few hundred gathered to choose the president and prime minister of China. While Americans were overwhelmed by the surfeit of information, the Chinese seemed to prefer secrecy.

First, it should be noted that both societies have much in common and that the differences are not determined by the methods of choice of their leaders. Unlike most African countries, both America and China produce enormous amounts of goods and services for their people, provide massive infrastructure and guarantee exceptional public health, education and security.

While over 80 per cent of Chinese are satisfied with their government, only about 50 per cent of Americans voted for Barack Obama. And while large numbers of people are dissatisfied with local government in China, complain and demonstrate against decisions at that level, Americans seem wary and indifferent about government below presidential level. The level of voter participation is low.

So African countries need to find the system most suitable to their needs.

The complexity of the American system and the power of bureaucracy, lobbyists and the media also distort the democratic process. The separation of powers may have been designed to prevent tyranny and foster democracy, but as operated at present, it results in gridlock, inertia and near impossibility to alter the status quo. Obama preached "change'' in 2008, but could not implement it.

While the Chinese system appears to involve a relatively small number of people and much secrecy, it is not an arbitrary or undemocratic process. Almost ten per cent of the population belong to the Communist Party, and no Chinese is barred from membership on grounds of class, race, ethnicity, gender or religion. The numbers are bigger than the population of most nations.

The party's operation is highly competitive and democracy functions at every level, far more intensely than in any western "democratic'' society. The Chinese introduced the system of education to select leaders hundreds of years ago, and the country has always been a meritocracy, albeit an imperfect one. There's no way the equivalent of George Bush could have come to power in China.

Xi Jinping and his colleagues have proven track records, established from when they entered the party and were chosen by their fellows to be leaders from village to provincial and then national levels. Xi has run three provinces larger than most countries, and it was his performance at these levels that propelled him to the top in the present selection.

Of course, the process did not run as smoothly or as flawlessly as the party's propaganda organs would have us believe. Xi is a "princeling'', the son of one of Mao Zedong's leading generals and advisers. But this was a hazard at one time as his father fell out with the chairman and was locked up. As a young man Xi himself worked with pig farmers and lived in a cave during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese system is corporate, one of collective leadership. The leader and his cronies cannot force the country into war against Japan, Cambodia, Iraq or Afghanistan. While they are not "chosen'' in expensive elections, the Chinese populace is much more demanding and would eject any leader who failed to pull his weight, or who condemned the country to stagnation or unending conflict.

On his election the Chinese president promised to double GDP and national income during his tenure of ten years. This is not an unreasonable expectation since it requires an annual increase of 7.2 per cent, while the average for the past 30 years has been over ten per cent per annum, meaning that GDP doubled every 7.2 years. The other promises, while necessary, may be harder to achieve.

Reforms are necessary but should not be carried out naively, sentimentally or under Western pressure. Gorbachev is an example of unsophisticated reform of a "communist'' system which resulted in the exchange of a flawed system for a violently criminal one. Rule by super rich oligarchs was much worse than rule by unimaginative "comrade'' bureaucrats.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin were far more repulsive and incompetent than Brezhnev or Andropov, and neither would have won in free and fair elections with Stalin or Khrushchev. Based on its performance over the past 50 years, the Communist Party of China would win elections against any opposition party for the foreseeable future. People do not vote on the basis of "democratic'' slogans.

The reforms that the new leadership in China need to pursue are to reduce excessive secrecy, social control, the dominance of the party, and corruption of the system which has resulted in a huge gap between rich and poor. In a society dominated by social media, which has the greatest number of net users in the world, it is grotesque and self-defeating to try to control information.

Chinese outside the party are among the best educated in the world and can be trusted much more than Americans or Western Europeans to participate in choosing their leaders. While leaders themselves are not excessively corrupt, it is known that many of their families and cronies are. China has a tried system of piloting reforms, and the ones they need now can be tested at all levels.

• Patrick Wilmot, who is based in London, is a writer and commentator on the BBC, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and CNN.

• Courtesy Jamaica Observer