I have made it a habit of reading the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report every day. It is based on Hong Kong with feet on the ground in mainland so their reporting is about as accurate as you can get. I highly reccommend it to anyone living in China or abroad to know what is going on over here.
This week they published a facinating article on democracy in China stating that “democracy has it’s benefits.” Now for anyone from a democratic country, that seems like a rather obvious statement. “Yeah, duh, that’s why we have it.” In fact, many of the statements in the article are simply restatements of why democracy exists and is spreading throughout the world. But for a country like China that doesn’t have a democratic state, the benefits of democracy are not so obvious. China is about as undemocratic as you can get. However, the most surprising thing about this article is the revelation that China does, in a few places, in fact have democracy at the village level..and has had it since 1982!
Yup, you heard me right. Some Chinese villages have been holding democratic elections of their leaders since the very early ’80s.
The article in the Wall Street Journal was based on a report by economists who studied the effects of democracy in villages from 1982 to 2005. Their findings were shocking, even for someone who knows the benefits of a democratic country. In villages that held elections, government officials spent as much as 27% more money on public works such as schools and irrigation. Government accountability: the cornerstone of demoracy. But the most surprising statistic was the effect democracy had on decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor. The poorest households saw an increase in income as much as 28%; and the richest households saw a decrease in income of as much as 29%!
The outcome of the study was very telling. There have been other studies done that showed there was very little economic growth in democratic villages. But this is the first study to look at equality, not growth. For democracy to make people more equal may be far more of a win than actual economic growth, especially in a communist state. After all, the basic goal of all democratic, communist, socialist, consitutional monarchist, and other similar government models are all the same: a govermment that works for the benefit of the people. And in a communist state, everyone is supposed to be equal. I find it facinating, though, that it is only through democracy and not communism that a communist government is able to see the results it claims to want.
One of the economists writes, though, that “if elections reduce local grievances, the ruling Communist Party may feel less pressure to change. If that’s the case, the economist write, the elections could become ‘an instrument for local governance that improves citizens’ satisfaction of [sic] the autocratic central regime.'” But I don’t think this is neccessarily a bad thing. China doesn’t need to become a full-fledged democracy, and they most likely couldn’t handle it. If anything it could have catastropic effects on the country since many areas would immediatly sue for independence. Niall Ferguson hosted a brilliant series for the BBC entitled China: Triumph and Turmoil in which he talks about how China has always needed to be ruled with a firm hand because the amount of death and destruction that results from rebellion has been catastropic in China’s history. And honestly, the vast majority of Chinese people don’t know or care what the party is doing. The average Chinese person is simply too focused on feeding his child that day. So if through just a little bit of democracy the life of the average Chinese person can be improved, then it really doesn’t matter to the people what the party is doing at the top. That little bit of equality and improved standard of living is a win in their book, and mine.