China and America
The trouble with democracy—and dictatorship
Aug 1st 2011, 2:45 by Banyan
BOTH America and China seem to have been suffering crises of political faith.
As a massive investor in American sovereign debt, China’s government will be as relieved as other observers that last-ditch agreement has been reached in Washington, DC, to avoid a technical default. Some commentators in the official press, however, may rather miss the opportunity to highlight the perceived flaws in America’s political system.
After all, a crackdown on coverage of the high-speed rail disaster on July 23rd, in which at least 39 people died, inhibits them from discussion of some of the flaws in China’s.
China’s press loves to point out the failings and hypocrisies of the “advanced democracies”. The China Media Project at Hong Kong University has noted coverage of the phone-hacking scandal gripping Britain that gloats over the “deficit of professional ethics among news professionals in Western media”.
Even last month’s massacre in Norway, home of the Nobel peace prize awarded to both the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo, a jailed dissident, was grist to this mill. The official Xinhua news agency produced a commentary entitled “the Nordic version of September 11th to break the myth of Nordic peace”.
But it was the spectacle of American political gridlock, along with fear of the dreadful consequences it might have for the world as a whole, that provided the best opportunity for what, during the Cultural Revolution, was called “teaching by negative example”.
After all, even Barack Obama has said America risked having its credit rating downgraded because “it didn’t have a Triple-A political system to match”.
For Chinese observers, the showdown highlighted some structural difficulties: the checks and balances that hinder swift, decisive action; the tendency, between elections, for political parties to pander to their hard-core activists and neglect the moderate centre; and the lack of influence of those without votes, such as the future generations who will have to pay off America’s debts—and the outside world.
Xinhua raised these points in two succinct questions: “How can Washington shake off electoral politics and get difficult jobs done more efficiently? And how can US politicians improve their mindset so that they will care at least a bit more about the rest of the world when handling domestic affairs with global reverberations?”
But the first of these questions also helps explain why it is hard for even the most nationalist Chinese commentators to go to town at the moment about the superiority of the “Beijing model”. One of its supposed advantages is precisely that it “gets difficult jobs done more efficiently”. And one example often pointed to as a source of wonder and pride is the rapid development of a world-beating high-speed rail system.
That is why this disaster seems to have provoked even more outrage than previous scandals—such as those in 2008 over the shoddy building that made schools especially vulnerable to the Sichuan earthquake and the revelation that some baby-formula was tainted with melamine.
Both involved presumed corruption and official connivance. But neither undermined a central pillar of the party’s and government’s own claimed achievements.
All three scandals showed the limits to dictatorship—the lack of openness and accountability; the shortage of public scrutiny over government decisions; and the absence of public debate about them among politicians, however ugly that debate may sometimes look.