“The illiterate Chinese people are not ready for democracy” — a pathetic argument

For a while I was very sympathetic to the claim that China wasn’t ready for democracy because it’s people weren’t educated enough, it’s too big, it would create chaos and all the usual arguments the CCP trots out when it’s challenged on the topic.

Not anymore. I’ve decided, in fact, that it may be one of the worst arguments out there. A recent article I cited by Joseph Kahn helped shake me free of any delusion in its opening sentences:

When asked why China, with its surging economy and rising power, has not yet begun to democratize, its leaders recite a standard line. The country is too big, too poor, too uneducated and too unstable to give political power to the people, they say.

The explanation is often delivered in a plaintive tone: China really would like to become a more liberal country, if only it did not have unique problems requiring the Communist Party to maintain its absolute monopoly on power for just a while longer.

The case of Hong Kong suggests it could be a great deal longer.

If I still had lingering doubts, today I read something that will keep me forever immunized against the “illiteracy” argument. This delightful new article takes a cool, cynical look at such claims and gives them the pulverization they deserve. It’s a long piece, bristling with irony and wit. Here’s a healthy, hilarious snippet:

You have to feel sorry for the Chinese, because they are just not ready for some of the good things in life. But don’t say that directly unless you want to make enemies of 1.3 billion people. However, if they tell you that they are not yet ready for some beautiful and advanced things, the proper thing is to nod emphatically, or even applaud if you happen to be Chinese. For they will get angry if you beg to differ. Forget that Mao Zedong famously once said: “The Chinese people have the determination and ability to stand tall and proud among the nations of the world.”

It doesn’t matter that from ships to chips, from water dams to dot coms, China is striding fast and furious toward modernization. It is nothing that to date no less than eight Chinese have won the Nobel Prize, from physics to peace to literature, and another brave Chinese has rocketed into outer space.

Still, there is something, however desirable, that is simply beyond the reach of the great Chinese people. This “something” may not be as complicated as lunar exploration or as high-tech as splitting the nucleus of an atom. It requires no more than signing one’s own name, after ticking somebody else’s name, on a piece of paper. Yes. That is called casting a vote, a ballot, a cutting-edge attainment beyond the capabilities of the Chinese, or so the Beijing government says.

In an interview in September 2000 with CBS’ Mike Wallace, China’s then-president Jiang Zemin explained why Chinese people can’t be allowed to have universal suffrage at this time: “The quality of our people is too low.” There, in a simple statement, the people – supposed masters of the country – were deemed not fit for democracy, because once the ignorant, the unqualified, acquire the right to choose their government, “chaos will ensue,” Jiang predicted. So the people are too stupid to know what is good for them. Only Papa, the Communist Party of China, knows best.

How’s that for a dry sense of humor?

I now see the “Chinese aren’t ready for democracy” argument to be a profound insult to one of the world’s most industrious, creative and brilliant people. Worse, it’s a lie. Take a look at the article to see how in the 1940s illiterate Chinese peasants were voting, and there was no chaos. Imagine that. In fact, it went remarkably smoothly.

The article is a small masterpiece, and it ends as bitingly as it begins:

The truth is that Beijing thinks many Hong Kong people are not “patriotic” enough to run the island.

Of course. We Chinese are never good enough, one way or another.

In conclusion, let us consider another editorial exhortation from the Xinhua Daily mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China: “How is democracy possible without ending one-party rule, without popular suffrage? Return the people’s rights to the people!” – September 27, 1945.

And even earlier:

“They [those who oppose the CPC] think the implementation of democracy in China is a matter not for today, but a number of years later. They want to practice democracy only after the Chinese people are as knowledgeable and educated as in democracies in Europe and America … But it is under a democratic system that a better education and training will be available to the people.” – February 24, 1939.

Is anybody here literate enough to spell “hypocrisy”?

The Discussion: 3 Comments

Property tycoon Ronnie Chan may have Beijing on his side in campaigning to block democracy in Hong Kong, but he doesn’t have the mathematics.

It’s not only China that is suposedly too uneducated for democracy. Beijing also has its spokemen claiming that rich, westernized, professional, Hong Kong, if you can believe it, is too uneducated for democracy.

The Hang Lung Group chairman said full democracy was a bad idea because of Hong Kong’s large number of uneducated residents.

“About 1.1 million of the people have only kindergarten or no education level at all,” he told the American Chamber of Commerce in a speech last month.

Not surprisingly, Chan’s statistics turned out to be pure bullshit.

May 10, 2004 @ 11:59 pm | Comment

I don’t think that the low ‘suzhi’ of China’s people is a particularly good reason for blocking democratic reform. I think the utter lack of rule of law, though, is a much better argument. But I doubt that you’ll see Hu Jintao on 60 Minutes sometime any time soon saying, “We can’t have democracy because we don’t have the ability to stop local village officials from beating their villagers into voting for their pet candidate” because that might scare off some starry-eyed foreign investors.

You should be careful of what you wish for anyway. If China were to have a direct presidential election next year between a CCP candidate and some opposition candidate, I’m pretty sure that the opposition candidate wouldn’t talk about the higher crime rates or economic disparities, but rather the CCP’s softness towards Taiwanese independence.

May 11, 2004 @ 12:01 am | Comment

Sooner or later. But it will be possible.

May 11, 2004 @ 6:38 am | Comment

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