Democracy Lessons from China
by S.Wayne Morrison
South China Morning Post

If I could award a global prize for human rights or freedoms, it would go to China. The criterion: the largest number of people, or percentage of the population, given basic freedoms over any period in recent years. China would win easily.

You cannot be serious, I can hear some say. Well, let us define human rights: the ones we hear much about are political rights, but there are also the rights to freedom from hunger, poverty and unemployment, and the rights to work, health, education and representative government, among a host of others.

Geneva-based researcher Zhang Weiwei wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "The average person in China today has far more freedom of choice than at any time since 1949. Individuals can make their own choices of jobs, housing, school, marriages and leisure, and can move freely within the country or go abroad. "More and more people have the means to make these choices.

Representative government - call it democracy - is the one thing that gives China a lot of problems, and on which there is incremental progress. Why the problems: Because china does not want to jeopardize the important freedoms it has built on the back of its economic success, or that success itself. A country must attain those freedoms in order to have any hope of a genuine democracy.

Rule by the people is a right only when the building blocks of a nation - economic progress, a certain level of education and economic, personal and legal freedoms - are in place. But democracy comes at the top of the pile and can be undermined by the failure of any of the blocks underneath, the key one being the economy. Just look at Russia for an example of a wretched result when you try to build from the top.

Democracy cannot be an end in itself and the idea that it delivers all is a sham. Nor can it be demanded, or practiced effectively, from a position of poverty. To do so is a recipe for disorder and will be applauded only by the US State Department in delivering its sermon on human rights and democracy. This is why China insists on stability, which, as any government and foreign investor knows, is the key to building an economy.

Hong Kong had the building blocks long ago: prosperity and economic freedom (the British understood their importance well), personal freedoms and legal freedom. After 1997, we lost prosperity. Now China is restoring it. Hong Kong is moving towards democracy, but there are problems peculiar to the handover: chief among them, territorial integrity and loyalty to the sovereign.

My bottom line in judging any country is the state of its people. Is their economic and other status improving? But hang on, isn't that the goal of states that talk a lot about other people's "democracy"? No. In fact, China which is building these personal freedoms like no other country, is targeted for criticism by prevailing powers in matters like the political or religious rights of particular individuals. yes, they matter too, but the motivation for the criticism has little to do with the condition of the Chinese people. It is political advantage.

The shadow minister of another North Asian country once told me he thought it would be a long time before China became a fully democratic state because Beijing already had trouble "keeping the lid on". Was he unimpressed with China's record on expanding freedoms? Far from it. He regarded its performance in delivering quality of life and personal freedoms as excellent. That is why there is natural pressure for democracy.