Whenever the government of the People’s Republic of China agrees with the US State Department about China’s internal affairs, it is a good bet that either both are wrong or that the matter is irrelevant. Premier Wen Jiabao has promised direct elections at the township level within the next couple of years, as Fong Tak-ho reported September 19 in Asia Times Online. Two days later, American Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick,  added his two cents:

China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people. Village and grassroots elections are a start. They might be expanded – perhaps to counties and provinces – as a next step. China needs to reform its judiciary. It should open government processes to the involvement of civil society and stop harassing journalists who point out problems. China should also expand religious freedom and make real the guarantees of rights that exist on paper – but not in practice.

One might call China’s proposal to institute elections at the township level a Potemkin Village program, after the model villages built by Catherine the Great’s eponymous minister (Potemkin villages were, purportedly, fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787) – with an important difference: Real villages housed the vast majority of Catherine the Great’s 18th-century subjects, but China’s villages will fade due to urbanization and aging. Rural self-rule has no bearing at all upon the problem of Chinese governance. If Chinese villagers have the opportunity to elect their own leaders, the main issue about which they will quarrel will be who is allowed to leave first.

Instead, China must learn to rule cities that are mushrooming into the largest urban concentrations the world has ever known, populated by poor migrants speaking various dialects. By far the largest popular migration in history is in flow tide between the Chinese countryside and coastal cities. In the mere span of five years between 1996 and 2000, China’s urban-rural population ratio rose to 36%-64% from 29%-71%, and the UN Population Division projects that by 2050, the ratio will shift to 67%-33% urban. Chinese cities, the UN forecasts, will contain 800 million people by mid-century. By 2015, the population of cities will reach 220 million, compared to the 1995 level of 134 million.

Well over half a billion souls will migrate from farm to city over the space of half a century. All of them will be quite poor. China claims 80% literacy, but as countryside reads less than the city, it is a fair guess that a third of the migrants will be illiterate, and many of them, again perhaps a third, will not be able to understand a political speech in Mandarin, the largest dialect. No historical precedent exists for a population transfer on this scale, and to conduct it peacefully would be a virtuoso act of statecraft. To require China to adopt a Western parliamentary regime in the process is utopian. Two observations about China’s future suggest themselves:

First, the great urban migration will nullify the recurring tragic cycle of Chinese history, in which the backward countryside overwhelms the progressive metropolis. Inference from the patterns of Chinese history has been the main prop for a pessimistic evaluation of China’s long-term prospects, but it is specious. This time the countryside will atrophy and the metro pole will burgeon. Whether by chance or design, China’s one-child policy, which by Western standards is cruel, has eroded the countryside’s traditional source of power, namely its bottomless well of people.

Second, China’s elderly population will rise from 8% today, by UN estimates, to 23% of the population by 2050, somewhat less than Iran’s 28% or America’s 32% and far below Germany’s 50%. China’s high rate of economic growth makes that burden bearable. If China can sustain a 5% economic growth rate through mid-century, its economy will be 10 times larger than it is now by mid-century. By contrast, Iran’s economic growth rate, propped up by government make-work spending, must slow as oil exports cease after 2020.

The contrast between China and Iran is instructive. As I observed elsewhere (Demographics and Iran’s imperial designSeptember 13) Iran’s demographic trainwreck pushes its government toward monstrous measures at home and adventures abroad. Its new president Ahmadinejad recently proposed to forcibly relocate 30 million rural Iranians, reducing the number of villages to only 10,000 from the present 66,000. China requires no such plan, for its high economic growth rate encourages underemployed peasants to find more productive work in cities. China’s problem is to constrain migrants from the countryside, where up to 200 million farmers have little effective employment. Iran already suffers from an 11% unemployment rate. Ahmadinejad will dump the footloose young men of Iran into the army, taking a page from Hitler’s book.

As long as China’s economic growth continues to produce jobs, guiding the country through this great migration will command the undivided attention of the Chinese government. Except for securing supplies of energy and raw materials, nothing that China might undertake in the sphere of strategic policy will mar or bless this, its principal endeavor. It has no incentive to undertake foreign adventures. With no hope of achieving the required economic growth, by contrast, Iran’s leaders hope to seize a regional empire, tempted by the oil riches of neighbors who also have a large Shi’ite Muslim population.

No system of government is more successful than America’s, and no happier people can be found than one that manages its own affairs. The freedom of the Anglo-Saxon countries is the envy of the world, and explains why the most enterprising migrants enrich the populations of these countries, rather than, say, Germany’s. But for a people to govern itself, it first must want to govern itself and want to do so with a passion. It also must know how to do so. Democracy requires an act of faith, or rather a whole set of acts of faith. The individual citizen must believe that a representative sitting far away in the capital will listen to his views, and know how to band together with other citizens to make their views known. That is why so-called civil society, the capillary network of associations that manage the ordinary affairs of life, is so essential to democracy. Americans elect their local school boards, create volunteer fire brigades and raise and spend tax dollars at the local level to provide parks or sewers. But the most important sort of faith required for democracy to succeed is the willingness to lose. Governments decide upon issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of their citizens – wars, taxation, health care and so forth. A majority of Americans appears to believe that the Bush Administration has bungled the Iraq War, but only a handful of fanatics question the president’s authority to conduct the war according to his best judgment. Even when the American government does things that most citizens oppose, the sanctity of elected authority outweighs the particular issue at hand. That is, Americans have faith that good sense will prevail over time and that a majority of their fellow citizens eventually will come to the right conclusion and elect better leaders.

The faith that underlies constitutional politics as it originated in the Anglo-Saxon world stemmed from a religious faith. America did not assign democratic rights to its citizens because it aspired for a more efficient market for public goods, but rather because Americans believed in a God who championed the poor and downtrodden, who could not help but hear the cry of the widowed and fatherless. It is possible that an enlightened but non-religious view of the rights of man, on the French model, might produce the same political result, but no sane person would want to repeat the political experience of France.

I do not propose that the Chinese must become Congregationalists before they can practice democracy. But political faith presumes a deeper sort of faith in the inherent worth of the humblest of one’s fellow-citizens. What China’s new urban population will come to believe is the greatest conundrum of all. It seems inadequate to refer to Chinese civilization as “Confucian,” along with Harvard political scientist Professor Samuel Huntington, for Confucianism orders the social relations of a world that has altered beyond recognition. The present generation of Chinese has concentrated its efforts upon improving its material circumstances of life; the next generation will inquire about what makes life worth living. Patience for constitutional government requires not only faith, but a certain economic margin for error, that is, capital. People who own nothing but the clothes on their backs and have nothing to sell but their labor cannot be asked to have patience. As a nation of freeholding farmers and independent craftsmen, America began its existence with a broad base of capital. In 2000, the average American household had a net worth of $55,000, while households of married couples had a net worth of $92,000. This sort of trust in one’s fellows did not come easily to Americans, who fought two civil wars, including the Revolution, in which as many colonists supported George III as did Washington. It is a habit learned most easily at the local level. In this sense it is unfortunate that Chinese circumstances do not lend themselves to village democracy. But it is pointless to expect new arrivals in Shanghai or Guangzhou to master the political skills that Anglo-Saxons learned over centuries.

That leaves a terrible responsibility in the hands of a very few to lead China through a great transition. It cannot be otherwise. America would be better advised to offer practical suggestions, such as how to develop internal capital markets, rather than grandiose and self-serving advice.


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