9 Nov 2012

Democracy is messy, but is communism messier?

Sitting in the gallery looking down on the stage at the Great Hall of the People, the lyrics of a really annoying pop song were going through my head. “I wanna be perrr-fect! I wanna be flaaaw-less.”  That’s the Chinese Communist Party for you. Not a dyed black hair out of place, not a speck on each dark suit. Waiting for the delegates, someone fussed over a chair on stage and eventually taped it to the floor. Imagine if an important delegate fell off his chair! (Since the oldest was 97, it might take more than tape to keep them all upright. Or awake.)

Outside the Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square had been cleared of anything which might disrupt its flawlessness, ie: the people. Giant flower arrangements had been carefully wired up giant pillars. Guards in crisp green uniforms took pictures of each other. Young women, all of equal height, smiling to show no more than 8 teeth, wearing matching scarlet coats, greeted delegates. The square had been swept so clean you could have eaten off it.

I thought of President Obama’s victory speech. “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated,” he said. “When we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.”

Maybe that’s what China’s Communist leaders fear the most: mess. When explaining why democracy wouldn’t work in China they often cite the size of the country – 1.3 billion. Democracy would lead to chaos and disorder, they say.

Well, there’s some truth in that. But it’s lack of democracy which seems to be causing trouble at the moment. When people protest, as they did in the coastal town of Ningbo the other week, it was because they had not been consulted about a polluting PX factory about to be built on the outskirts of town. A journalist who reported the demonstrations told me that several of those he had met were doctors, teachers and other highly educated people. They’ve benefited from China’s economic reform and opening up, and now they see no reason that Communist Party cadres should make decisions on their behalf.

The big issue at the moment is corruption. Until now, people have only protested about local officials but they’re increasingly aware of the huge wealth amassed by the families of the elite. “If we fail to handle this issue well,” said outgoing President Hu Jintao in his address to the Congress, “It could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

But the party can’t handle the issue well, because the anti-corruption agencies come under the party leadership and there’s no separation of powers in the system. Without some degree of political reform repression is the only tool they have to contain dissent. Democracy is messy, but continued communism might prove even messier in the end.

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