Though the history of democracy begins in Athens, it finds recognition in the era of European Enlightenment. It is here that human beings are defined as rational individuals endowed with inalienable rights. At the heart of any definition of democracy lies the provision of human rights. West’s experiment with democracy has been successful because it gives people the right to adopt professions and skills of their choice and talent that leads to human development. With the opening up of the culture of providing opportunities and establishing meritocracy, development and prosperity reach new pinnacles. In this context would it be correct to say that democracy warrants economic growth? If true, where do we place China, the second largest economy in the world, after the US? China does not practice democracy. It instead believes in the forced compliance of policies it considers vital for development. It also does not leave the business of choosing political leaders to masses. So, should we infer, that China does not believe in the notion that individuals are rational and therefore cannot fathom what is right for their country? Should we also assume that democracy and authoritarianism are just words, and what matters is good governance that improves standards of living?
The standing committee of Politburo, the decision-making arm of China’s Communist Party, decides the question that who shall rule the country. Political leadership in China grows from within the party and is marked by years of governance experience. Leaders are selected against a set of norms that includes performance measures, opinion polling within the party, term, and age. Though ordinary Chinese may not have a say to decide who would reign their country, the culture of consultative process within the party, a departure from the one-man decision practiced by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, has made China’s political system more inclusive. As far as democracy per se is concerned, it has no place in China. President Xi Jinping has been quoted saying: “No one political system should be regarded as the only choice and we should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” The Chinese are, however, clear about the necessity of having the quality leadership to keep the political process from going awry. China is experiencing the third revolution under Xi; the other two were brought about by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Xi’s decision to prolong his presidential stay through an amendment in the Chinese constitution is part of the third revolution marked by the Belt Road Initiative.
This brings us to another question: Does authoritarianism brings prosperity? The Arab Spring happened because the authoritative rulers of a handful of Middle Eastern countries had kept the human development indicators so weak that people in those counties remained poor, underdeveloped, unemployed and bereft of professional opportunities. Many of these countries went through the experience of developing or revamping constitutions and holding elections, but no significant change was achieved. The reason why democracy could not help much is that the attitude of the leaders towards human rights did not change.
Any nation under any system of governance can progress and rise if it has a leadership that could make tough decisions. China has been criticised for its policies considered in violation of human rights, such as the detention of rights activists and gaging social media sites or limiting people’s access to the Internet. China does all this with a singular aim of not allowing anyone disturb the pace of its development. China is not perturbed when the US or the United Nations raise fingers against rights issues. When China began hanging people on accusations of corruption in matters related to public welfare, no amount of international uproar could restrain it.
Is there any lesson for Pakistan in the Chinese model of governance? For over 70 years, Pakistan has seen a war between its democratic and dictatorial systems. Three coups and umpteen backdoor interventions, from the establishment, have kept the political system in turmoil. All these years neither the military rulers nor the civilian leadership could make human development possible.
The quality of education is dismally low, and people, in general, are leading a below average life in term of wellbeing, qualification, and professional insight. After the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the premiership, the Muslim League Nawaz is washing the dirty linen of the country’s institutions in public, only to establish that if its government has not been corruption free, other institutions have equally been nonstarters. All this is being done in the name of democracy. Lately, Nawaz Sharif has been asking his audience, at public rallies, to frustrate the evil designs of the establishments by the power of the vote. Sadly, vote in Pakistan can be bought, transferred, re-casted and reshuffled. The existing system of governance in Pakistan is modelled after devil’s design to keep citizens underdeveloped while the politicians’ fortune rise. It has no relevance to enlightenment or rationality. We cannot depend on the existing lot of people to choose who should rule us. Thomas Jefferson said: “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electoral.” Until we have that educated lot, and a leadership that could carve an indigenous system of governance, let the Chinese model be our saviour.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.