What is Democracy’s Selling Proposition with Respect to China?

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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54 Responses

  1. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union broke up, I think we stopped caring about promoting our “way of life”. This has had consequences, not just in our PR, but in the way that we conduct our government’s business.

    The US of WWII featured a president that agonized over whether it was moral to send a targeted strike to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto after they received intel about where and when such a flight would be.

    Does anyone agonize over stuff like this now? It doesn’t seem like it.

    And there are lots of stories and folklore about how well we treated our POWs. It’s probably an exaggeration, but the tales you tell say something about your values, even if you don’t always live up to them in practice. Now we see people competing over who can be nastier to prisoners.

    This mirrors the whole Iron Age of Comics (and film), which was so ably lampooned by the film version of Dudley Dooright. (“That’s not black, that’s dark blue!”).Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      The US of WWII featured a president that agonized over whether it was moral to send a targeted strike to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto after they received intel about where and when such a flight would be.

      Honestly, this strikes me as monstrous. I mean, I’m sure Yamamoto was a swell guy, but I bet a lot of the rank and file men were, too. Targeted assassination is hands-down the most moral way to end a war, because you’re only killing one or a few people, instead of however many lower-ranked soldiers you’d have to kill to have the same strategic effect. To worry more about killing one general than about starting a battle that will kill hundreds or thousands is to say that the general’s life has orders of magnitude more worth than the mooks.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    I still think we are better than China, but certainly since 9/11, the gap has been narrowing, and not because China has been getting better.Report

  3. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I get that a point that many westerners have trouble understanding is going to be lost on many Chinese people as well, but it’s important to point out here that the US is not restricting speech. Nothing the BLM protestors are saying is not being said in newspapers and on social media every day, and nobody is being arrested or fined for that. The newspapers are not being shut down. Police forces in the US are trying to stop riots, not speech. Reasonable content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions have long been ruled Constitutional—for good reason—and “no rioting” is about as uncontroversial as such restrictions come.

    I’m told that some police officers are overstepping their bounds and arresting or hassling protestors who are not actually rioting. Given that left-wing protestors have a history of not being entirely honest about this kind of thing, I’m skeptical of any given specific claim, but I suppose some of them must be true. So that’s bad. But you can still say whatever you want.

    That’s not what’s happening in China. China is putting restrictions on pure speech. They’re arresting publishers, booksellers, and bloggers. Their concern is not just with keeping the peace, but with making sure the official narrative goes unchallenged (come to think of it, that sounds familiar).

    Maybe one way to illustrate this is to draw attention to the things the media says about the current administration. That would never fly in China.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Although, as in the old Soviet joke, there’s always the risk that your Chinese interlocutor will respond 中国人也可以尽情批评特朗普总统了!Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Very true. What worries me (and admittedly this is probably just a result of how online everything is) but the number of people who appear to seriously pine for greater restrictions on speech (e.g. hate speech), such that there is still a chilling effect on speech.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I’m less concerned about restrictions on actual hate speech than about the biased and exceedingly poor judgment of the would-be censors. True hate speech has little redeeming social value, but much of what gets smeared as hate speech has quite a bit.Report

    • Avatar Slade the Leveller in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      I’m told that some police officers are overstepping their bounds and arresting or hassling protestors who are not actually rioting. Given that left-wing protestors have a history of not being entirely honest about this kind of thing, I’m skeptical of any given specific claim, but I suppose some of them must be true. So that’s bad. But you can still say whatever you want.

      Greg Doucette has a Twitter thread that is over 800 tweets long containing evidence that saying whatever you want around the police might cost you a bop on the noggin.Report

  4. Avatar CJColucci says:

    What is “democracy” trying to sell, and to whom? Unless the seller — whoever that is — knows the answers to that, it’s hard to work up a pitch.Report

  5. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    In the famous Kitchen Debate between Kruschev and Nixon the terms were set, that free markets and liberal democracy would provide both freedom and prosperity and that argument has propelled politics throughout the world.

    China is advancing the idea that this is not so, that state controlled markets and authoritarianism can provide prosperity and the value of liberal democracy is overrated.

    The thing I worry about is not that the protests will tarnish our standing in the world; The Soviets had a field day with the “What about your Negros?” argument and it never gained traction.

    My main worry is the declining standard of living relative to “unfree” nations like China will make their model more attractive. Remember that the central point Nixon made in 1959 was to display a modest home which “all Americans” could easily afford. Although it wasn’t technically true, it was true for enough people to be a fair statement.

    That has become less and less true as time goes on.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      “What about your Uighurs?”Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      My main worry is the declining standard of living relative to “unfree” nations like China will make their model more attractive

      Obligatory reminder that on a per-capita basis, adjusted for purchasing power parity, China has, by the most favorable reckoning, nearly caught up with Mexico.

      China is a large country, but it is not particularly wealthy. Meanwhile, the liberal Han-majority economies (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong) have caught up with or surpassed all but the richest European countries.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        China is not the super power it looks like. It has a looming demographic crisis and will be a real world experiment in seeing what happens when a very large country gets old before it gets rich.

        But you also don’t have to be a BernieBro to recognize that our own civil infrastructure isn’t holding up, that we chose over and over not to invest in it. Our moral authority rests to at least some degree on our system kicking ass, not falling into a muddle of pros and cons.Report

        • Avatar Brent F in reply to InMD says:

          There’s an interesting element of that. China is huge and also very geographically uneven in terms of development. The richest regions are approaching the lower levels of European development while the poorest regions are still at African levels.

          So part of the country got rich before it got old and part of it didn’t. That’s going to be an interesting dynamic.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        China spends a metric crap ton of money in aid to countries around the world to gain influence and good PR. They have been building things and doing stuff for people all over Africa and South America for a couple decades. They look rich and beneficial to a lot of people around the world. That isn’t an accident.

        Of course HK is a formally liberal place now.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        All very true, but think of the trajectory.

        A man my age (59) in China has childhood memories of starvation and dreams of one day buying a bicycle. Today he lives in a 3 bedroom flat, drives a car and worries about obesity.

        I have childhood memories of great factory jobs where a guy with a high school education could buy a house. Today it takes two incomes and graduate degrees to live that way.

        Not a reason to despair, but definitely a reason to be worried.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          I have childhood memories of great factory jobs where a guy with a high school education could buy a house.

          Because of redlining and racism! You daydream of the days that Trump daydreams about! You don’t even care that what was normal for people who looked like you wasn’t available for people who looked Black or Mexican or, yes, Chinese.

          Put on the red hat already.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      This is a great comment Chip and I think it underlies many of the problems we’re facing as a country. Some degree of shared prosperity is required for our system to maintain the critical mass of legitimacy it needs.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      that state controlled markets and authoritarianism can provide prosperity and the value of liberal democracy is overrated.

      The big distortion on this evaluation is China started from a base of zero. The Chairman burned down the economy, even state controlled markets work WAY better than that.

      However it’s not clear to me that this works long term. We hear stories that are suggestive of insane levels of wasteful spending. We also have seen this movie before. In the 1980’s the USA was abuzz on how Japan would do so much better than us and how the Japanese model was superior… then we got to see the long term problems and we don’t hear that any more.

      At the moment the rose colored glasses are still on. The Chinese state media doesn’t focus on problems, just success.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One thing that keeps getting noticed on the Twitters is that millennials don’t have any assets.

    Sure, they have an awesome degree from an awesome school but they’re living in a city with roommates and they’re no longer in their 20’s but in their 30’s.

    If they don’t have a career (merely a job), then they’re 30 years old and don’t have any assets and they don’t have a career.

    Meanwhile, a bunch of people in the sticks have houses. They might not have an awesome degree and they might not have a career either, but at least they have a house.

    And that’s a tinder box.

    What is the selling proposition of democracy to China? There isn’t one. Not anymore. We used to have stuff like Western Civ and The Enlightenment but we all know that those are dog whistling codewords now.

    Democracy just means stuff like the George Floyd/Taiwan/Hong Kong riots.

    Stability has upsides that democracy/destability doesn’t have a moral counter-argument to.Report

  7. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I’d tweak the question a little bit: What is Democracy’s selling proposition to Americans? Can we answer that question clearly and univocally for our ownselves?Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to Stillwater says:

      I mean, it definitely enables us to play out our most base impulses in a way no authoritarian society could allow. We can gamble it all away on black. So we’ve got that.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to InMD says:

        Here’s one way to look at it: Democracy is sold as the idea that governmental policy is responsive to the citizens demands because we can elect people who’ll enact the changes (or not) we, collectively, prefer. One trivial example of how this *doesn’t* happen – and I say ‘trivial’ because the only thing at stake was signalling value – is the failure of the Dem Party to include legalizing pot in the offical party platform despite 83% of the voting base approving of it. The intransigence of the political PTB on that and other issues is, in my mind, indistinguishable from a totalitarian political system.

        “But unlike a totalitarian regime, at least it’s *possible* for voters to change policy.”

        “Why do you think totalitarian systems are incapable of changing policy?”Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

          Related: Trumwill linked to an essay written by a CU-Boulder student (go Buffs!) listing policy positions vafored by at least two thirds of the electorate which are not, and seemingly never will be enacted into law. It’s a pretty amazing list. I’ll see if I can find it.

          Found it!

          https://arcdigital.media/what-if-a-presidential-candidate-ran-on-what-most-americans-actually-wanted-bd570321b428Report

          • Avatar InMD in reply to Stillwater says:

            The ability to participate in and of itself can be just as meaningful as the ability to impact policy. The problem isn’t the process it’s when too many people think it’s a sham.

            One of the things we do not talk enough about is just how bad things were in early modern Europe and why the basic enlightenment ideas became appealing over time.Report

          • Avatar InMD in reply to Stillwater says:

            Definitely an interesting read, even with all the caveats on the limitations of what we can deduce from polls.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Stillwater says:

            It’s an interesting article but… I dunno… disingenuous. She notes, briefly in an aside, that depending on the wording support plummets- like, for instance, if one talks about the cost or secondary effects of the assorted left wing positions she lists as having super-majority support. I mean we could write the exact inverted article with right wing preferred policies if we played by those rules and it’d tell us the same thing this article does- which is to say not a lot.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to North says:

              North, the policies she’s speaking about have two thirds majorities of the public, not the Dems. I’m not sure that affects your overall point, but yes, surely the way poll questions are worded shapes how people respond. None of the specific policis she includes are particularly surprising to me (though some of the granularity in the carbon rediction policies struck me as unreliable) since polls over many years have shown that conservatives support the same suite of policies.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Stillwater says:

                I understand that. I guess I’m quibbling because we could do a similar exercise with (what few remain) right wing policies where, with the right wording, they could probably accumulate super majority support.
                Like, “reduce the taxes you have to pay” would probably command super majority support in polling if you word it correctly.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to North says:

                “Did this ad make you feel good about the product?” – Yes.
                “Did this ad make you more likely to want to buy the product?” – Yes.
                “Are you going to buy the product?” – Oh heck no. Not in a million years.Report

            • Avatar InMD in reply to North says:

              I’m not sure the author is saying ‘this platform would win elections’ so much as identifying the disconnect between the priorities of actual people versus where the discussion between policy makers actually is. And I think some disconnect in our system is to be expected. But is it getting too big? I can think of many recent events suggesting it might beReport

              • Avatar North in reply to InMD says:

                Perhaps, but the examples she lists only typically pass muster in their most honey coated versions. Universal healthcare, for instance, gets up to 60% support only if you don’t talk about how to pay for it- whereupon support plunges like a paralyzed falcon.
                I agree there’s definitely a yawning gap between what the public wants and what policy makers will consider. Drug legalization and foreign isolationism spring readily to mind. I don’t know that it’s as left leaning as the author suggests.Report

              • Avatar InMD in reply to North says:

                Oh I hear you. And to the extent those policies do have that level of support I believe a big chunk of it comes with a distinctly nationalistic and not remotely ‘progressive’ tang to it.

                But it does come back to this question of whether our democracy is working the way it’s supposed to. My take away is people care about pocket book issues and basic quality of life stuff. They want benefits but not to over pay for them. And yet is that what our elites are debating and/or trying to figure out for us? I would say ‘not really’ and certainly not as a priority.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to InMD says:

                That is a defensible position.Report

              • Avatar Douglas Hayden in reply to North says:

                Everything you need to know about universal healthcare can be done just by looking at the trajectory of the Liz Warren campaign. The instant she turned it from a slogan to a plan: Boom, paralyzed falcon.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Douglas Hayden says:

                It is, indeed, a very solid real world example. Also Senator Warren is a wonk and not a lefty nut- if she or her team could have found a more palatable or feasible way to present M4A I have no doubt they would have done so.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

          I made the mistake of editing a post with a linky. Mod Gods, hear my plea!Report

  8. Avatar North says:

    Setting aside the excellent comments that preceded mine one point that isn’t touched on much is long term stability. Like, true long term stability. To use the US as an example Presidents and administrations have been regularily and routinely shuffling in and out of power every four years pretty much like clockwork since 1788 (one could argue 1868 and I think there’s an arguement to be made there but even during the Civil War period the administrations came and went in a relatively orderly fashion). The Chinese, by contrast, have only managed to sustain their current power structure for a handful of decades and Xi, himself, has hashed a lot of the limiting factors that made their current oligopolistic system rattle along. What happens after Xi is gone? When will Xi be gone? I don’t know and neither does anyone else.

    This orderly and reliable transition of power is something that is wrongly taken for granted in modern liberal democracies. It’s far from a given and far from assured in non-democratic countries. The authoritarian model has a major stability problem when it comes to transition periods, which is ironic considering that stability is one of their key claims.Report

  9. I’m not so sure I want to “sell” democracy to China. I wish the Chinese had it, or at least had more rights. But I’m not particularly interested in encouraging “them” to adopt it. “Them” is scare quoted, of course. What type of government that a polity adopts is not only what the population (a majority? a large majority?) wants, but what those in control want. If I were to wish to “sell” democracy, I might have to “sell” it to those in power in China.Report

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