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Why China won’t — and shouldn’t — become a liberal democracy

Western commentators say China can’t keep going as it is without adopting a Western-style government. Former political adviser and University of Melbourne academic Mark Triffitt says it never will — and that’s a good thing.

Li Keqiang

How long can China’s one-party state resist political reform and the inevitability of becoming a Western-style democracy? That’s the question many China watchers are asking as China continues its fourth decade of economic transformation based on Western market doctrines.

Western media, political leaders and scholars argue that without Western democracy, China’s bold trajectory of economic development is bound to slow, or even disintegrate abruptly. The irony about these arguments is that the political system the West remains intent on exporting to the world’s most populous nation is increasingly the subject of rising doubt and distrust. This “ripe for export, damaged goods at home” narrative is increasingly underlined by growing citizen distrust with elected representatives and governments across the majority of Western democracies.

Over the past two decades, citizens have been exiting en masse from political parties and participation. Perceptions of malaise and gridlock increase as our political system fails to grapple with the big public policy challenges of our time.

Better, more strategic leadership is seen as the solution to making what most believe to still be the optimal political system for the 21st century live up to its potential. But let’s keep three things in mind here.

First, Western-style political systems and institutions — derived as they are from 19th-century ideas about how politics should be organised — are no longer optimal, nor even functional in the 21st century. Nor can they be rescued by the panacea of better leadership. This is because, over the last 20 years, these systems have become increasingly isolated from the world around them. As a result, they are increasingly unfit for their purpose for the 21st century.

Second, this isolation is the result of fundamental and irreversible changes to the configurations of political and economic activity that have occurred worldwide from the early 1990s onwards. The changes have particularly focused around the rapid global rollout and take-up of interconnected communications, notably the internet, combined with the rapid spread of liberal market systems on a global scale, otherwise known as globalisation.

The combined effects of globalisation and the massive take-up of virtual interconnectedness have super-sped, super-scaled and made super-complex the dynamics of political and economic activity. In effect, these fundamental changes have profoundly undercut the functionality of Western democracy.

… how can we expect China to adopt a system that is profoundly struggling to maintain functionality and legitimacy in the West?”

Western democracy, otherwise known as liberal democracy, assumes the world around it will and always move in a comparatively slow, sequential way. This allows political leaders and elected representatives sufficient time to decide on policy and legislate for it in a deliberative fashion.

It also assumes the political party system will always be the best way to aggregate and adequately represent and respond to the political voices and concerns of its citizens. It assumes elected representatives and parliaments are the prime decision-makers and policymakers because they are best able to understand, anticipate and shape the world around them.

But in the context of globalisation and an exponential increase in connectedness, none of these organising principles apply with any consistency or coherency any longer. It has become nearly impossible for elected politicians and parliaments to know or anticipate what is going on in the super-fast and super-complex world that now surrounds them. It is also becoming more and more difficult for parliaments to create timely or coherent public policy or legislative frameworks to anticipate and manage major change, or command consensus around it.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult for political parties, organised as they are around 19th-century social and economic cleavages of class, geography and ideology, to relate to, let alone effectively represent, the rapidly changing, fragmenting political voices and endlessly reconfiguring political identities of a social media-driven citizenry.

With these profound problems in mind, how can we expect China to adopt a system that is profoundly struggling to maintain functionality and legitimacy in the West?

The logical answer to these questions leads to my third contention: that China cannot, and in fact should not, adopt a Western-style liberal democracy. Adopting the West’s increasingly sub-optimal system of liberal democracy would most likely dramatically increase, not lessen the chances of China’s stagnation.

One of the interesting facets of China’s political system is that beneath the rock of China’s one-party state is a fascinating experiment in political innovation. In essence, the Chinese Communist Party has been quietly instituting a major program of public participation and grassroots decision-making through town meetings, community-based assemblies and what we would recognise in the West as large-scale focus groups.

This may not be democracy as the West knows it. But in a 21st century world that is increasingly bypassing parliaments and political parties, it may point to a future where political systems are judged more on direct public participation than adherence to 19th-century institutions and processes.

  • 1
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Where’s the wall.

  • 2
    Victor Boase
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    After a recent visit to southern China I came away thinking that the acceptance of a right to private property and freedom of expression may be more important than universal franchise to the Chinese. You do not need a “liberal democracy” for that. It has been posited elsewhere that access to the rights associated with private property are a singular driver of economic performance and were the chief obstacle to growth for command economies.

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    A challenging and well articulated article - thanks.

    Now, how to modernise our own democracies…

  • 4
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    No mention that China is a profoundly corrupt state? The power of the party and the extent of corruption will inevitably lead to upheaval. Al animals are equal but some……….

  • 5
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a very good article.
    Michael, one of the major reasons US liberal democracy doesn’t work is because the members of Congress are answerable only to the business and corporate interests that fund them, not the electorate. I call that the highest form of corruption where the political system has been bought.
    That’s what happened in our last election when Murdoch, Rinehart and big business bought the LibNats and now they are paying for the support from the increased taxes of the poorest Australians. You don’t have to go to China for corruption.

  • 6
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Contesting blind principles such as western democracy is a bold move, however it is well articulated in this article. Another striking example is demonstrated in Eurpoe where the market meltdown has lead to the suspension of democracy in favour of rule by technocrats.

  • 7
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Mark Triffet’s article Why China won’t — and shouldn’t — become a liberal democracy, was puzzling. Really… no need for a Chinese democracy? Chinese Communism, is, ahem, working? Could someone email Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel laureate, the article?

    It would be easy to ignore this as another of those articles written by a former political warrior now political theorist/policy expert/media commentator/blogger about how the [insert country/society] could have been improved/changed/reformed if only one didn’t have to persevere through antiquated/archaic/tired/redundant institutions and processes. Oh, and I almost forgot, add comparator country with benevolent dictator/party and well-performing economy as evidence to support said propositions. But that would be too easy. That would be a continuation of the Australian government’s approach to the Australian-Chinese relationship that has seen human rights moved into the abyss of dinner speeches and articles ghost-written for publication in policy/political publications while trade volumes increased.

    It is of course pointless to outline the various ironies, hypocrisies and just plain hutzpah in claiming that the current system in the ‘West’ (whatever that tired phrase now means) is tired and, presumably, broken. Perhaps Crikey could publish an article about the institutional actors who have been complicit in undermining democratic systems, say like corporate lobbyists…

    PS: Public consultation is not ‘political innovation’.

  • 8
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    This is just noble elitism dressed up as intellectualism. Four Legs Good - Two Legs Better. Though, at least for once it can’t be blamed on soppy leftist appeasement, as this little puppy is straight from the ivory tower of Melb Uni and a fully signed up member of the Tory Owning Class. A former Kennent Govt Advisor and member of the BCA - all of which - for some reason - was left out of the bio statement.

    Democracy is an evolutionary concept. It’s current mode is based on the institutions that developed out of the age of enlightenment. That was in turn based on early concepts, and which in time will evolve into something better. But it is still about democratic participation by the whole of society without an elitist overlord class holding a monopoly on power.

    It took the west centuries to develop our liberal democratic civilizations, that China has a long way to go simply reflects that the social revolution has only just begun in the middle kingdom - albeit 2000 years after the west began that journey.

    What this is really about is creating the moral justification for ignoring human rights in China so the Tory Owning Class can continue to sell our own workers out, while exploiting the recently urbanized peasants in the factories of China.

    The Noble Elite is no better a concept than the Noble Savage or Nick Carter’s new concept of the Noble Bogan. As I said first up - where’s the wall.

  • 9
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    It has become nearly impossible for elected politicians and parliaments to know or anticipate what is going on in the super-fast and super-complex world that now surrounds them.”

    This would be a justification for anarchy, not totalitarianism. It’s difficult to understand what is being argued for here.

    Also, the Chinese Communist state has tried public participation before in the Hundred Flowers Campaign. I guess they are hoping for better answers this time.

  • 10
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    So, Mark, are you also of the opinion that Australia should adopt a single-party state? Should we be fine with junking “tired old” democracy (and other tedious, dated concepts like freedom of political and artistic expression, ability to dissent, unfettered internet and so on) so long as we get to keep a few focus groups? Let us hope that this indifference towards Western democracy isn’t too widespread here, because if there’s anything governments love to exploit, it’s apathy.

  • 11
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    This is pretty lightweight stuff. “Who needs democracy when we’ve got twitter ?”

  • 12
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    who needs twitter when we have twits?

  • 13
    Tyler T
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Why are we meant to accept the lazy assertion that western democracies are unable to deal with modern policy challenges?

  • 14
    Sense Seeker
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Maybe not ‘western liberal’ democracy, but the author does seem to think China needs democracy.

    But given his background, I think Mark means that we can stop harrassing China about human right violations and the lack of freedom for the Chinese people, so that Australian business is not penalised by anger of the Chinese leadership?

  • 15
    Posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    We have a moral duty, to help the people of China get it’s freedoms, establish a true democratic society and join Western civilisation where dissent is not seen as criminal.

    Create new institutions free from corruption, a judiciary that can enforce the rule of law and open it’s media and social media to gives it’s young people a voice without persecution or fear!

    A Government by the people, for the people!

    We need a new American Revolution!

    Anyone want this anytime soon?

  • 16
    Posted Thursday, 12 December 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Technodeterminist piffle. If this line of argument was valid parliamentary democracy would have collapsed when we invented radio and again when we invented television. As for globalisation being unprecedented and unable to be coped with by “19th century” legislatures, it took until the mid-1970s for us to catch up in levels of global trade to where we were pre-WWI! (http://www.irows.ucr.edu/cd/appendices/asr00/asr00app.htm#Figure A2)
    Mark Triffett may know a lot about how to spin and win elections, but he might want to learn a bit from Uni Melb’s history department before any more grand pronouncements about the course of world history.

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