Thursday, September 11, 2008

2008 Olympics and the Debate on Democracy

This blog is of particular relevance to the Chindia Biz blog dated 11/15/07 on Political Democracy in China.

China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics has definitely burnished its image as a great nation with the largest haul of gold. This is enviable by any measure. China has done this even as she is trying to pull up the economic lot of its seven hundred million poor people, the other six hundred million people having already graduated from poverty to lower middle class, the middle class, the upper middle class and some even to the rich class. What inferences will future economic historians draw from all that is going on in China currently and of course since 1948?

First, no other nation, not even the former communist Soviet bloc countries (including of course Russia,) Cuba, North Korea, or China’s vassal states of Sudan or Myanmar, despite all the authoritarianism in them, has been able to organize itself as well as China, and on top of it, run away with so many medals. Nor have those birds of the same political red feather achieved equally impressive across-the-board economic and social progress. Also to start with, Chinese incomes were below the base line.

The tiger economies of Taiwan, S. Korea, Japan, Singapore and such others have been in some sense, harbingers of the kind of progress that China has made, telescoping a century of economic progress into just about five decades or less. What is noteworthy is that the tiger economies enjoyed the same or a lower scale of totalitarian rule and enforcement of the laws and rules that would govern such nations. But the Singaporean discipline enforced by the respective elected, autocratic, or military government was there. Many other nations of the world have been incapable of achieving such progress despite a large dose of despotic control. What gives? Is it something that the Chinese and East Asian people have and others don’t?

Thus, a somewhat convenient inference would be that high-handed and/or undemocratic systems together with populations that are of Chinese or Chinese-type derivation are likely to accomplish better overall (GDP) economic results than other populations wedded to democracies. Max Weber theorized that western nations with a Protestant ethic supported personal accomplishments and thereby societal development, facilitating rapid industrialization. Along the same lines it should be possible to theorize that:

A) Chinese populations have a higher need-to-achieve score than several other populations. And

B) Totalitarian systems are better equipped to pull up masses of people out of poverty than western style noisy if not chaotic democracies.

There is strong evidence for accepting Theory A. At least, this is what the millions of people that either visited China during the Olympics or watched the Olympics on their TV sets are likely to conclude. Nothing sells like the Olympic spectacle or the equally impressive fact of China emerging as the factory of the world, particularly in the past ten years. These indeed are rock-solid achievements. And so arguably, the Chinese in a personal and societal sense, are more capable of firing on all cylinders and get to wherever they decide to get to.

During the post-Long March period, collectivism perhaps succeeded in inculcating sought-after ethical principles such as that the national interest transcends personal or local or even regional interests, there is strength in unity, it is reasonable to be nationalistic, and it is okay to adopt western (or American) life styles, ways, mannerisms, education, technology, research and development and so forth.

The Hard Evidence
Take a look at several dictatorships with non-Chinese or East Asian like populations: Cuba, smaller Latin American countries, Iran, Zimbabwe, the Sudan, Myanmar, Pakistan (under military dictatorship), and countries in the Middle East, other than Abu Dhabi. There is of course no comparison here with China’s size, but only with the yearning for economic success. Apparently, Chinese economic fervor does not seem to be that ubiquitous and there appears to be a dearth in motivation for rapid economic and social progress (n/Ach score) even under a strong dictatorship. India’s progress has been second only to China’s despite the high jinks of a rambunctious democracy. It is a moot point whether India’s performance would have been superior under a Draco who would channel all efforts towards whatever was in the national interest. This is not to underestimate the real benefit of an uninhibited democracy that serves as the clearing house of all critical and not so critical information, a sine qua non for balanced development.

It is too early to conclude that despotism or at least Singaporean (draconian) government is good, let alone decisive, for pulling people out of poverty. A true democracy is definitely conducive for rapid economic progress. There are no controlled experiments to go by, but we can look at nations that are excessively democratic such as India, where a small bunch of individuals can protest and delay projects indefinitely if they perceive such a project is deleterious to their welfare even if it is in the collective or national interest. The Nuclear (123) Agreement with America, Tata’s Nano small car project, the Ganges-Cauvery link and numerous others have suffered in democratic India albeit the awesome benefits that would accrue to India from an expeditious implementation of these projects. It takes much public edification before grand visions can materialize into reality.

Chinese Tiger and the Indian Elephant
It is also a fact, that there is no true or perfect democracy, in the real sense of the word, anywhere. In the best of democracies today, it is not uncommon in many a democratic state to witness blatant promotion of self-interest of individuals or the privileged, indifference and ignorance of large sections of the population in regard to what is in the larger interest of the nation. Democracy in our times often connotes Tammany Hall politics, complete with no-holds barred political party fights and vote banks, jockeying for power, tug-of-war and wrangling on every policy point whether basic or peripheral, bribes and corruption, filibuster, and other claptraps that people are often free to indulge in with impunity in such a free society.

And so if India is not growing fast enough under freedom, it is not because it is under a democracy. It is because democracy is mistaken to be a free for all to do whatever they please, instead of looking beyond their nose at the national interest. Democracy gets bad a rap. Under such a political set up, even if people aspire for economic progress, it is hindered and hampered by what Henry Adams said: “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts.” Free people tend to follow their own personal interest, and ignore the larger good of the nation. In a true democracy it should be eminently possible to achieve rapid progress. Public education should therefore receive the utmost consideration.

Also the mindset of the people is one of the factors that contributes to the success or otherwise of national endeavors (or experiments) in economic progress. No one would have missed the great enthusiasm the Chinese demonstrated or the unmistakable pride they put on view during the games.

From all that was witnessed during the Olympics, it would not be incorrect to surmise that the media-blitz represented people of China approve of the way nation-building is being carried on in China and would not demur too much even if they wanted to express frustration about any thing.

S.V. Char
Editor, Academic Resources, ICA Institute's International Contributors Editorial Board

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