Advice to China: Experiment with Qualified Voting

01Jan12

There is a widespread perception that China’s leaders are on the wrong side of history.  They are often portrayed as clinging to an outmoded, authoritarian concept of government that must someday, inevitably, become transformed into a more enlightened and democratic arrangement.  This post suggests a perspective that may be compatible with those leaders’ record of achievements in other (e.g., economic) matters, and that may help to get China ahead of the curve.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, discussions of voting have long been preoccupied with discrimination.  The biggest fights of the past two centuries have had to do with the proposition that people should not be prevented from voting just because of their sex or skin color.  As noted in another post, there has been far less attention to the problem of voting by people who have a faulty or nonexistent grasp of candidates and issues.

As Vladimir Putin famously retorted to George W. Bush, Russia is not likely to aspire to the kind of democracy seen in Iraq during its worst days.  Democracy does not guarantee good government.  Democracies, including that of the U.S., have actually served up many departures from good government.

Authoritarian governments are not per se bad.  As China’s leaders have demonstrated in certain regards, it is possible to have a benevolent dictator, a philosopher king, or some other ruling individual, group, or entity that produces many positive achievements.  The problem with non-democratic arrangements is that you can’t change or get rid of them when they become corrupt, ineffective, or abusive.  It is fair to note, though, America would likewise benefit if less of its government’s power were in the hands of bureaucrats who do not answer to the public.

Within governments as large as those of China and the U.S., there are very many people and issues on which informed citizens could be registering an educated opinion.  Government might be much improved, in such places, if the push to get everyone to vote were balanced with greater determination to increase the number of voters who actually understand issues facing their locality, region, or nation.

In China and the U.S. alike, it would surely take years to develop and refine processes for educating voters in the issues and testing their knowledge.  China seems to have an advantage, over the U.S., in being relatively well positioned to gradually devolve certain forms of decisionmaking to eminently qualified voters:  China might be able to do so with less risk of committing, or appearing to commit, discrimination based on biased or disputed concepts of voting competence.

In short, it appears possible and advisable for China’s leaders to reframe the democracy issue.  Rather than perpetuating an impression of being dragged into a democratic future against their will, those leaders should work toward gradual implementation of sensible democratic arrangements.  Gradual implementation calls for proactive steps to defuse revolutionary pressures.  Efforts should begin to define the qualified voter, to train voters to render informed opinions on persons and issues, to test their knowledge, to study training and voting processes and outcomes, and to tweak those processes.  Needless to say, such study would draw upon experiences in the U.S. and in other democracies, for purposes of recognizing flaws and errors that China would seek to avoid.

It could be appropriate for China’s leaders to announce a goal of having 10 million Chinese citizens voting on a good assortment of candidates and issues within the next five to ten years, and having 100 million voting on a wide selection of people and topics by 2025 or 2030.  Such an approach could provide a reassuring balance of stability and change.  It would likely improve the quality of government, and would also deliver a plausible reply to Western assumptions regarding universal suffrage.  In addition, a well-designed program of study and improvement, in the area of voting, could give the U.S. and other democracies useful guidance and incentives as they grapple with their own problems of governance.

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