The quest for democracy

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Dec 4 2004, 05:30am hrs
Whenever India and China appear together in newsprint, seminars or other contemplative fora, the context is very likely either economics or geopolitics, but rarely is it political philosophy. The India-China theme covers a fairly predictable terrain by now. The most common topic, of course, being how the two economies are the engines of future global growth. This is followed in popularity by topics like the looming US-China confrontation (and Indias role in any China-containment strategy), competition over influence in the Asean region and, of course, whether Chinas amazing growth represents a real threat or a worthwhile model for India to emulate.

There are a number of doctoral dissertations currently underway on the above topics. But very rarely does the India-China theme cover the future of democracy.

China and democracy It sounds rather inexplicable at first, and the surprise is all the more when it comes from Christine Loh, a former legislator in Hong Kong and the foremost civil society activist on Chinese soil. But she is convinced that after 5,000 years, the Chinese are discovering democracy. Only, the path will be different from the western model born out of the Renaissance, much like how Indian democracy is evolving in ways rather distinct and unique.

I spent a day recently with Christine and her views are amazingly original and incisive, particularly about an old question on democracy: are there distinct values Asian, West Asian, European etc which we should respect, or is democracy (as an expression of individual choice and freedom) such a basic and paramount goal that it ought to be above all other canons

This debate has gained a new audience and new momentum in the post-9/11 and post-Iraq age where nation-building has become so much a tactical mission, if not an ideological goal. Is there can there be a universal value system of governance that is desirable

According to her, the community vs individual debate so far, at least in the global media, is misplaced. Every society needs to embrace both, the larger community and the single individual and in fact every society does. Only, the balance varies. The real differences lie not so much in values as how different cultures and communities respond to conflict, and how they deal with human emotion and human needs.

In the Chinese/Confucian world, the role of the state is far more central to peoples lives and far more interventionist, and it has been so for hundreds of years, long before Mao or even Sun Yat Sen. In fact, statecraft is one of the most eminent and admirable professions in Chinese society. The role of the state is far more than building institutions or enforcing laws or improving the economy. It also includes developing character, maintaining social harmony and propelling a larger cultural ethos that binds people together.

Right now, China is in what can be called the groping model, which in effect translates into We cannot solve all the problems we face but we are trying our best through incremental changes and adaptation, so neither rush us nor judge us. But even the Chinese have realised that for the Chinese economic experiment to work and to survive, China will need a minimum level of openness and engagement with the world.

The sum of global trends, including technology (that can enable millions of dialogues to take place outside the control of state actors or outside ideological prisms) supports greater democracy everywhere, no matter how it arrives, and even China is not immune from that. And, if nothing else, China will learn from Hong Kong that essential elements of democracy like citizen participation or protest demonstrations are not necessarily the prelude to chaos, nor do they necessarily represent a threat to the legitimacy of the regime.

Bypassing the two usual extreme scenarios painted about China by western scholars China the Miracle vs China the Apocalypse Christine is convinced that China will increasingly nudge its way towards a limited democracy, painfully but surely. It may even define the debate about governance and values as it emerges more confidently on the world stage.

But her real forceful point was this: in our quest for a better world, we should not devalue our historical nd spiritual legacy. What is often overlooked in the whole debate about universal vs local values is that having values is a critical thing in itself. This includes what can roughly be called a set of widely accepted beliefs, convictions and tenets, things that are taught at school and at home, lessons passed down via historical fables as much as by modern literature.

The real heart of democracy is transparency and accountability, but it requires the oxygen of good citizenship and good leadership. In effect, whatever are a societys historical values, the core of good governance is character, compassion, conviction and spirituality.

Spirituality, character, community wisdom The sights, sounds and smell of classic India are unmistakeable and refreshingly juxtaposed within a ferociously liberal worldview and a modern Chinese context.

The writer is editor of India Focus