Saturday, April 17, 2010

Democracy on Trial: From Kyrgyzstan and “Mobocracy”, to China and “Proletariat Democracy”

by M. Ulric Killion

Deadly anti-government unrest rocked the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, April 7, 2010. Thousands of protesters stormed the main government building, set fire to the prosecutor’s office and took over state television. Police responded by opening fire on demonstrators, killing dozens. Here a protester kicks an injured police officer captured by demo.nstrators in the capital, Bishkek. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo).

1. Introduction
The recent events in the Kyrgyz Republic (“Kyrgyzstan”) are disconcerting, especially for what hails as ideal Western democracy. What occurred in Kyrgyzstan or in Kyrgyz politics via “the mob” serves as a reminder that the road to democracy is sometimes an arduous journey. Moreover, the well-intended on the road to democracy will often make a wrong turn. It is not that the “other world” is perfect, as equally true of democracy as a model of governance; it is just that what transpired presented a shocking picture to the world of a regime change in government via “the mob.” 

The question of democracy and what it means are critical issues of our times. This is because the democratic ideal has taken on many shapes and forms by various polities throughout the world. In terms of modern society, or even post-modernity, the historiography of democracy now witnesses many shapes and forms of what hails as democracy. These are now many new translations of the democratic ideal that extend far beyond the historical origins of democracy, or its Western origins in Ancient Greece or Athens. 

For instance, the cases of Kyrgyzstan (i.e., “mobocracy”) and the People’s Republic of China (“China”) (i.e., “proletariat democracy”), though a small sampling, illustrate the variety of democracies that exists throughout the world. The examples are many. One could even arguably add the United States and its use of military force (i.e., Iraq invasion) as an example of the variety of democracies, and perhaps even as an example of what a democracy ought not to do. The U.S. model, however, still fares well when measured against other models, such Kyrgyzstan and China. Nonetheless, and more importantly, the variety of democracies in both Kyrgyzstan and China are in stark contrast to Western ideal democracy, thus, presenting exemplar examples.

2. Kyrgyzstan and “mob rule”

In the case of Kyrgyzstan, on April 7, 2010, there is the recent political crisis of the government of Kyrgyzstan. After large-scale protests (by deadly force) that appeared to have overthrown the government of Kyrgyzstan, the following day a transitional government declared that it was now in charge, though Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev still maintains (via Moscow radio interview) that he enjoys widespread support among the Kyrgyz people even after fleeing the country.

In the interim, or perhaps even pending further crises, Roza Otunbayeva, a former diplomat and former teacher of Marxist-Leninist theory before supposedly embracing Western mores, is serving as the interim-Kyrgyz leader. On April 8, 2010, during a news conference in Bishkek, Otunbayeva notably declared: “You can call this a revolution. You can call this a people’s revolt,” she said. “Either way, it is our way of saying that we want justice and democracy” (Clifford J. Levy, Opposition in Kyrgyzstan Says It Now Holds Power, New York Time, Apr. 8, 2010).

Additionally, as concerns Kyrgyz politics, the 1993 constitution of Kyrgyzstan actually defines the form of government as a democratic republic. As for this variety of so-called democracy, Joshua Keating (It’s Not a Revolution, Foreign Policy, Apr. 7, 2010) rightly observed, “Whatever just went down in Kyrgyzstan, one thing is clear: this isn’t how it was supposed to happen.” For these reasons, on this day in history, Kyrgyz politics via “the mob”, actually, begs the question of whether this is “mob rule” or democracy in action.

3. China and “proletariat democracy”

Then there is the case of China and its proletariat variety of democracy, or simply, its “proletariat democracy”. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, during an earlier period, between 1940 and 1949, the Chinese communists, now the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), demanded democracy. This was a practical consideration, however, because a grassroots democracy would help the communists struggle through military campaigns, while also enabling them to politically pursue legitimacy. In 1946, Mao Zedong actually offered democracy as the means to stop the historic cycle of dynastic change.

After 1949 and the founding of modern China, however, China’s polity, the CCP, embraced and remains steadfast to the misnomer of socialist democracy. In other words, and more particularly, it is a proletarian democracy that is “guaranteed by the people’s democratic dictatorship” rather than Western-style democracy. A distinguishing and much-criticized characteristic of China’s one-party model of democracy, socialist democracy or “proletariat democracy” is that neither national leaders (i.e., president, vice-president, etc), nor members of the National People’s Congress (“NPC”) are subject to election to office by an electorate (i.e., the casting of votes by ordinary citizens).

Moreover, the ongoing trial of democracy in Hong Kong may eventually serve as the test of the potential for “full” democracy and universal suffrage in China. This is because, since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, there are many, such as Hong Kong’s two pro-democracy parties and frustrated pro-democracy politicians, still awaiting an earlier promise of universal suffrage.

Hong Kong’s struggle for “full” democracy and universal suffrage may also serve as a litmus test for others, such as Tibet, Macau, and Taiwan, notwithstanding the image that China intends to project in the international community. It is also notable that Taiwan, like Hong Kong before 1997, presently enjoys a “full’ democracy and universal suffrage. For this reason, there are many that also perceive the test of democracy as ultimately the test of China’s “One country, two systems” principle.

4. From “mobocracy” to “proletariat democracy”

The concept of democracy is, admittedly, a Western ideal with an etymology that has origins in Western culture. For instance, the original lexicon for democracy dates to two words from the Ancient Greek language: First demarchy, then democracy. When constructing a lexicon representative of the ideal of government by the people, ancient Greece culture would have to conjoin the word demos (for the people) with one of two verbs for power, which are Kratos (or the verb kratein) and archein. While the verb archein is already in usage by compound words such as monarchy, oligarchy and anarchy, the verb kratein is also problematic because it was thought to denote brute force rather than government by rule (U. Killion, Modern Chinese Rules of Order, 2007; F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. III, 1973-79).

Additionally, in ancient Greece, the root or verb archein and the resulting noun of demarch (or demarchy) as a means to express rule by the people could not be used, at least in Athens, because the term demarch was already used to describe the office of the head of a local group (or district), the deme (Killion, 2007; F. A. Hayek, 1973-79). The lexicon of democracy rather than demarchy, eventually came to represent government by the people.

During a modern era, democracy further evolved into the distinction between direct and indirect democracy or a republican form of government. Democracy also further evolved into models contra distinguishable from its historical origins; such as the widely ranging examples from a modern  “mobocracy”, to a modern “proletariat democracy.”

a. “Mob rule” or democracy in action?

The case of Kyrgyz politics via “the mob” presents issue of whether there can be positive relationship between Western ideal democracy and “the mob.” Generally speaking, it is difficult to justify “mob rule” as a tool (or means) to promote democracy. Mob rule is problematic for obvious reasons. This is because the concept of “the mob” is contra distinguishable to the ideal of democracy. In modern times, “mob rule” represents the decline rather than fostering of democracy.

The concept of “the mob”, as Jerzy Chlopecki (The Decline of the Democracy. The Mob and its leaders, Thought, Aug. 24, 2009) explained, “was introduced into the social science by Hannah Arendt. It was exactly the mob that constituted the social basis for fascism.”

Arendt’s definition or understanding of concept of “the mob” clearly challenges the idea of a modern “mob” (i.e., “the mob”) being capable of actually promoting democracy. When discussing the problems of “the mob”, especially its eventual and inevitable promotion of a problematic demagogue (i.e., “an actor who first of all manipulates the feelings of others and plays his part on the scene-rally” such as Hitler and Stalin, though “dramatically opposed types of demagogic leadership”), Chlopecki also wrote:
If this mob was actually a group – as put it Arendt – it means that there must have existed a kind of link that would unite its members. Otherwise, we would observe a loose collectivity. But what could unite those “outcasts of all classes”? This binder was not composed of common values or even of awareness of common interest. It was nothing rational, what could be discussed, reconciled or compromised on. The binder was constituted by the mixture of negative emotions: frustration, xenophobia, irrational expectations, low instincts and feelings of helplessness. But above all it was constituted by hatred as it is next to fear one of the strongest emotions. Thus hatred and fear unite the mob in a group that can speak collectively. The mob gathered under the banner of negative emotions that by definition cannot be “agreed on”.
. . . .
The acceptance of democratic norms depends on the level of personal confidence and sophistication. The less one is sophisticated and level-headed, the more probable that he will opt for simplified political vision. He will either understand the essentials of tolerance towards people who he disagrees with and he will have difficulties in understanding or tolerating the gradual political changes” (S. M. Lipset 1995: 121).
. . . .
The mob needs an enemy to hate somebody. The mob rejects also an acknowledged and legitimate authority clearing the ground for a demagogue to appear.
For these reasons and other reasons set forth in his short writing, Chlopecki, after first characterizing “mob rule” as “mobocracy”, contends, “The mobocracy does not derive from democracy itself, but from its decline.” In addition, just as the examples of Hitler and Stalin presented “dramatically opposed types of demagogic leadership”, the examples of Kyrgyzstan and “mob rule” and China and its “proletariat democracy” also present contrasting forms of democracy, which are also in stark contrast to Western ideal democracy.

b. “Proletariat democracy” or democracy in action?

Since the 1949 founding of modern China, the polity has denied universal suffrage in the election of national offices (i.e., president, vice-president, etc) and the national legislative body. As a direct consequence, neither Mao Zedong, nor Deng Xiaoping, or subsequent leaders have tried real democracy such as a democratically-elected legislature or National People’s Congress (“NPC”).

One could mince words and proclaim there is suffrage at local levels for local elections, but this is not the same as citizens enjoying “full” universal suffrage or the “right to vote.” In other words, political participation, though only a diffuse mass loyalty or mass democracy, as Jürgen Habermas, in his Legitimation Crisis (1975), earlier explained, with citizens enjoying the right to withhold acclamation.

China’s polity or its “proletariat democracy” has yet to allow universal suffrage (i.e., the political franchise), as the world well knows. The justifications are many, as politicians continue to mince their words. So what are the justifications for continuing one-party rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

During a September 2000 interview, then China president Jiang Zemin, when explaining why there was not universal suffrage, said, “The quality of our people is too low.” On February 27, 2007, China’s premier Wen Jiabao, in a written response to reform debates appearing in the People’s Daily, cautioned impatient reformers who were urging that political reforms will enhance transition to a market economy, that political liberalization and democracy are a “distant goal” (Killion, 2007).

Wen Jiabao, and quoting Deng Xiaoping, also wrote that the essence of socialism is to “emancipate and develop productive forces, eliminate exploitation and polarization and eventually realize common prosperity.” Wen further announced, “China is and will remain in the primary stage of socialism for a long time,” which is an underdeveloped stage characterized by underdeveloped productive forces and a socialist system that is not yet perfect or mature.

Additionally, Wen wrote, “We are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism,” and suggest sticking with development guidelines of the primary stage for another 100 years. Wen also added, “The socialist system is not contradictory to democracy,” because “a highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system” (Killion, 2007).

As of 2010, the Chinese citizenry still does not enjoy universal suffrage  (i.e., the “right to vote” for national office holders and the national legislative body or NPC).

China’s “proletariat democracy” presents an interesting parallel, paradox and even contradiction for the CCP and its one-party rule mechanism. This is because the mincing of words by party officials, though a small sampling of the justifications for denying “full” universal suffrage, seems, though implicitly, to acknowledge the need for democracy, especially “full” universal suffrage. Otherwise, the CCP would simply announce to the world that there will not be “full” universal suffrage in China.

In illustration, and as earlier mentioned, since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, there are many in Hong Kong, such as Hong Kong’s two pro-democracy parties and frustrated pro-democracy politicians, that perceive Beijing as implicitly and/or explicitly denying them “full” democracy and universal suffrage.  

This also serves as reminder of the plight of the famous dissident and scholar Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving a prison sentence in China. His crime was violating the notoriously, vague and broad-reaching “inciting subversion of state power” law. On December 25, 2009, at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, Liu was sentenced to 11 years 
in prison; thus, signaling that the CCP will continue to stifle domestic political critics, especially those who dare to organize their fellow Chinese.

In addition, the severity of Liu’s sentence was perceived as evidence “that political modernization might not go hand in hand with China’s economic modernization, contrary to past predictions by Chinese dissidents, U.S. business executives, political theorists and proselytizers of the Internet age.” (Steven Mufson, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo sentenced to 11 years on ‘subversion’ charges, Washington Post, Dec. 25, 2009).

According to Li Fan (Washington Post, 2009), director of the World and China Institute in Beijing, “You can think democracy, you can talk democracy, but you can’t do democracy.” For instance, Liu Xiaobo appears to have violated the “inciting subversion of state power”  law by trying to promote democracy through a series of articles and his participation with Charter 08. In the later, Charter 08, Liu was essentially calling for greater freedom of expression, human rights, and free elections.

What is troubling about Liu Xiaobo’s conviction is that the language he employed in his quest for democracy and universal suffrage parallels the mincing of words by party officials. This is because party officials never appear to explicitly deny that China will ever embrace “full” democracy and universal suffrage. They actually seem to recognize the need to assure citizens that “full” democracy and its attendant universal suffrage is forthcoming, but in the future, though not near future.

The language that Liu employed in his quest for “full” democracy and universal suffrage, actually, bears a striking resemblance to the rhetoric that party officials routinely employ. For Liu, however, usage of a similar rhetoric has presented problems.

For instance, there are many, including the party apparatus, who would later criticize Liu Xiaobo for saying, during a 1998 interview (Hong Kong’s Liberation Monthly, now Open Magazine), “(It would take) 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would take 300 years of colonialism for it to be able to change to how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.”

This quote would haunt Liu for years to come, and even later resurfaces as evidence against him ((Liu Xiaobo, My 19 Years of Ties with “Open Magazine”), Open Magazine, Dec. 19, 2006”).

Liu’s words seem hardly distinguishable from party officials implicitly recognizing the need for “full” democracy and universal suffrage, though at a much later date. How are we to distinguish between Liu saying it will take 300 years for change, and party officials also saying it will take years to change? As earlier mentioned, while Jiang Zemin earlier said, “The quality of our people is too low”, Wen Jiabao wrote “that political liberalization and democracy are a ‘distant goal.’”

As for what Mr. Wen meant by a “distant goal,” Wen wrote, “We are still far away from advancing out of the primary stages of socialism,” and then suggested sticking with development guidelines of the primary stage for another 100 years. Wen also added, “The socialist system is not contradictory to democracy,” because “a highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system” (Killion, 2007).

It seems reasonable to understand that Mr. Wen is suggesting that in about 100 years China will embrace “a highly developed democracy.”

Is it conceivable that Liu Xiaobo would now be a free man if he had said that China will change in 100 years? I don’t think so. Is it plausible that Mr. Wen would have been charged under the infamous “inciting subversion of state power” law if he had said China will change in 300 years? Again, I don’t think so.

Additionally, is there something that rhetorically distinguishes Liu Xiaobo’s call for greater freedom of expression, human rights, and free elections, from Wen’s promise of a “highly developed democracy”? In terms of pure language or rhetoric, there is no real distinction. This is because Liu, like many Chinese leaders (i.e., from Mao, to Wen), prognosticated democracy in the future.

The only rhetorical distinction, if any, lies in the fact that Chinese leaders routinely assure citizens that eventually democracy is forthcoming, though not in the near future, but, and borrowing from Mr. Wen’s words, a “distant future.”

For these reasons, at the end of the day, the case of Liu Xiaobo is troubling, mostly due to what the case says about the plight of democracy in China, especially the lack of genuine democracy in action. This is because Liu’s case demonstrates that the greater issues are power (i.e., coercion), politics (i.e., one-party rule), feigned legitimacy, and a feigned representation of the people or citizenry (i.e., the lack of genuine political participation by the people).

The earlier mentioned example of the test of democracy in Hong Kong clearly demonstrates this socio-political reality. In Hong Kong, the crisis for democracy presents critical issues, as Robert Keatley (Universal Suffrage Remains the Goal—But not yet in sight, Hong  Kong Journal, Apr. 2010) explained, which are “how to adopt electoral reforms that could move it closer to a Beijing-promised ‘ultimate’ goal of universal suffrage—or whether the reform process will stop, perhaps permanently.”

The present crisis presents, and borrowing from the words of Keatley, “a system nobody loves.” The current politic issue, Keatley (2010) writes, “concerns how to change the rules governing scheduled 2012 elections to fill all seats in the Legislative Council (Legco) and select a new chief executive; Donald Tsang, the current government head, cannot run again. The central government has said that winners of subsequent elections—for chief executive in 2017 and all Legco seats in 2020—might be decided by universal suffrage, but only if the rules for 2012 are revised first to expand the electoral base modestly.”

A problem for pro-democracy forces is that, “Without such interim changes, Beijing won't promise when (if ever) the one person, one vote goal will be reached, only that there will be delays. The short-term goal, it appears, is to strike a deal that gives the impression that political reform is continuing, but without risking the possibility that Hong Kong might elect a government willing to question Chinese policies. (There will, in fact, be an earlier legislative election in 2016 but presumably any 2012 rule changes would apply.)” (Keatley, 2010).

In the interim, “Hong Kong’s frustrated pro-democracy politicians want a firm Beijing pledge that it will introduce universal suffrage for 2017 and 2020 before they agree to any interim reforms. They also want a promise to abolish “functional constituency” elections—voting by special interest groups—which select half the legislators, and who generally vote the pro-government line. (By one estimate, this system allows 1 percent of the voters to fill half the Legco seats.).”

As for Beijing’s perspective, China “won't promise anything until it sees how the 2012 negotiations are concluded, and adds that the Hong Kong government isn’t authorized to strike any deal on its own.” All of this resulted in an impasse. From Beijing’s perspective, the demands of pro-democracy politicians are excessive.

According to Keatley (2010), “Beijing’s fundamental objections aren’t about negotiating tactics; instead, they reflect deep distrust of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians, whom officials say lack the “patriotism” and “loyalty” needed for high office and whom they sometimes suggest are working for foreigners against China’s national interests. Basically, Communist Party cadres seem to fear that open voting might elect office-holders difficult for them to control.”

Then there is the inherent contradiction of China’s “proletariat democracy.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, as Karl Kautsky (an editor of the fourth volume of Das Kapital) explained, found neither a democratic republic nor democratic parliamentary republic as objectionable. Engels, actually, had in mind a democratic parliamentary republic when writing A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 (Zur Kritik des sozial-demokratischen Programmentwurfes 1891).

As Engels observed, “If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown” (Killion, 2007).

Indeed, Engels had a democratic parliamentary republic in mind, when he added that under all circumstances the program must include “the demand for the concentration of all political power in the hands of a representative assembly of the people” (Killion, 2007). In other words, the practices of China’s polity, especially the denial of both a genuinely democratic republic or democratic parliamentary republic and “full” universal suffrage, stands in denial of its own foundational beginnings or ideologies.

This also begs the question of what does the denial of “full” democracy and its attendant universal suffrage have to do with Marxism, notwithstanding a mincing of words by party officials that address what many deem a discredited Marxist theory of history (Robert Skidelsky, What’s Left of Marxism, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2000, Book review: 
“Karl Marx” by Francis Wheen).

When earlier describing, and borrowing from the title of his article, What’s Left of Marxism?, Robert Skedelsky wrote:
First to be discredited, at least in the developed world, was the prediction that capitalism would implode; with that went the collapse of the revolutionary political project. Capitalism has had periods of crisis but has failed to produce mass pauperization; it could be reformed without self-contradiction. Apart from this, the appeal of communism was dimmed by the economic inefficiency and terroristic methods of the actual Communist regimes established in Russia and China. The dynamism of capitalism and decrepitude of the USSR finally put paid to Marx’s theory of history: there was no dialectic in capitalism which leads to its supercession by socialism.
Alternatively, and more to the point, in an article also titled, What’s left of Marx?, Ronald Suny (University of Michigan) succinctly observed that:
. . . At its best moments, from its origins to its present dismal state, the struggle for socialism has been fundamentally about a struggle for democracy - the extension of empowerment to the greatest number of people. The commitment to democracy, however, was repeatedly compromised by political expediencies, the imperatives of gaining and holding state power, and the usurpation of socialism’s aspirations by self-serving politicians (Office hours: Professor’s column, What’s left of Marx?, by Ronald Suny, Michigan Daily, Sept. 2007).
Granted, party officials when mincing their words may speak of the Sinicization of Marxism, but, and problematic for the CCP, the party can only Sinicize Marxism to a limited degree, lest the party might find itself totally astray of its foundational beginnings or ideologies. The latter would only inevitably present yet another challenge to the legitimacy of the CCP’s one-party rule mechanism.

In the interim, China’s polity continues to deny “full” democracy (i.e., a democratic republic or democratic parliamentary republic) and the “right to vote” (i.e., universal suffrage) for national office holders and members of the NPC. To-date, one-party rule by the CCP continues.

5. Conclusion

The aforementioned reasons demonstrate that Western ideal democracy and its attendant universal suffrage (i.e., the “right to vote”) has taken on many shapes and forms by various polities throughout the world. Problematic are those shapes and forms that veer so far from the ideal model that they represent neither democracy nor universal suffrage. This is also true in the cases of the earlier discussed exemplars of contrasting models, which are Kyrgyzstan and its “mobocracy”, and China and its “proletariat democracy.”

Lying at the heart of the problem is that in the post-Cold War era (i.e., after 1991), concept misinformation became an increasing phenomenon. In other words, there are now many non-Western and developing countries demonstrating a proclivity to employ Western notions of democracy and constitutionalism in description of a diverse range of social and political phenomena, including different theoretical approaches and models (M. U. Killion, “Building up” China’s constitution, Loyola of Los Angeles L. Rev, Vol. 41: 563, 2008).

As a result, the world is witnessing China’s polity remaining steadfast to one-party rule, while denying “full” universal suffrage, and Kyrgyz politics via “the mob,” or simply, “mob rule” or “mobocracy.” All of this ultimately demonstrates a crisis for democracy throughout the world, and host of related problems ensuing from the denial of genuine democracy; such as the legitimacy of governments, the potential for greater oppression in the world by non-democratic governments, and the struggle for human rights of individuals that non-democratic governments would deny. In the end, neither Kyrgyzstan and its “mobocracy”, nor China and its “proletariat democracy” represent genuine democracy in action.

Copyright © Protected - All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2010.