Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Is liberal democracy simply the ultimate form of governance? In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama argued that the advent of Western liberal democracy might signal the end-point of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government. To prove his point, there was empirical evidence to support the theory. Researchers at Freedom House observed that there was no liberal democracy with universal rights to vote in 1900, but in 2005, 120 (62%) out of 192 nations enjoy such democracy. In 1900, there were 25 (19%) nations with ‘restricted democratic practices’, while the figure dropped to 16 (8%) in 2005. Out of 19 (14%) constitutional monarchies in 1900, none persisted into 2005.

Figure 39: Freedom in the World 1972-2005 country rankings (Freedom House, 2006)

Comment Icon0 The survival of each form of governance is visualized in Figure 39, which shows the number of nations in the different categories as assessed by Freedom House in their surveys from 1972 to 2005. Nations were categorized as “Free”, “Partly Free” and “Not Free”, where Freedom House considered “Free” nations to be liberal democracies. Interestingly, unlike the polarization of democratic and non-democratic nations, the “Partly Free” nations have maintained moderate popularity even through the Freedom House 2008 survey. Although the Freedom House has labelled China as “Not Free” due to numerous human rights violations, modern Chinese citizens are already enjoying a growing sense of autonomy in aspects of society outside of politics.

Comment Icon0 For instance, a distinct socio-economic middle class was almost non-existent in China 15 years ago, but today there are a considerable number of Chinese citizens with private properties, cars, financial assets and money to spend on travel. At the current rate, economic analysts estimated that by 2025 China’s middle class would consist of about 520 million people (McKinsey Quarterly, 2007). From the ethnographic perspective, Michael Anti (Zhao Jing) pointed out how liberal the modern Chinese was in comparison to Europeans and Americans. As some of them illegally procure the American “Sex in the City” television series in China, their viewership also demonstrates how they share liberal traits, including how they have no rule which prevents “sex before marriage, are more tolerant of homosexuality, have no conservative party, and they have no God” (Weinberger, 2007). Anti saw the Chinese people as accepting of this freedom from the government, to the extent that they were willing to exchange it for political restrictions. In fact, he believed that at least 95% of people did not care about censorship, and only the weird ones did.

Comment Icon0 This “missing” Chinese perspective was observed by Anti. He had noted how the surge of Chinese bloggers was impacting the state-run traditional media landscape of China, by altering the ruling party’s grip over free expression in the media (Weinberger, 2007). Authors Michael Chase and James Mulvenon had analyzed the suppressive methods employed by the state to control the Internet, as well as the creative ways in which dissidents used the Internet and concluded in their book that “the Internet […] will probably not bring ‘revolutionary’ political change to China, but instead will be a key pillar of China’s slower, evolutionary path towards increased pluralization and possibly even nascent democratization” (Chase & Mulvenon, 2002). Instead of the notion that the Internet is as all-encompassing as the public sphere, this study has shown that the rise of a public sphere is mediated by the ongoing negotiation between state and society. As a reminder, Habermas even mentioned that “the public sphere [is] not in a common public space, as in the Greek polis [...] They locate it within civil society itself” (Charney, 1998).

Comment Icon0 At this juncture, Chinese leaders may have discovered the magic formula for political survival: a one-party regime that embraces capitalism and globalization. Western political pundits might shudder at the realization that the Chinese Communist Party may have effectively established a viable new model for autocratic rule (Pei, 2009). The Chinese government may have gained inspiration for this mutually beneficial form of autocracy from a much smaller, multi-racial nation, namely Singapore. In defence of the “efficiency” of a single-party government, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had commented that “[e]ndless debates are seldom about achieving a better grasp of the issue but to score political points”. He gave the example of how John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister, “spends all his time dealing with his party politics. The result is you don’t have a lot of time to worry about the long-term future” (Burton & Moldofsky, 2006).

Comment Icon0 When asked about the Internet bringing about any possible change in China, Anti believed that rather than the Internet turning China into the likeness of the United States, China was becoming a “big Singapore”, where they had “happy citizens without any political ideas” (Weinberger, 2007). As academic and journalist Cherian George elaborated in The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), “Singapore’s tragedy is not the absence of idealism, but that it systematically rewards the individualistic majority and discourages the socially-conscious minority”. He drove home the idea that citizens were at odds with Singapore’s self-image as a communitarian Asian society, an image conjured up largely to justify the protection of family values and paternalistic government. In truth, the overwhelming ethos is to “mind your own business”. Singapore’s autocracy, led by the People’s Action Party (PAP), had a clear appreciation of the fact that people’s desire to live in comfort is the most powerful force for civilization’s progress. As such, Singapore’s embrace of the free market forces has provided rich incentives for Singaporeans to work hard and create wealth. As shown in Chapter 2, there is hardly any need for the Singapore government to mandate Internet censorship, since its citizens are accustomed to self-censoring for the sake of maintaining social stability.

Comment Icon0 While there may be this sociological mirror between China and Singapore down the road, there has already been technological policy sharing between both countries. It is worth nothing that back in 1996, China had sent senior information official Zeng Jianhui to Singapore to learn about Internet-policing practices. Upon returning to the mainland, Chinese officials followed the Singapore example of more selective restriction, and a greater reliance on the threat posed to netizens by the mere prospect of network monitoring (Rodan, 1998). Given China’s economic and political pace, it would be reasonable to believe that instead of a modern and sophisticated community seeking greater political participation, the Chinese society would likely follow in Singapore’s stable footsteps. Rather than seeking a paternal government dictating technological barriers to access, the increasingly autonomous Chinese population would likely adopt political self-censorship while pursuing freedom of expression online. Finally, while the Western nations have had an established track record in pursuing liberal democracy as their form of governance, China is possibly paving the way for an alternative autocratic system that forgoes representation by proxy, while pursuing greater equality and transparency.

Comment Icon0 Both Western and Chinese researchers agree that while the state still maintains strong regulatory control, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also grown in diversity along with having greater independence than before (Guosheng, 2000; Whiting, 1991; Ma, 2002). These NGOs have even been able to bypass state regulatory measures by employing strategies such as registering their organizations as a business or a secondary entity to existing organizations (Saich, 2000). More importantly, some of these liberal social organizations have even been called upon by the government to help fulfill social functions, as a “third force”, such as in helping with initiatives for poverty reduction (Renmin Ribao, 2001).

Chapter 10.2 – Rise of the New Autocracy


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