It was a hot summer afternoon in Beijing.
My companion, a professor of politics at a city university, said: “In the US, there are two major parties. In fact, they are two sides of the same party. The cost of being elected is so high that politicians have to rely on giant corporations for funds.
“It is they who control policy, whichever party is in power. That is your so-called ‘democracy’.
“What is more, the US is a hegemonist power. It imposes its will on foreign countries, whether they want it or not. It will use war, sanctions or interference in the political process to serve its own interests. Do not be deceived by the sweet words.”
Many American scholars share this analysis, if they do not express it in so blunt a form.
No one can underestimate the wealth and power of the giant American conglomerates, in arms, agriculture, aviation, banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals and other sectors.
The result of their interventions is evident for all to see. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq brought enormous profits to the US arms, oil and construction companies – and has created a power vacuum with incalculable consequences for the Middle East and the world.
The insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies sabotaged medical health coverage for the poor in the US from 1965 until 2010, when Obamacare was passed. Since then, it has faced legal challenges in Congress and federal courts and state governments.
For Beijing, these are two of many examples that show that, in the US, democracy – “government by the people” – does not serve the interests of the people but of these rich and powerful lobby groups.
Thus the export of “democracy” to countries where it did not exist before is a trick.
The Arab Spring since December 2010 has provided much ammunition to the Chinese argument. Rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen have overthrown their dictatorial rulers, but are the lives of ordinary people any better as a result?
Thailand is another example. On May 22 this year, the army launched a coup d’etat to end six months of political crisis, street demonstrations and social conflict.
For Beijing, these are strong arguments to show that democracy is not a “universal value” and only suitable for certain countries that meet specific conditions of history, culture and education.
It says that these conditions do not exist at all in the mainland because of its enormous population and mix of different races and religions and great diversity of wealth, education and living standards.
The educated white-collar manager in Shanghai and Beijing is close to his counterpart in Taipei, Seoul or Sydney who has the right to vote; but how about the nomadic shepherd in Inner Mongolia and the 38 per cent of Tibetans and 10 per cent of those in Qinghai who are illiterate?
Beijing argues that a one-person, one-vote system would lead to social chaos and possibly civil war.
Even if the government wanted to allow such a thing, it would take years to establish opposition parties and the means and mechanisms for such an election. In April and May this year, for example, it took the 800 million eligible voters in India six weeks to vote in a general election.
This is not going to happen. The party says that, through the war with Japan and the civil war, the “Chinese people” chose it to be their ruler and that its legitimacy has been proved by the remarkable economic progress of the last 36 years.
Ask a mainlander what he is proud of and he will speak of the high-speed train network, the spanking new airports and railway stations, the glistening skyscrapers of the main cities, the space program, the Beijing Olympics and the many medals its sportsmen and women have won at competitions all over the world.
He will talk of Jack Ma Yun, Zhang Ziyi, Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma and other Chinese who have become celebrities and show the country’s success on a global stage. He will also speak of the country’s first aircraft carrier and other military achievements, evidence of its ability to stand up to the United States and Japan.
These are the symbols the media presents as successes of the past three decades and to convince its people that they belong to a nation that is rediscovering its greatness and enjoying a level of wealth unprecedented in its history.
Democracy does not figure on this list; it is not part of the public discourse.
Scholars and returnees from abroad talk about it in private but are wise enough not to include it in articles they publish or interviews they give on radio and television. It could cost them their job at a university or thinktank, or worse.
The protests and impassioned debate of Hong Kong belong to another planet.
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