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Eric Li on the failure of liberal democracy and the rise of China’s way

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The future of democracy
Eric Li on the failure of liberal democracy and the rise of China’s way


Democracy comes in many forms. The West’s liberal variety is failing, says a Chinese venture investor, while China’s governance produces better outcomes
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ALARM BELLS are ringing about the state of democracy. Freedom House proclaims the “global decline in democracy has accelerated” and that even in America it has “declined significantly”. Much of the weakening is happening in countries that are aligned with America, according to research by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden. Larry Diamond, a political sociologist, argues that the “democratic recession” has reached a “crisis”, intensified by the pandemic. There are many diagnoses. Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, believes the American government is captured by elites and the public is divided by cultural identities. And then there are those who always reach for the easy answer, blaming China and Russia.
On the other side of the spectrum, democracy’s sceptics are enjoying a moment of Schadenfreude. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently criticised the West’s failed attempts to “enforce democracy” on other countries whose cultures were ill fitted for such political systems and called on them to stop. Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat and scholar, believes America has in some ways “all the attributes of a failed state.” A decade ago even I weighed in, arguing that China’s model is superior to the West—a smug way of saying democracy is doomed.
Yet these pronouncements miss the mark because they share a flawed definition of democracy. To be more precise, they mistakenly equate liberalism with democracy, thereby rendering liberal democracy the only form of democratic governance. This is wrong.
In 1992, at the end of the cold war and beginning of a golden era for liberal democracy’s universalisation, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a political theorist, wrote in an essay, “The Cultural Particularity of Liberal Democracy”, that “liberal democracy is liberalised democracy: that is, democracy defined and structured within the limits set by liberalism.” This combination, he noted, was crystallised around the 18th century in Europe and was widely championed in practice by the West only after the second world war as a way of opposing the Soviet Union. Democracy itself, in its earliest Western incarnation in ancient Greece, long preceded liberalism.
Moreover, in combination, liberalism was the dominant partner and democracy was subjugated. In fact, liberalism was hostile to democracy. The development of liberal institutions over the past two to three centuries has in many ways consisted of attempts at limiting the power of democracy. If we are to be historically accurate and intellectually honest, we need to recognise that liberal democracy is but one kind of democracy.
During the European Enlightenment, liberal thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu and Mill proposed revolutionary ideas about how human societies should be governed based on the tenets of liberalism, such as the individual as the fundamental unit of society, the sanctity of private property and the primacy of procedural rule of law. Most modern liberal political institutions were developed with these ideas—representative government based on elections, separation of powers, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and so on. They are fundamental to America’s constitution and to most other liberal societies.
But at the same time, many liberal forefathers also recognised that the goal of liberal institutions is to deliver happiness to the people. If that outcome is not met, procedures must be changed. According to Mill, even access to voting could be curtailed, say, if a citizen were illiterate.
Liberal democracy had enormous successes, notably in the second half of the 20th century. During that period, liberal democratic countries delivered unprecedented prosperity to their people—so much so that many countries, including China, sought to emulate many of the West’s practices, such as market economics. However when groups like Freedom House and V-Dem rank countries on their levels of democracy, it in essence measures countries on how closely they follow liberal institutional procedures. When people say democracy is receding in many countries, they really mean liberalism is in trouble.
Why is liberalism in bad shape? The reason is that in many places it seems to be failing its junior partner—democracy. Liberal democracy is in crisis mode because so many of these countries face severe problems: persistent inequality, political corruption, collapse of social cohesion, lack of trust in government and elite institutions, and incompetent government. In short, liberalism has been failing to deliver democratic outcomes.
In the Soviet Union there was a popular joke: “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” In many liberal societies, people can turn that around: “We pretend to vote, they pretend to govern.” At this rate, the word “liberal” may soon no longer deserve to be followed by “democracy”.
A broader view of governance
The world needs a better and more inclusive way of evaluating democracy. Defining and measuring democracy by liberal procedures is way too narrow—historically, conceptually and under contemporary conditions. In ancient Greece, when democracy was first practised in the West, democratic politics was rather illiberal. There was no concept of individual or minority rights. That was why Plato and Aristotle—no democrats, both—criticised its majoritarian nature. Elections were not the only way of selecting leaders. Sortition—choosing leaders by lottery—was widely practised and fit Aristotle’s definition of democracy.
In the contemporary West, populist movements from the right and socialist activism on the left seem to be, at least in part, attempts to hold liberalism accountable for not delivering on outcomes. Looking at democracy anew is no easy task and will no doubt take a lot of work and debate. But I venture to propose a common-sense idea: let’s measure democracy not by procedures but by outcomes.
Democracy’s normative goal must be to deliver satisfaction to a vast majority of people over a long period. What good are elections if they keep producing poor leaders with the public stuck in perpetual cycles of “elect and regret”? What good is an independent judiciary if it only protects the rich? What good is separation of powers if it is captured by special interests to block necessary reforms? What good is freedom of the press, or freedom of speech for that matter, if it corrodes societies with division and dysfunction? What good are individual rights if they result in millions of avoidable deaths, as has happened in many liberal democracies during the pandemic?
In its attempt to challenge a rising China, America’s president, Joe Biden, frames this competition as a starkly ideological dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy. With that in mind, the administration is hosting a gathering of democracies on December 9th and 10th, to which some 110 countries or regions invited. A review shows that these 111 places (with the US included) consist of around 56% of the world’s population but had cumulative covid-19 deaths of 4.2m, which is 82% of the world’s total. More glaringly, the three countries with the highest deaths are the host country (780,000), which boasts of being the oldest democracy, Brazil (615,000) and India (470,000), which relishes being the largest democracy.
As for the seeming target of the gathering, China, it has 1.4bn people and just 5,697 deaths from covid-19.
Some may object that this was because China restricted freedoms more than “democracies”. But what kind of democracy would sacrifice millions of lives for some individuals’ freedom not to wear masks? It is precisely in this way that liberal democracy is failing its citizens.
Perhaps it is possible to develop a set of measurements that show which countries are generating more democratic outcomes. How satisfied are most people with their countries’ leadership and directions? How cohesive is society? Are people living better than before? Are people optimistic about their future? Is society as a whole investing enough to ensure the well-being of future generations? Beyond the narrow and procedural-centric liberal definition of democracy, outcomes must be taken into consideration when we define and evaluate democracies.
I would suggest that when it comes to outcomes, China doesn’t score so badly. The country has its problems—inequality, corruption and environmental degradation to name a few. But the government has been tackling them aggressively.
This is probably why a vast majority of Chinese people tell pollsters that they are generally satisfied with how the country is being governed. Can we at least now entertain the idea that China is generating more productive and democratic outcomes for its people and, measured by these concrete results, its political system is more democratic than that of the United States, albeit different, at the moment?
Abraham Lincoln characterised democracy in the most eloquent layman’s term: government of the people, by the people, for the people. I dare say that the current Chinese government outperforms America on all three. Chinese people overwhelmingly believe their government belongs to them and they live in a democracy; and it is a fact that a vast majority of China’s political leaders come from ordinary backgrounds. Quite to the contrary, many Americans seem to believe that their government is captured by monied interests and formed by an elite oligarchy. As for the last part, “for the people”, China is way ahead on outcomes.
The world needs greater diversity in the concept of democracy that is both historically truer (because democracy was not always liberal) and practically more beneficial. Many developing countries have seen their economic growth stagnate. They need to be unshackled from the ideological rigidity of the liberal doctrine and to experiment with their own ways of realising their democratic potential. New perspectives and measurements might help liberal societies as well.
Decoupling liberal democracy
For too long, liberalism has monopolised the concept of democracy and liberals have taken their democratic credentials for granted. This may be one cause for why many liberal governments are failing to deliver democratic outcomes for their people. Being measured not on procedures but on actual performance may be just the spur for liberal countries to implement much-needed reforms. If liberal governments could again deliver more democratic outcomes, so much the better for the world.
This perspective, on the need to judge democracy by its outcomes, is rarely discussed in global debates over governance. Liberal societies champion diversity in just about everything except for diversity in models of democracy, even at a conceptual level. But the reality is that the history of democratic aspirations and practices has been immensely rich and diverse. Besides Athenian democracy being decidedly not liberal, there were centuries of democratic ideals and institutional practices in China’s Confucian tradition—also not liberal. At this point in time, the world is certainly in need of more democratic experiments.
I am not attempting to advocate any particular form of democracy, and certainly am not making a case for majoritarian or direct democracy—which China is definitely not. Rather, I am proposing to broaden and pluralise both the definition and measurements of democracy. China’s current socialist democracy is surely a model worthy of study given the country’s obvious successes.
The American foreign-policy thinker Anne-Marie Slaughter recently argued that the United States should “accept at least the possibility that other forms of government could be better.” She further suggested, as a new measure of governance, that people evaluate which countries are doing a good job at achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
It is a great idea. And the broader point needs to be amplified: end liberalism’s monopoly on democracy—and let more forms of democracy flourish.
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Eric Li is a venture capitalist, political scientist and founder of the Chinese news site Guancha.cn. He serves on the boards of numerous organisations, including International Institute for Strategic Studies, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (where he earned an MBA) and the China Institute at Fudan University (where he received a PhD in political science).






近些年来,人们都在为民主的状况敲响警钟。来自“自由之家”的研究表明,“全球民主已在加速衰落”,即使是美国的民主水平也在“显著下降”。瑞典V-Dem研究所的研究发现,那些民主水平下降得最为严重的国家好多是与美国结盟的。政治社会学家戴雅门(Larry Diamond)警告称,民主的衰退正面临危机状态,同时新冠疫情把其加剧。针对这一现象,还有不少学者作出分析。政治学家弗朗西斯·福山说,美国政府被精英控制,而美国人民则因文化身份认同问题陷入分裂。当然,也有人干脆走捷径:都怪中国和俄罗斯。

而在政治光谱的另一端,那些对民主一向持怀疑态度的人则有些幸灾乐祸。俄罗斯外交部长谢尔盖·拉夫罗夫最近批评西方试图将民主“强加”给其他国家,结果却因水土不服而失败。他呼吁西方停止这种做法。新加坡前外交官和学者马凯硕指出,美国现在已经开始具有了某些失败国家的特征。即使是我本人——大约十年前也曾撰文指出中国的政治模式比西方更加优越,不无得意地对民主体制的失败冷嘲热讽。​

但上述观点其实都陷入了一个误区,那就是对民主的定义是错位的。具体地说,它们错误的把自由主义和民主画上了等号,从而使自由主义民主制度成为了民主治理的唯一形式。这是不对的。

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被自由主义包裹的民主模式,也被西方包装成了民主治理的唯一形式​

早在1992年,冷战结束伊始,自由主义民主迎来了普世化的黄金时代。然而,政治理论家比丘·帕雷克勋爵(Bhikhu Parekh)当时在其文章《自由主义民主的文化特殊性》中写道,“自由主义民主体制是自由主义化了的民主体制,即民主在自由主义设定的限度内被定义和构建。”他指出,这一结合体大约是在18世纪的欧洲被明确化的,直到第二次世界大战后,西方才在全世界广泛推崇这种体制, 其目的是将其作为对抗苏联的一种方式。而民主早在古希腊时期就已经出现,远远早于自由主义。

更关键的是,在“自由主义民主”这对组合中,自由主义才是主导性的老大,民主则是被压制的。事实上,自由主义是相当敌视民主的,在过去的两三个世纪里,自由主义制度曾试图以各种方式限制民主力量的发展。本着对历史的严谨态度和对理论的客观态度,我们需要认识到自由主义民主只是民主的一个分支。

在欧洲启蒙运动时期,洛克、孟德斯鸠、密尔等自由主义思想家提出了一种开创性的人类社会治理新主张,以自由主义理念为原则,例如个人是社会的基本单位,私有财产神圣不可侵犯,以及法治中的程序至上。现代的自由主义政治体制大多都是基于这些理念发展起来的——选举产生代议制、分权、新闻自由、 司法独立——这些理念构成了包括美国宪法在内的大多数自由主义社会的制度基础。

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欧洲启蒙运动时期的自由主义思想家洛克、孟德斯鸠、密尔(从左往右)​

但与此同时,许多自由主义的先驱也指出,自由主义制度的宗旨是为人民带来福祉。如果没能实现这一目标,就应该改变这些程序。例如密尔认为,如果公民是文盲的,连参加选举的资格也可以被限制。

自由主义民主制曾经取得过巨大的成功,尤其是在20世纪下半叶。在那时,自由主义民主制国家为其人民带来了前所未有的繁荣,以至于包括中国在内的许多国家都试图效仿西方的诸多实践,例如市场经济。然而,当自由之家和V-Dem等机构针对民主水平对各国进行排名时,这些机构的评价标准基本上就是这些国家到底有多严格地遵循了自由主义制度的程序。因此,当人们说许多国家的民主正在衰退时,他们实际上是在说自由主义陷入了困境。

那么自由主义现在为什么陷入了困境?那是因为在不少国家,自由主义这个“老大”似乎辜负了民主制度这个“小弟”。 自由主义面临危机的原因是许多这种体制的国家面临死结:持续的不平等,政治腐败,社会凝聚力丧失,政府和精英机构缺乏公信力以及政府的无能。简而言之,自由主义没能带来民主的结果。

在苏联时期,有一个笑话很流行,“我们假装上班,他们假装发我们工资”。在许多奉行自由主义的社会,也许人们现在可以说,“我们假装投票,他们假装执政。”按照这种发展态势,“自由主义”一词可能很快就没资格与“民主”相提并论了。

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古希腊民主形式为西方推崇,但与现代国家的民主并不同​

以更宽广的视野审视国家治理

世界需要一种更好、更包容的方式来衡量民主。用自由主义的一套程序来定义和衡量民主,无论是在历史上、概念上,还是在当代语境下,都显得过于狭隘。早在古希腊,当民主率先在西方社会得到实践时,个人权利、少数权利等概念还没有被发明出来,那时的民主政治是非自由主义的。这也是柏拉图和亚里士多德这两位非民主派思想家批判民主的原因——他们并不认同其多数主义的本质。选举也并不是决定谁来成为领导人的唯一方式——事实上,通过抽签选择领导人的做法也很常见,同时也符合亚里士多德对民主的定义。

如今在西方社会,右派和左派分别掀起了民粹主义运动和社会主义运动,目的似乎都是对自由主义的劣迹问责。重新审视民主无疑不是一项简单的任务,需要展开大量的研究和讨论。但我想先抛砖引玉,凭借基本的常识来提出一种新的方法——那就是看结果而不是看程序来评价民主。

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在欧美国家掀起的民粹主义和社会主义运动,背后都是自由主义在作祟。图为美国众议院议员、“美国民主社会主义者”组织成员亚历山德里娅·奥卡西奥-科尔特斯和美国前总统特朗普​

民主的终极标准必须是长期满足绝大多数人的需求。如果选出的一直都是无能的领导人,民众陷入“选完就后悔”的死循环中,那选举有什么用呢?如果独立的司法系统只保护富人的利益,那司法独立有什么用呢?如果利益集团绑架了分权机制以阻止必要的改革,那分权机制有什么用呢?如果新闻自由或言论自由侵蚀了社会,使社会陷入到分裂与失能的状态,那要新闻自由或言论自由有什么用呢?如果像许多自由主义民主国家那样,为了保障个人权利而导致数以百万计的本来可以避免的死亡,正如这次疫情中很多自由主义民主制国家发生的灾难,那么个人权利有什么用呢?

为了对抗崛起中的中国,美国总统拜登试图在中美竞争中制造出一种民主与专制的二元意识形态对立。为此,美国当局将在12月9日-10日组织召开一届由全球民主政体参加的大会,受邀者多达110个。据统计,这111个国家和地区(包括美国自己在内)的人口数量占全世界人口数量的56%,但在这些国家里死于新冠病毒的总人数是420万,占全世界总死亡人数的82%。更刺眼的是新冠病毒致死人数最多的三个国家,第一名是东道主美国,他们常常自诩为历史最悠久的民主国家,却有78万人在这场疫情中失去生命;第二位是巴西,有61.5万人死去;第三名是印度,尽管他们为“全球最大的民主国家”这一称谓而洋洋自得,在这场疫情中却已经有47万人丧生。

作为这次民主峰会隐含针对的目标,中国有14亿人口,却只有5697人在新冠疫情中逝去。
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有人可能会提出反对意见,指责中国比“民主国家”限制了更多的自由。但什么样的民主会为了保障少数人不戴口罩的自由而牺牲数百万人的生命?正因如此,我们可以说自由主义民主辜负了它的人民。​

或许,我们可以制定出一套全新的衡量标准,以显示哪些国家正在取得更民主的结果:大多数人民对本国的领导层和发展方向有多满意?社会凝聚力如何?人民的生活比以前更好了吗?人民对自己的未来持乐观态度吗?整个社会是否投入足够的资源以确保子孙后代的福祉?在定义和评估民主时,除了参照狭义的、程序性的自由主义标准,结果也应当成为重要的考量标准。

我要指出的是,从结果上来看,中国的表现并不差。中国固然有自己的问题——例如不平等、腐败和环境恶化,但政府一直在积极解决这些问题。

这可能就是为什么民调结果持续显示绝大多数中国人对国家的治理是基本满意的。我们现在或许可以这样认为:中国在发展的过程中为其人民带来了更富有成效的治理和更民主的结果,用这些实实在在的成果来衡量,当前中国的政治制度比美国的更民主,尽管有所不同。

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中国儒家推崇的民本思想,更强调以人为本、以人民为中心​

亚伯拉罕·林肯用了最通俗的言辞,总结了民主的特征:“民有、民治、民享”。我敢说,当前的中国政府在这三方面做得都比美国好。绝大多数中国人认为他们的政府属于他们,他们生活在一个民主国家。并且,中国的领导人绝大多数都是平凡出身,这是一个事实。而这在美国恰恰相反,许多美国人似乎认为他们的政府被金钱利益所俘获,由精英寡头组成。至于"民享",中国的治理成绩也遥遥领先。

在对民主的定义上,世界需要一些多样性,这会更符合民主的发展历史(因为历史上的民主不全是自由主义的),对现实也更加有益。许多发展中国家的经济发展陷入了停滞,他们需要从僵化的自由主义意识形态中解放出来,尝试用自己的方式实现本国民主。新的视角和衡量标准对于自由主义社会本身也可能是有益的。

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12月2日,“中外学者谈民主”高端对话会在北京举行,外交部副部长乐玉成提出,没有十全十美、高人一等的民主制度。​

与自由主义民主脱钩

长期以来,自由主义垄断了民主的定义权和评价权,自由主义者认为他们理所当然是民主的。这可能是许多自由主义政权未能为其人民带来民主成果的一个原因。如果自由主义国家以实际结果而非程序来作为衡量民主的标准,也可能会推动这些国家实施本国急需的改革。如果自由主义政权能够再次带来更民主的成果,全世界也该乐见其成。

“以结果论民主”这个观点在全世界关于治理的讨论中鲜有出现。自由主义社会此前一直在各个层面倡导多样性,但对民主模式的多样性却连在概念层面都避而不谈。但事实上,民主的理想和实践有着丰富多彩的历史。除了非自由主义的雅典民主制,在中国的儒家传统中存在着长达数个世纪的民主理想和制度实践,而这同样不是自由主义的。此时此刻,世界需要进行更多样化的民主实践。

我并无意倡导某种特定形式的民主,也不是要推崇多数主义或直接民主——这也不是中国的制度。相反,我建议扩大民主的定义和衡量标准,并使之多元化。中国目前所实行的社会主义民主无疑是一个值得研究的范式,因为这个国家取得了显著的成功。

美国外交政策学家安妮·玛丽·斯劳特(Anne Marie Slaughter)最近提出:“美国至少(应该)接受一种可能性,那就是其他形式的政府可能更好。”她进一步建议,我们可以把实现联合国可持续发展目标作为衡量政府表现的新标准,以此评估哪国政府表现得更好。

我为这样的好主意点赞!让我们结束自由主义对民主的定义权和评判权的垄断,让丰富多彩的民主百花齐放!
 
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