WILL THE REAL CHINA NOW PLEASE STAND UP

The decision by China’s legislature to scrap the term limit of 10 years in the presidency pulls the curtain aside on Xi Jinping’s radical transformation of the regime. He was elevated to party boss in 2012. Since then he has tightened all the reins of dictatorship. Any semblance of opposition has been crushed, even small feminist groups that were organising protest against sexual harassment on public transport. Their sin was not in their cause, but in the act of organising outside of the party system. Human rights lawyers have been detained or put out of business en masse. Censorship and internet control is more penetrating than ever. Internally in the Party, discipline is the mantra, and all potential opinion has been silenced with the help of the anti-corruption campaign. Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim province in the west, has been turned into a surveillance state laboratory, including with the deployment off the most advanced electronic tools of the trade. The political activist Yang Maodong was right when, in his trial in 2014, he defied the court with an eloquent defense statement in which he compared today’s China “blow by blow” to the nightmare state of George Orwell’s 1984. That likeness has since become ever more perfect.

The world looks to China and sees an economic giant. But the China they ought to see is a political giant. Xi Jinping’s project is to make totalitarianism work. For that he needs a strong and growing economy, but in his project the economic is in the service of the political. What always counts is the regime itself and its perpetuation.

Xi inherited a regime of pragmatic authoritarianism under collective leadership. Now pragmatism has been superseded by ideological fervor, Xi’s omnipresent “China Dream” of national rejuvenation and greatness. Collective leadership has been abolished, now formally so with the clearing away of any time limit on the Red Emperor’s reign. With both pragmatism and collective leadership gone, Xi stands on a pedestal of power previously occupied only by Mao.

China is an economic giant and governments and corporations obviously want to do business. But when you do, you should know that you are dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship, inspired by nationalistic ideology, with a confident one-man supremo at the helm. If you think that kind of state is a cuddly teddy of benevolence, you have not learned much from history.

Rather than engaging in balanced collaboration China is pursuing domination. It is undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong. It is threatening Taiwan with annexation, in which matter the will of the people of a democratic country is to count for nothing. It has de facto turned 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers into its own territorial waters, in contravention of international law and a ruling of the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, and is building bases, some of them military, in other countries’ waters. Australia and New Zealand are on the forefront of China’s purchase of influence abroad, in persistent interference in politics, media and universities, described in a recent Australian book as a “silent invasion.”

Beijing may not be imposing its model on others, but it is imposing something else: silence. If you want to collaborate, be you a business, an organization or a government, you are not allowed to say or do what the men in Beijing see to be unfriendly.

Recently, Mercedes-Benz happened to mention the Dalai Lama in promotional material outside of China, met criticism in China, and quick as a flash removed all reference to His Holiness and apologized for “hurting the feelings” of the people of China.

If you were to cross the regime, you will be in danger of retribution, such as exclusion from operations in China. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International are silent on China’s environmental destructions in the South China Sea.

Last year, China and Norway “normalized” relations (which had been cut off for six years after the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo). What Norway had to pay for “normalization” was a promise to undertake no action that could disturb the new harmony between the two governments. Since then, a government whose identity in the world rests on its championship of democracy and human rights, has had not a word to say about human rights abuses in China.

It is not a matter of general concern that power shifts in the world. The west, America, have no God-given right to preeminence. But it is a matter of concern that the rising power is a state that is repressive towards its own population and hostile to others’ liberty. It is a matter of concern that a state that has annexed vast territorial waters and is threatening to annex a neighbouring democracy is able to use its economic clout to buy silence on the part of countries that claim to live by democratic values and international law.

What to do? First, we must understand and acknowledge that in China we are dealing with a totalitarian state with immense powers behind it. We must free ourselves from Western wishful thinking that with economic growth and opening up, China is becoming more like us and more benevolent at home and collaboration abroad. That has not happened. Xi’s regime is exercising totalitarianism with more strategic discretion than any before it – smart totalitarianism, I have called it – but totalitarian it is.

Secondly, we – the democratic governments of the world – need a coherent strategy for meeting the challenge of China. The liberal democracies, says the German sinologist Kai Strittmatter, must find their voice up against assertive autocracy. China deals as much as it can with each country on its own, in which case most countries are small fry next to the giant. We need a collective strategy. Currently, the hope, if distant, is for the European Union to mount such a strategy, since President Trump has placed America on the sideline.

A collective strategy should have three components:

  1. We should engage with China on all levels, politically, economically, in science, in culture and so on. That it inevitable and is also strategic. The more we can pull China into engagement, the more Chinese institutions will be under the influence of international law and standards of collaboration.
  2. We should speak up in clear language, to Chines authorities and in public, against repression and breaches of human rights in China. This we should always do with reference to the Chinese State Constitution and to Chinese law, which are in these respects sound (although ineffective).
  3. We should speak up in clear language against Chinese aggression internationally, notably in its neighbourhood, and against interference in politics and civil society in other countries. This we should always do with reference to the many relevant international treaties and conventions that China has signed up to.

WHO IN THE WORLD WILL DEFEND DEMOCRACY?

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.

THE ENGLISH ILLUSION

British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.

 

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – IN NEED OF A HEALTH CHECK

America has had many odd presidents and democracy has survived them all. Normally it should not matter; presidents come and go and the Constitution prevails. But these are not normal times. The constitutional system and the political culture are weakened. In at most seven years, President Trump will be gone. The question is how much lasting damage will have been done by then.

Read the full article here.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (yet again)

We’ve come a long way since the referendum, more than a year and a half ago (23 June 2016). We know more today than we did then. We know that leaving the EU is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership but a very complicated business with consequences for all aspects of national life. We know that it will take more time than then envisaged so that a “transition period” of perhaps two years has been agreed after the date of formal exit.

If the decision were to be made today, it would be made on the basis of knowledge that we did not have then. A referendum today might still have had the same outcome, or it might not, we cannot know.

When we get into the spring of next year, we will know more again. We should then know more about the relationship between Britain and the EU when/if Britain leaves. Someone will then have to judge whether it is then in Britain’s best interest to leave, knowing what we then know. What that someone will then conclude we cannot know now – but someone will have to make the judgement.

That someone is Parliament. MPs may or may not like it, but it will be Parliament’s burden to judge what is in the nation’s interest, the facts being what they will then be. The referendum notwithstanding, leaving or not will be Parliament’s decision.

If Parliament were to decide that Britain should not leave the EU, would that be undemocratic, given the 2016 referendum? The answer is, no. Parliament is the supreme authority in Britain’s democracy and the custodian of the nation’s well-being. It was Parliament that triggered Article 50 of the EU Treaty (on 29 march 2017), and it is Parliament that must decide what is best at the end of the negotiation process, on the basis of the facts as they will be then. It is standard for Parliament to change its mind. If a law has been passed that turns out to work poorly, Parliament will change it. That is not “undemocratic” just because the original law was passed democratically.

If Parliament at that time were to conclude that it would be best for the country to change its mind, it is possible that it will call another referendum. That would not be necessary for democratic reasons – it is in Parliament’s authority to decide – but Parliament might for political reasons see no other way.

What judgement Parliament will make in a year’s time, we cannot know. But Parliament is well aware of the burden it carries in having to make the judgement. This is being worked on in Parliament day in and day out. The action leading up to the final decision is and will be in Parliament.

Parliament’s final judgement will depend on the facts as they will then be known. The ongoing debate matters but the facts will decide. We are already seeing that changing facts result in changing constellations in Parliament. There is now a majority in Parliament for a deal in which Britain remains within a custom union with the EU.

My guess is that Parliament in a year’s time will decide that it will be best for Britain to remain a member of the EU. It will turn out that leaving will be too costly, in six ways:

  1. It will be too costly economically. The EU gives Britain seamless trade and economic collaboration with its biggest and most important markets. Introducing impediments on that trade and collaboration will bring burdens onto Britain’s economy.
  2. It will be too costly in terms of other collaborations, such as in science, education, health care, security, culture and more. It will be costly for Britain to make itself a second-class partner in collaboration.
  3. It will be too costly in terms of risks to Britain’s own union. Brexit will give the nationalists in Scotland the arguments they need to push through independence. A division of some kind of border will re-emerge between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Irish settlement will be put in danger and the question of all-Ireland unification will return to the agenda.
  4. It will be too costly for Britain’s standing in the world. Britain on its own will be a small country in a big world, without much influence. Europe unified is a world power. By leaving the EU, Britain gives up the clout is has as a partner in the European block.
  5. It will be too costly in terms of the younger generations’ future. The European lifestyle of mobility, multi-nationality and borderless living in education and work will be made less available to young people in Britain.
  6. It will be too costly in terms of the damage imposed on friends in Europe. The European Union is a political project. The aim is to transform Europe from a continent in enmity to one of nations tied together in the security of bonds of collaboration. By turning its back on this project, Britain does damage to a cause that matters deeply to friends on the continent.

 

DECISION AND DELIBERATION

Decisions made by a democratic National Assembly (or Parliament or Congress) have democratic legitimacy. That’s what we want in a democracy, decisions that are valid because they are made democratically.

However, strangely enough, the democratic legitimacy of decisions correctly made can sometimes be a problem. Whatever the National Assembly decides, must be correct because it is democratic. If someone is able to get the National Assembly to make a decision in their favour, say in a matter of taxation, they have won, because the National Assembly has put the stamp of “democratic” on that decision.

One agent who has an interest in getting the National Assembly to make certain decisions is the government. Governments have agendas they want pushed through, and they want to do that with as little trouble as possible from the lawmakers. National Assemblies are therefore under pressure to produce certain decisions and to do so without resistance.

The potential problem here is that this may push the National Assembly into making badly planned decisions because the government is desperate to get those decisions made that it has promised the electorate and to get the Assembly’s stamp of “democratic” on them. Such bad decisions are a big problem: since they are democratic, it is very difficult to overturn them and the country is stuck with potentially serious consequences of mistaken decisions.

Such mistakes happen. A case in point is Brexit. Then Prime Minister Cameron was able to get Parliament to sanction a referendum in a quick and easy decision without giving him any trouble or resistance in the matter. That was clearly a mistake. The country is now tearing itself apart and is unable to extricate itself from the mistake that has fallen down upon it. (Although it is my belief that Parliament will eventually find a way of correcting this mistake, it is, as we are seeing, very difficult to overturn a decision that has the legitimacy of a referendum behind it.)

The lesson is that National Assemblies should be able to make good decision and protected from making bad ones. Their decisions should be democratic but they should also be good, productive and workable, and certainly not counterproductive.

National Assemblies need assistance to manage the difficult combination of democratic and productive decisions.

They need the assistance, first of all, of protective procedures. Procedure is a boring matter for those of us interested in politics, but terribly important. National Assemblies need to impose rules upon themselves whereby they force themselves to not making decisions without careful scrutiny of consequences. They must avoid knee-jerk decisions because such decisions are in high risk of being bad. They must give themselves time and they must take themselves through routines of scrutiny. The Brexit decision, for example, was taken by Parliament without any preliminary work on what the consequences might be, and we are now paying the price.

They need assistance, secondly, in knowing what is in the interest of the people. One might think a good way of doing that is to ask the people, for example in a referendum. But we now know, from modern psychological research (such as by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research), that this is too simple. You and I and all of us are prone to making mistakes about our own good because there are mechanisms of bias at work in our minds. Our instinctive preferences are not necessarily what we really want. It turns out that people often change their minds and correct their preferences if they are given the opportunity to reflect and work on them with some care.

From this, political scientists are concluding that the popular will is not something that just exists in the population but what emerges from what they call “deliberation.” The German theorist Claus Offe has suggested that National Assemblies should have the support of more sophisticated information about “the will of the people” than raw expressions of preferences. He suggests “deliberative panels” consisting of a random sample of the population – he calls them “citizen deliberators” – charged with working their way through appropriate procedures from raw preferences to “reflective preferences” in important political matters. He thinks the panels should be constituted by some kind of lot among all citizens, that their task would be to help both citizens and lawmakers to form considered judgements, and that their authority would be exclusively advisory for National Assemblies.

As often, original ideas on first encounter seem odd, but this suggestion is really quite common sense. The reason we have National Assemblies, is that in a big population we for practical reasons must appoint a sample of the population to make decisions for us. If preferences depend on deliberation, the same logic would apply to the pre-decision process of forming preference. We will not get proper deliberation unless we design proper procedures to do it.

As for additional panels to advise the National Assembly, that’s the rationale of for example the House of Lords in the British Parliament and of various other “upper houses” in other national legislatures. Offe’s idea is slightly different, in how the panels are made up and precisely what they would do, but the idea is much the same.

 

UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE? AND THE CHILDREN?

We are celebrating, in Britain today, the centenary of women winning the right to vote. In 1918, the vote was extended to all men over 21, and to women of the propertied class and over 30 years of age. It was to be ten more years before all women over 21 got the vote.

We are used to thinking that with all adult men and women having the vote, and the voting age having been lowered to usually 18, we have achieved universal suffrage. But that is not right. A whole class of citizens are still denied the power of the vote: children.

That matters. The interests of children are light-weight in the competition over public policy. The Family Allowance that was introduced in the great welfare reforms at the end of World War II, has subsequently shrivelled in real value, the result being high rates of poverty among children. It has not had enough political support. In the great austerity drive after 2008, pensions have been singularly protected from any erosion in value. Pensioners have the vote and use it.

It is mostly though obvious that children cannot have the vote, but that is sloppy thinking. It was once thought obvious that women could not vote. The battle against “the obvious” is the first bastion. In The Subjection of Women (1869) John Stuart Mill said it thus: “.. the burthen is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion ..”

The logic is that children should not have the vote because they cannot vote, but that is to confuse two separate questions, the should-question and the could-question. If we for a moment set practicalities aside in our minds, and ask only the should-question, we would surely conclude, theoretically, that children should have the vote. The principle of universal suffrage is that all citizens have an equal interest in government matters and that therefore all citizens should have an equal say. In the abstract, that must include children no less than other categories of citizens.

The question, then, is really if they could have the vote. If a practical way could be found, there is no issue of principle standing in the way.

In recent years, great advances have been made in the recognition of children’s rights. In many ways children are now, in law, citizens rather than subjects. For example, children have property rights. Children cannot manage property, but that is not taken to mean that they cannot have property. The practical solution is that someone is appointed to be the custodian of the property on behalf of the child, until the child is old enough to take care of it himself or herself. The custodian has a duty to manage the property in the best interest of the young owner.

The similar logic in respect to the vote would be that all children have the right to vote but that this right is managed on behalf of the child by a custodian until the child comes of age, now sometimes referred to as demeny voting.. That’s a practical solution that solves the could-question. Since there is no independent should-question standing in the way, the matter should be resolved.

The solution I have advocated  is that the children’s vote is managed on their behalf by the mother (or the father if the mother is absent) so that the mother is the custodian of a second vote in addition to her own irrespective of the number of children. There are other ways it could be done, but this has been my preferred arrangement. There is every reason to trust that mothers would manage the second vote on behalf of their children and not as a second vote for themselves, just as we trust custodians to manage property.

There is a small lobby in democratic countries in favour of the children’s vote. Not a powerful lobby – we have not yet won the battle against “the obvious” – but a persistent lobby. I first lent my voice to this following in an article in the then International Herald Tribune on 14 December 1996, under the heading “In a Democracy, Children Should get the Vote.” The progress that is being made is for a lowering of the voting age to 16, which has been introduced in some democracies and is coming elsewhere. But since there is a way that concurs with current legal thinking to include all children in the power of the vote, there should be no reason not to go the whole way.