A Chinese Criticizes American Democracy

I will begin by asserting that there exists an asymmetry between the Chinese and the Americans.  On one hand, there does not seem to be a lack of Americans willing to bang on their keyboards to criticize the Chinese political system.  On the other hand, far fewer Chinese comment or write extensively on the American political system, either in Chinese or English, with any wide circulation and appreciation (and I am ignoring the rants on the Internet forums).

I don't know why this should be the case.  I will make one observation: the leading public intellectuals of China seemed to take for granted that the Americans must have a viable system, because the country could not be so affluent and free otherwise.  In that sense, they are willing to issue a free pass.  This is unfortunate, because there are some flaws in the American political system that the Chinese should make sure that they don't emulate exactly . For example, is it normal that America should have a two-party system because no other third party can raise the US$200 million to buy television time for negative campaigns?

In the following, there is a translation of part of an essay written by a Chinese intellectual on the American political system.  I found this interesting, but you should read the essay first and then I will tell you why this interested me.  [Hint: As you read, try to guess the identity of the author.]

On Political Systems

Those who seek office in autocratic states fawn on those above them.  Those who seek offices in democratic states fawn on those below them.  In autocratic states, one has to flatter only one person; in democratic states, one has to flatter the multitudes.  Though both are alike in their fawning and flattery, the results cannot but be somewhat different.  However, neither system should be seen as perfect.

Great Britain also has political parties, and those parties also compete.  However, the defects of their system are not as serious as those of the United States.  Why is this?  I have ventured the opinion that the battles between Great Britain's political parties only involve generals, staff officers and lieutenants, whereas the battles between the political parties of the United States also involve innumerable foot soldiers.

Who are these foot soldiers?  None other than what I refer to as mediocre and common persons of lower-middle standing.  People of this sort, whether in their careers or their studies, are unable to establish themselves, and consequently can only make their career in politics.  They expend themselves on the affairs of their party because that is the source of their livelihood, and so they are, in actuality, the parasites of the political world.

Some critics consider this to be a defect of democratic politics.  However, in my opinion, this defect actually stems from the geography and customs of America.  (Consult my 'Why Do First-Class People No Enter Politics?')  If the US changed to a different kind of polity, the corruption would most probably be the same.  If a democratic polity were implemented in other countries, the level of corruption would perhaps not be as serious.

Given all this, why do the American people give their acquiescence to this kind of behavior?  One cannot but say that it is the error of a superstitious belief in republicanism.  When Andrew Jackson broke with old precedents and appointed favorites, and then proclaimed that 'the continual replacement of officials is a basic principle of republican politics', the citizens all believed him, and abuses have gradually reached this extreme.  This is the same as the muddled idea that leads them to favor a mediocrity as president.

The detriment to the country of the constant rotation of officials has been discussed in detail by recent and current scholars of politics such as Johann Kaspar Bluntschli and Gustav Bornhak.  Now if the continual replacement of a nation's highest officials is detrimental, is it not even more so when positions involving the day-to-day operations of government are subject to the same routine?  Posts become like transient lodgings: the seats never get warm, and everyone has the attitude that their appoints are only temporary, so business often stagnates.

Every time the British change government, the positions changed involve only fifty or so officials.  (Generally they are the most important positions in the ministries of the central government.  This is also the case in Japan and other countries.)  But in America, it is almost to the point where the whole body of government is changed; this is truly the greatest shortcoming of republican politics.

As people read through this, there are bound to be all sorts of disagreements with the author.  For example, some may well argue that American presidents are not mediocre; thus, it is difficult to argue that President George W. Bush is a mediocrity (for evidence, see the Bushisms).  And then, just who has ever heard of the 'authoritative scholars' by the names of Johann Kaspar Bluntschli and Gustav Bornhak?

I am not interested in arguing about the absolute merits of this essay.  For me, the fascination was that the author was Liang Qichao (粱啟超), and the full essay titled Diary of Travels Through The New World was written in the year 1903, more than one hundred years ago.  This translation appeared in the Chinese-English translation magazine Renditions, Volume 53/54, and the translation was credited to Janet Ng, Earl Tai and Jesse Dudley.

Liang was part of the failed reform movement of the Manchurian dynasty which led to his exile, and he then became China's leading intellectual until the years when the Republic was founded.  So the more interesting question is to what extent did Liang's criticisms still hold true after more than a century?  Go back and read the essay again.  Ask: Do you think political appointees help to run the government more effectively these days?  What is the quality of the political operators (=would you buy a used car from them?), and has it become worse over time? Do you think it is right that an appointed official in charge of regulation can leave the government and become a lobbyist for the regulated industry immediately? Why do the best people in America (e.g. Warren Buffet) not want to join the government? and so on.