No need for democracy in China?

Political theorists know that disputes about the meaning of “democracy” usually cannot be settled by appeals to reason or evidence alone. Elections, at least, have been central to almost everyone’s idea of democracy since its unlikely emergence in ancient Athens.

Writing on the eve of SA’s own transition, the greatest of all living political scientists, Adam Przeworski, defined democracy as a regime in which “government offices are filled as a consequence of contested elections”. But most scholars insist that democracy must also be a “liberal” system in which fundamental rights and freedoms are constitutionally protected.

Can democratic decisions be delegated to others? In large and complex commercial societies, electoral participation has mostly been limited to periodic votes for representatives who then deliberate on citizens’ behalf.

While western political scientists struggle to define democracy and to understand its implications, the Chinese Communist Party is bypassing the concept altogether.

Chinese people are increasingly unwilling to tolerate the crony capitalism and corruption of the “party-state”. Reformers have talked guardedly about the potential merits of constitutionalism — or even of intraparty elections involving carefully vetted candidates.

But conservatives insist that democracy is costly, destabilising and inefficient. Far better, they argue, to use new technologies to rebuild the party’s legitimacy. Behind China’s “Great Internet Firewall”, an army of censors has long overseen indigenous Weibo social media, taking down the posts of frustrated citizens, identifying antiparty agitators and facilitating the arrest of dissenters. Now the party has reportedly begun to use social media data more constructively to tackle the sources of popular discontent.

Corrupt local officials have been identified and (when politically convenient) removed or punished.

Ordinary people’s revealed anxieties about pollution and public service failures have been translated into remedial actions. Official websites have been set up to filter and channel citizens’ complaints, while the posts of “rumour-mongers” continue to be deleted.

Party officials can now knock on the doors of outraged residents whose houses lie in the path of a rapacious property developer. Informed by Weibo analytics about the intensity of the citizens’ anger, the party can make available appropriate and differentiated compensation to each household, and so avert the formation of a local protest movement. Through this lens, issue-based protest politics simply shows that party officials have not yet identified and tackled the root causes of discontent.

Social media giant Facebook, banned in China, has an almost magical ability to target relevant advertising at consumers. In representative democracies, candidates with deep pockets — and their big-business sponsors — have recently started using the same social media analytics to target political advertising at voters. This growing technological nightmare for the proponents of liberal democracy in the West may be a dream come true for Chinese communists.

Advances in the machine-based processing of social media communications could in future allow the party to know what citizens want before they do themselves. If it can identify the factors that generate discontent, and ameliorate the causes of antiparty sentiment before they turn into anger and protest, the governing elite will be able to dispense altogether with the bothersome and inefficient practice of democracy.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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