The relative decline of the United States and imminent rise of China are exaggerated—if transparency and participation are the criteria for good governance. Two recent big news stories reflect core characteristics of governance in the two societies, highlighting their respective political strengths and weaknesses.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s possible rejection of the Affordable Care Act, the core legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration, affirms the strengths of the contentious U.S. democratic model. Juxtaposed to this debate is the dark drama surrounding Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, formerly a contender for promotion to China’s über-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Bo was stripped of all Communist Party posts and his wife arrested in a murder investigation. This unfolding story underlines the limitations of the opaque Chinese Leninist model.
These processes are occurring at politically delicate times in both countries, with potentially profound implications for each.
The United States is, of course, caught up in the orderly tumult of presidential and congressional elections, to be held this November 6. China is gearing up for its usually carefully orchestrated transfer of power between Communist Party elites at the 18th Party Congress this October, and the allocation of government roles at the National People’s Congress next March.
The rough-and-tumble of Chinese elite politics usually takes place behind closed doors. Chinese society and the world learn the outcome of the cut-throat politicking of leadership shifts only when Chinese leaders emerge from behind the curtain at Party Congresses. Glimpses of factional politics have been seen this time due to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai being implicated in the deadly poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. If the victim of this conspiracy were a hapless Chinese businessman not a foreigner, the world would be none the wiser. However, the appearance at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu of Bo’s right-hand-man-turned-opponent, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, with documents suggesting fishy circumstances to Heywood’s death injected unwanted global interest in the case, leading to the dismissal and arrest.
The sad fact is the outside world is probably more aware of the evolving situation in China than its citizens. The Chinese government is trying hard to control debate within China about Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing, his recent purging, and its meaning for the political transition. Yet its ability to do so in the era of the Internet, social media, micro-blogging, and instant messaging is greatly complicated. China’s cyber security police are extremely busy behind its “Great Firewall”.
Meanwhile, the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court possibly throwing out President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law has garnered enormous attention within the United States and internationally. President Obama himself incurred great disapproval for initial criticism of the Court. He said it would be “…an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to reject a law that was “passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” The key critique of Obama was that a president should not comment on a case pending before the Court. The Court is duty-bound to void unconstitutional laws, and it has done so before.
Obama later stepped back from this, acknowledging, “…the Supreme Court [has] the final say on our Constitution and our laws… It’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.”
Spending a few hours outside the Supreme Court late last month when it was hearing arguments on the law was fascinating for this South African. I enjoyed listening to the cacophony of chants and calls by the equally well-represented proponents and opponents of the law. The good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides was delightful and inspiring.
The discourse included competing chants—delivered simultaneously—like: “Ho, Ho/Hey, Hey/Obamacare/Is Here to Stay” and “Hey, Hey/Ho, Ho/Obamacare/Has Got to Go”. Or it was: “We.Love.Obamacare/We.Need.Obamacare” and “The Constitution Matters/Protect the Constitution”. Songs included (sung to “This Little Light of Mine”) “This Healthcare of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine…” and (sung to “Everywhere We Go, People Wanna Know”) “Everywhere We Go/There’s a New Tax There…” It was a highly memorable, albeit noisy, way to enjoy a spring morning.
Those in other industrial democracies both marvel and recoil at the prospect of politically appointed government officials rejecting a law passed by a majority of democratically elected representatives. They are also incredulous at the very debate on whether individual healthcare insurance should be “mandated” for all American citizens, and how such a mandate could be perceived as impinging on individual freedom.
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in late June. In a recent opinion poll, Americans anticipate the justices’ political views will determine their ruling on the healthcare law—rather than a neutral interpretation of the law. Republican presidents nominated the five more conservative-leaning justices on the bench, while Democratic presidents nominated the four more liberal justices. Whether or not the Court casts out the healthcare law, either entirely or partly, the crucial point is that the U.S. public will also get to render their verdict on the law. When the U.S. public votes on November 6, they will be able to endorse Obama’s policy prescriptions for the nation—including on healthcare—or they can repudiate them.
The long-suffering Chinese people won’t be given a chance to express their views on subjects as wide ranging as the merits or demerits of Bo’s “Chongqing model” of development or who should ascend to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. These subjects will not even be debated in the Chinese press.
Comparing a U.S. constitutional issue and Chinese elite factional politics—tangled with a criminal case—seems incongruous and contrived. But the two cases project core truths about the two countries and their systems of governance. The United States, with its often perplexing division of government authority and its relentless expectation of transparency, allows vigorous participation of its people. China is characterised by dead-end, impenetrable opacity in choosing who governs and how they govern; minimal accountability; and unwillingness to hear and indeed heavy-handed suppression of the views of those who are governed.
The all-too-often gridlocked system of divided government in the United States is exasperating. But don’t discount the United States. Give me “too much” transparency and “too much” democracy any day over none.