Whatever the effect of political turmoil in Thailand, it is not helping the cause of democracy in China. The images of protesters and the military crackdown in Bangkok have been shown in the Chinese media without any bias. Indeed, there is no need to embellish the political message for China.
If a well-off and religious country known as the “land of smiles” can degenerate into bloody class warfare, what would happen if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lost its monopoly on power? It is not hard to imagine a Chinese-style Red Shirt rebellion, with populist leaders tapping resentment and hot-headed youths torching symbols of power and privilege in Beijing. If multiparty democracy leads to violent electoral blocs, then most people would prefer one-party rule that ensures social stability.
Still, it would be a mistake for the Chinese government to treat the events in Thailand as an excuse to postpone political reform. The gap between rich and poor is about the same in both countries, and there are tens of thousands of class-based “illegal disturbances” in China every year.
The Chinese government is promoting social welfare in the countryside, but it must also give more institutional expression to social grievances. That requires more representation by farmers and workers in the National People’s Congress and sub-national legislative organs, more freedom for public-spirited journalists to investigate cases of social injustice and more freedom for civic organizations to act on behalf of the environment and those who do not benefit from economic reform.
Can China open up without going the way of multiparty rule? In fact, the great 19th-century British political thinker John Stuart Mill advocated liberal government without multiparty rule. In his classic work Considerations on Representative Government, he denounced “the shibboleth of the party.” In a democracy, the party of the majority is most likely to be constituted by those “who cling most tenaciously to the exclusive class interest.”
Instead of multiparty politics, Mill favored democratic elections constrained by such mechanisms as extra votes for the educated and institutional mechanisms to protect the rights of minorities. In Mill’s view, an open society ruled mainly by educated elites is the most desirable form of government.
In a similar vein, the Confucian tradition has long emphasized the value of political meritocracy. Confucius (孔子) said that everybody should have an opportunity to be educated. However, not everybody will emerge with the ability to make moral and political judgments. Hence, an important task of the political process is to select those with above-average morality and ability. In subsequent Chinese history, the meritocratic ideal was institutionalized by means of the Imperial examination system.
Confucians do not oppose electoral democracy, but they argue that it must be constrained by political leaders selected for their merits, who look after the interests of non-voters. Democracies can represent the interests of voters, but nobody represents the interests of non-voters — including future generations and foreigners (consider global warming) — who are affected by government policies. That should be the task of elites selected on merit. As it happens, the CCP is becoming more meritocratic. Since the 1980s, an increasing proportion of cadres have had university degrees, and they are promoted partly based on examinations, but choosing educated elites is only part of the story.