Democracy is at a watershed, writes Patrice de Beer, a former foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Monde. Too many voters in the established democracies take it for granted, while the concept and practice are being adulterated by authoritarian regimes that claim the democratic mantle in a desperate search for legitimacy.
Many have lost confidence in [democratic] institutions as last year’s Arab Spring has been followed by the electoral victory of religious fundamentalists in Egypt and Tunisia. Through the centuries, new generations have developed different visions of this concept to fit specific times, circumstances, and locations. In making these adjustments, governments have all too often corrupted the very concept of democracy. Yet most modern leaders, except for the basest of autocrats, continue to pay at least lip service to it. Even North Korea.
It should hardly seem strange that so many dictatorships have added to the official name of their countries the shining titles of “Democratic” or “Popular,” especially during the Communist era, from People’s Republics (like China or Hungary) to the German “Democratic” Republic (the Stasi-dominated police state of East Germany) or the infamous “Democratic” Kampuchea of the Khmer Rouge. …. The best—or the worst—example of this linguistic perversion is, of course, the Kim dynasty of North Korea, which is both a “Democratic” and “People’s” Republic. Finally, there is Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo (in contrast with its far smaller and no more democratic neighbor simply named Republic of Congo). The sad joke, of course, is that none of these “People’s” regimes are in the least democratic, and these “Democratic” republics are hardly run by the people.
PROTECT AND DEFEND
Yet, this has not stopped proud Western democracies with a glorious past of fighting to protect our freedoms from doing business with unsavory regimes…..We mute our criticism of Communist China’s perpetual violations of human rights—from Chinese dissidents to Tibetan or Uighur nationalists—to protect a vast market for our products and our primary supplier of industrial goods, which we cannot live, or play, without.
There have always been those—like France’s late China expert and President Charles de Gaulle’s information and justice minister, Alain Peyrefitte—who pretend that democracy does not fit with Chinese and Asian traditions. It is not in their genes. They prefer living under “benevolent” dictatorships. As if democratic and un-democratic genes differ from each other. As if countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not living examples that democracy is as capable of flourishing in the East as it is in the West. Others pretend that economic development will nurture democracy. But on the Asian continent, or anywhere else, assembling computers under political supervision for foreign-owned factories is no shortcut to democracy.
My own experience as foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Monde has helped me understand the universal value of democracy. Based in Bangkok in the 1970s, I witnessed the final years of the Vietnam War and its sorry sideshows in Cambodia and Laos. As an unwilling guest of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, where I had overstayed my welcome following the evacuation of most Western media by American helicopters a few days before the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, I had the good fortune of surviving. A number of my colleagues did not. Based in Beijing in the 1980s, I witnessed China’s opening after the bloody years of the Cultural Revolution, then the first crackdown on the democratic awakening of China’s youth, followed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in the spring of 1989.
TAKEN FOR GRANTED
Finally, it’s vital to point out that democracy is still alive, if not always in good health. Its seeds grow, blossoming in many colors before being replaced by new flowers. They crossbreed and sometimes degenerate only to start a new life in more hospitable soil. They adapt to new environments. Sometimes new strains appear suddenly, while others disappear. Around fundamental principles—rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, equality and justice, free and fair elections—democracy can bloom differently, adjusting to local conditions.
But it cannot curtail freedoms for spurious reasons like the Chinese regime’s pathetic excuse that the Communist Party has a so-called historically paramount role. Neither is it acceptable for any aspiring democracy to assert that the first true freedoms are the right to eat and be sheltered, but at the cost of all liberty. That China and other countries with one party systems hold formal elections does not mean they are democratic. Far from it.
This is an extract from the latest issue of World Policy. Patrice de Beer is a former foreign correspondent (Bangkok, Beijing, London, and Washington) and editorial writer for the French daily Le Monde.