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Published: 02:06, February 07, 2023 | Updated: 09:40, February 07, 2023
EIU Democracy Index shows misleading picture of China
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:02:06, February 07, 2023 Updated:09:40, February 07, 2023 By Ho Lok-sang

The Economist Intelligence Unit just released its latest Democracy Index. The global score stood at 5.29. Hong Kong was ranked 88th out of 167, one place behind Ukraine, and three places below where Hong Kong stood the previous year. 

The EIU’s Democracy Index, of course, cannot be taken at face value. Democracy for the West is defined as ballot-box democracy. But the assumption that ballot-box democracy automatically leads to government by the people, for the people and of the people is out of line with the reality. The 2022 Democracy Perception Index by the Alliance of Democracies shows that in China, the percentage of people who think their country is democratic stands at 83 percent, considerably higher than the United States’ 49 percent. Yet the EIU Democracy Index ranked the US at 30th, while China was relegated to the near-bottom position of 156th.

The huge gap between perception and the Democracy Index shows that ballot-box democracy, though touted as the “superior” form of government and taken to be essential to democracy, is grounded on wrong premises. Given human nature as it is, ballot-box democracy is unlikely to serve the public interest, which is the raison d’etre of governments. As early as 2011, Joseph Stiglitz published in Vanity Fair a short article titled Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%. He pointed out the gross inequality of American society. The ideal of democracy is about equality, but ballot-box democracy in the context of gross inequality means that the man in the street hardly has any say in the country’s policies, which end up mainly catering to the interests of the elites. M.D. Litonjua pointed out in an article published in 2015 that “The (American) political system was captured by the vested interests of big business and the economic elite”, and that American politics is behind the increasing inequality. Captured by vested interests and propelled by the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, the American political process tore apart the implicit social contract that had existed and made possible the prosperity since the end of World War II, dismantled the regulatory infrastructure put in place in the wake of the Great Depression, reversed the progressive nature of the tax code, and unleashed the destructive force of pure and raw capitalism in all areas of the economy, especially the financial sector.

I am both appalled and angry with the folly of mixing up means with ends. Ballot-box democracy is desirable only because it promises to offer equality. Under universal suffrage and the secret ballot, people are supposed to be able to express their true preferences through the vote. But politicians, in order to gain an election, will lure votes by offering their constituents benefits that may be attractive in the short term but that may cost them dearly over the long term. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,392 people, mostly in New Orleans and the surrounding area, can be traced to funds originally intended for the maintenance of the levees being diverted to other uses. The ballot box is only a means to bring about equality. In China, although the government is not returned via direct election, all civil servants and government leaders have to compete fairly based on their merits for the opportunity to serve the country. Instead of depending on direct elections to select the nation’s leaders, China vets potential candidates for senior posts based on their track records against well-established criteria.

Western critics claim that the lack of competition among different parties means China is not democratic. But is it not true that we simply need competent people to take up the stewardship of the country and that they must be held accountable? In China, the government has to be accountable to the people, and government officials have to be accountable to the people. The World Justice Project’s 2022 report shows that in the absence of corruption, China ranks 55th out of 140. In the World Bank Governance Index, China’s rank in control of corruption was the top 42 percent in 2021, up from the top 55 percent in 2013, when President Xi Jinping first took office. In the rule of law, China stood at top 46 percent, up from top 62 percent in 2013. In government effectiveness, China in 2021 climbed to top 23.5 percent, up from top 46 percent. The World Justice Project 2022 shows that in “Government officials in the police and the military do not use public office for private gain”, China scored 0.66, implying China was in the upper 34 percent.

For critics who ask why the Communist Party of China does not allow competition from other parties, I would invite them to ask why competition among parties is more important than fair competition among aspirants to serve the country. One rationale for competition among parties is that different parties may have a different philosophy of governance, so we should let people express their wish. For example, a party that stands for capitalism should compete with one that stands for socialism. But Deng Xiaoping has advised that the “stripe” of the policy is not important. The litmus test is whether a policy works in serving the people. Now that the CPC is a pragmatic party that looks for results, there is no need to worry about ideology, except the ideology of serving the country.

The author is the director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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