Prospering through democracy

Editorial, Normal


ON a recent visit to China, South African president Jacob Zuma complained to an audience at Renmin university that developing countries were tired of being told that Western style democracy was necessary for achieving sustained economic growth.
He went on to praise the “political discipline” of China’s authoritarian system and wondered aloud whether there were any lessons to be learned by developing countries.
It is not difficult to understand why Zuma would be so mesmerised by China.
China is undoubtedly a great country.
Anyone who is familiar with China cannot fail to be utterly astonished by the remarkable transformation that it has undergone in just a few short decades.
When I first went to Beijing in 1979 to take up my diplomatic assignment at the embassy of Malaysia, I was shocked by the poverty and the backwardness I saw.
China is an altogether different country today.
In the second quarter of this year, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy with a nominal GDP of US$1.337 trillion.
The chief economist of Goldman Sachs Group Inc estimates that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2027.
China is already Africa’s second biggest trading partner, and South Africa’s largest. It is also an increasingly important source of foreign assistance and investment in a much neglected continent.
China’s rise to global significance and influence has, therefore, been nothing short of phenomenal. However, it would be a mistake to attribute China’s success to its authoritarian system of government and its so-called “political discipline”.
China’s rapid economic growth has occurred not because of its political discipline but in spite
of it. It was only when China’s communist rulers reluctantly agreed to free the economy
from its Marxist moorings, and unleash the ingenuity and creativity of the Chinese people, that the economy surged forward.
Many observers, both within China and outside, believe that one-party rule has, in fact, been a hindrance rather than a help and needs to be reformed. Indeed, no less a person than premier Wen Jiabao has called for political reform and a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the communist party.
In a recent speech in Shenzen, the premier said “if there is no guarantee of reform of the political system, then results obtained from the reform of the economic system may be lost, and the goal of modernisation cannot be achieved”.
This is a remarkable admission from a very senior Chinese leader.
Zuma is, of course, not the first Third World leader to question the usefulness of western style democracy.
In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, many Asian strongmen forcefully argued that developing countries needed to chart their own way forward based on their own values and realities and utilising their own traditions and systems.
Remember the whole “Asian values” spiel?
It all sounded great, and very reasonable, but it was really a smokescreen for authoritarianism.
The strongmen are long gone or have been discredited but, apparently, their deceptive legacy continues to bewitch African leaders like Zuma.
I recall an interesting article that appeared in an African newspaper in 2008 highlighting the connection between political systems and development. It noted that Malaysia’s rapid economic growth had only been possible because Malaysia had essentially rejected “the western way of doing things”.
The implication was that the centralisation of power at the expense of parliament, the judiciary and the media helped propel Malaysia towards rapid growth.



*Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He retired as high commissioner to Canada in July 2008.