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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008

China isn't blazing a path for anybody


LOS ANGELES — All political systems are peculiar, each in its own way. This is true of democracy, however defined, as well as of communist systems, more easily defined.

A crowning example of the former has to be the Republic of Korea — better known as South Korea. Recently the good people of that hugely excitable electorate choose a relatively conservative politician as their next president.

The election was not close, and in most known democracies, a newly elected president — especially one with a huge mandate — is granted by the news media and the opposition a graceful "honeymoon period." This is when enemies and critics go to the beach or take a vacation or have a few drinks so that the new leader has a period of comfort in which to ring in the new administration in relative peace and harmony.

But in South Korea, it seems, there is no honeymoon period. It seems that what they give the new president is more like a version of hell week.

Get this: The other day President-elect Lee Myung Bak learned that even before he was to formally take office, he was under criminal investigation. The probe is to focus on his alleged involvement in some financial fraud case.

So you thought the U.S. Republican Party over-reaction to the Monica Lewinsky scandal was outrageous? At least Bill Clinton had some time in office before the vultures started circling to take political bites out of him.

We note, too, that democracies and elections are not always peaceful. In Pakistan an election is scheduled for next month — postponed in the wake of the jarring assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But no one knows if the dictatorial government of Pervez Musharraf and his election-fixers will forswear trying to fix this election (as they have in the past). Ironically, democratic elections in February may well usher in yet more violence — and instability.

Consider the case of Japan: Over the summer, an Upper House election symbolically crushed the governing party. But until the Lower House elections take place, the present bumbling government coalition remains in power even as its popularity shrivels like three-day-old soba noodles. The fact is, democratic Japan is a political mess.

One Tokyo political commentator, quoting one of the leaders of Japan's two leading political parties, put it in these words: "The parties are like two children quarreling. If they continue, the public will grow even more disillusioned with politics, and they will turn their backs on both."

Let's not panic yet! Japan's current political system has scarcely more than a half-century of maturity. Dismay with democracy does not necessarily usher in dictatorship or totalitarianism. We have to hope that Japan's democracy is merely going through a shaking-out process, morphing into a two-party system while shedding the one-party dinosaur.

Besides, there are very few examples out there of wildly successful "mean regimes." Some misguided souls suggest that the world will start holding up the "China model" as a viable alternative to liberal democracy. One famous commentator provocatively proposes that "China's success story is the most serious challenge that liberal democracy has faced since fascism in the 1930s."

How silly. It is true that China is currently enjoying an extraordinary economic rise, and its leaders and people absolutely deserve to be lustily — not cautiously — applauded for all their hard work, their good economic judgment and unbelievable luck. But they would be the first to tell anyone that the world's most populated nation has mountains of problems and that their future outlook is up in the air.

Especially up in the air is China's ability to pull off the showcase Summer Olympics without athletes falling over dead from the capital's deeply polluted air. Pundits speculate that because China is a totalitarian nation, the big boys in Beijing will simply order the factories to shut down for a few weeks, push people out of their cars and back onto their bicycles and order everyone to stop smoking cigarettes during the Games. That's possible, but the totality of the pollution problem in China is probably more of a monstrosity than even a monster command-government can handle.

Sure, almost everyone is deliriously happy to have watched China escape the misery of the Mao era, but only a profound pessimist could aver that the "China model" is widely viewed, even in Asia, as an alternative to the "democracy model."

The truth is that each country must evolve its own model. Some will want parts of America's people power or a Japan at its crisis-best. Others will want to borrow some of the elite policy-engineering savvy of successful Singapore.

Others will inevitably look to Scandinavia for guidance on the social safety-net issue. But China as a starter-kit model? Look, the place has at least 1.3 billion people.

The only country close to that is India, with its bumbling, inefficient democracy. But India is never going to emulate China, ever. Nor — in our lifetime at least — is anyone else. Thankfully.

Let China be China — and let's leave it at that.

Tom Plate, a veteran journalist and author, teaches policy and communication studies at UCLA. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate


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