After the Brexit debacle, it was only to be expected that China's most nationalistic newspaper wouldn't miss the chance to jump on the bandwagon.
The Global Times has attracted international attention with an editorial in its English edition which gloats that Europe and Britain are in decline and are unable to solve their problems through their democratic systems. But less attention has been given to an editorial published by the paper's Chinese edition, according to which the EU referendum shows that "Western-style democracy" is no longer working.
The editorial is entitled "Western-style democracy's willfulness raises doubts". The term I translate as "wilfulness", 任性, could also be rendered as unruliness or doing things on a whim.
The article starts off with some pretty reasonable statements about how a European Union without Britain will be "more inward-looking, conservative and focused around the continent", and this will be "bad for Europe and bad for the world" (although this comes from the most inveterate supporters of policies which continue to make China inward-looking and conservative).
It then turns into an attack on democracy, or rather, "Western democracy". Why is it that this year's EU referendum and last year's Scottish referendum could take place, and what seemed unthinkable could become so possible, alarming everyone? According to the piece, the answer is the "wilfulness of democracy" (the word used in Chinese is 任性, same as in the headline).
The author of the editorial then relates a parliamentary sitting which he witnessed in Norway, in which there were only 13 MPs in attendance in a parliament with 169 seats, and uses this as an example of the flaws of democracies, where even members of parliament take their duties so light-heartedly. I have no idea whether the author realizes that Norway was held up as an ideal by the Leave camp during the Brexit debate.
The article then goes on to claim that democracy is "a conquest of human political civilization", but it is a pity that it has now become a game that anyone can tamper with. Europe's constant referendums show that democracy is also being kidnapped by nationalism and populism, and that the system is losing its resilience as it has to deal with the negative effects of globalization. After quoting from Han Feizi, in order to predictably cloack itself in the mantel of China's "5000 years of history", the editorial concludes that "in terms of productivity, China has already won. In terms of resilience, China will yet win."
It would be easy to dismiss the paper's nationalistic ramblings, or to think up possible counter-arguments and point out all the problems of Chinese authoritarianism. It is true, on the other hand, that in a country like China where the desirability of democracy is still a matter of serious doubt and debate, the EU referendum might seem to some like an excellent example of democracy's inherent flaws.
Those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were overwhelmingly the elderly, the less educated and the less well-off in England and Wales. A momentous decision, which will have consequences most of these people cannot even conceive of, was taken because of marginalized and frustrated people emotionally blaming the EU for complex phenomena they don't really understand, and using the referendum as an occasion to show their distaste of the metropolitan elite.
Frustration with immigration and the increasing multiculturalism of British society were also a clear motivation behind the leave vote, even though stepping out of the EU is going to do little to nothing to reduce immigration to Britain.
In the meantime, these people have quite possibly condemned their country to eventual break up, since a second referendum on Scotland's independence is now looming on the horizon. Even Northern Ireland's peace agreement is threatened. As a historian said the other day, Britain, the country which colonized half the world, has committed national suicide because of the fantasy that it is being colonized by others. And all this because of a 4% difference in the vote.
When you look at this scenario, it is easy to see how the Chinese elite's professed ideal of a group of wise, enlightened, forward-looking leaders governing their country according to a long-term plan, without having to constantly bend to the will of the ignorant, easily misled masses, might seem like a better alternative.
The concept of voting is indeed problematic on a theoretical level, and the concept of referendums even more so: giving every single person the same power to decide on an issue on which most people simply don't have similar levels of expertise and understanding may not lead to the best outcomes.
But in the end of the day, the problem with diatribes against democracy like the one in the Global Times is that they always stop at the issue of general elections, without looking at all of the other institutions and values that underpin democracy: separation of powers, the rule of law, independent institutions supervising each other, freedom of speech. Only focusing on elections and the unpatable results they can throw up due to the ignorance of the average voter is missing the point.
If China could find a way to implement a system which didn't include giving every last fool the possibility to vote and make decisions on crucial issues, but which protected all of the other rights which people in democratic countries take for granted, then I am sure most of the world would be ready to accept its system as legitimate. Unfortunately however, this is just not the case at the moment.
In any case, I do hope that Britain doesn't seriously decide to hold the referendum on the EU again, and that the British parliament doesn't refuse to implement the referendum's results (amazingly, according to British law they have the right to do this). If similar courses of action were followed, then Britain really would become the world's laughing stock, and its democracy would rightly be derided as a joke.