"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

Democracy from Within

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 07/13/2004

The western media's focus on Hong Kong helps the world understand China's need for political reform. But a sharp focus sometimes misses the big picture. In the complexities of Chinese politics, big changes often begin with subtle words. Thus, "political civilization" made it into China's official lexicon this year, but the western media failed to notice.

In March, China's constitution was amended for the fourth time when the National People's Congress enshrined "political civilization" beside "material civilization" and "spiritual civilization". Jiang Zemin first introduced the term in 2002 during a Central Party School speech preceding the 16th Party Congress meeting, adding it to the existing terms coined by Deng Xiaoping. Deng's "material civilization" reflected high growth and economic efficiency, rejecting Mao -era austerity. His "spiritual civilization" acted as a balance.

Having gone from socialism to capitalism in just a decade, by the late-1990s Chinese society had become infatuated with conspicuous consumption. Recognizing that China lacked ideology as well as religion, Mr. Jiang developed "spiritual civilization" into a new social ethos to fill the ideological vacuum. The term encompasses a spectrum of social concerns, from environmental protection, cultural arts and humanitarianism, to self-respect.

Before stepping from the political centre stage, Mr. Jiang added "political civilization", leaving his successor, Hu Jintao, with a package of "three civilizations". "Political civilization" lacks a clear definition, but in the Chinese context, an undefined concept is a good thing. Open to interpretation, it may evolve in several directions. At this stage, it includes "legal civilization" as a subcategory. Legally regulated institutions are necessary because under a market economy, the nation must function-according to fair-rules, not leaders' whims. "Political civilization" can also be read to include democratic participation and system reform, albeit within the party. While a road map has not yet been drawn, it is possible that Party Congress meetings could become real electoral conventions where candidates stand for the top seats in an open vote.

Certain western political theorists may not accept the idea of direct voting within the Communist Party as a workable form of Chinese democracy. They believe there must be two competing parties, even if their platforms hardly differ. Arguably, this is more democratic than a one-party system. But, a system of choices, nominations and direct voting within a party framework, where competing interests represent different platforms, may not be bad, either.

As part of a clear agenda under "political civilization", the powers of the National People's Congress would be increased so that it can assume a substantive function, not be just a rubber-stamp authority. This will involve limiting the overriding authority of the State Council, China's executive branch.

Certainly, it must also include increased democratic participation. Experiments with direct voting for local village heads and, more recently, township leaders are under way.

Like China's economic reform, political reform will go through a period of trial and observation. Reform may extend to the provincial level, and NPC delegates may even be directly elected, allowing it to function as a real parliament.

"Political civilization" does not present the quick-fry formulas to which American political think-tanks subscribe. But in a Chinese context, it opens up the possibilities by barring nothing.

China's political evolution is expected to follow its proven formula for economic transition: progressive but careful experimentation. Washington think-tanks once dismissed China's economic transition model. They may be proved wrong again.

Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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