We write to applaud Xiaochen Su’s column (“True democracy cannot spring up overnight,” 3/27) for bringing up an important topic of debate, but also to caution that the column’s point of view comes dangerously close to being an apology for every brutal and repressive regime that cloaks itself in the garb of benevolent realism.
Su’s central argument for favoring tyranny over democracy seems to be that tyranny is stable while democracy is not. It is in this vein that Su represents the Iraqi people as “accustomed to the idea of stability by force under a dictatorship” and warns pro-democracy Chinese citizens to demand democracy “only as long as social stability is kept intact.” In addition, Su notes that even “France and Germany went through decades of turmoil before becoming stable.” The implication that democracy and stability are often mutually exclusive, however, is completely unsubstantiated. Su provides no evidence whatsoever of a correlation between tyranny and stability, let alone between democracy and chaos.
Drawing upon various examples from history, Su describes the destabilizing economic and political changes that may accompany a democratic transition. Su’s column speaks of the important need to educate leaders about not resorting “to violence when faced with the prospect of democratic defeat.” At the same time, however, the column dismisses the equally important freedoms of speech and assembly that are an essential prerequisite to such an education. The column declares, and rightly so, that democracy can arise only through “debates and disagreements.” However, there is no forum for such public debate when, as in most tyrannical regimes, the voices of the meek are silenced and dissenters brutally suppressed.
Su also criticizes the methods of human-rights and democratic activists as being “hasty” and detrimental to the cause of democracy. While history certainly has borne witness to a few democratic transitions gone awry, Su’s criticism that pro-democracy groups expect “a drastic change of attitude” to be “completed overnight” does an injustice to the patient, painstaking work of most democratic activists.
Much more problematic than his criticism of democratic activism, however, is Su’s solution to the problem of tyranny. His proposal is to wait passively for change, “even if the process of understanding democratic values takes decades.” There is thus a contradiction between the blanket opposition to timely democratic reform and the acknowledgement of the arguments in favor of democracy. One cannot expect an oppressed people under a tyrannical regime to independently pave the path to their freedom through “debate and disagreement” and by the instillation of “democratic principles.” How, for example, can the people of North Korea independently debate their way to democracy when they are only allowed to read government-issued textbooks that, far from instilling democratic principles, teach them instead that they are ruled by a man whose birth was foretold by a swallow and was heralded by the appearance of a new star in the heavens?
Su’s column also misinterprets the causes and consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union. Su argues that the “ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.” This assertion ignores the decades of terror, repression and victimization of various ethnicities in the former republics. He suggests implicitly that the breakaway republics erred in pursuing a path of self-determination and turning away from a federation that had brought them much grief for the better part of a century.
We would like to conclude in firm agreement with Su that true democracy must “blossom without fear of violence and instability.” We hope the discussion that began with Su’s column and was continued in this one will explore better, more effective ways to promote democracy, a cause that Su rightly considers worthy to be “supported by all of mankind.”
Arvind Bhaskar is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Nikhil Seshan is a senior in Saybrook College.