Details of Democracy 民主的细节 by Emile Dirks

CORN January 2015 Edition.

details on democracy

Image Credit: Baidu Baike (百度百科)

Some time ago, I came across an interesting piece by the late American Sinologist Derk Bodde.   In his 1948 article, “Chinese Ideas in the West”, Prof. Bodde wrote of the great French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire and his fascination with then-imperial China. Chafing against the sectarianism and political repression of 18th century Europe, China seemed to Voltaire everything that France was not: a rational alternative to the hypocrisy of Europe’s monarchies, a society free of religious violence, a nation ruled by a meritocratic class of scholar-bureaucrats and a Platonic philosopher king. Quoting Voltaire directly, Bodde writes: “‘One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese,’ he wrote in 1764, ‘to recognize . . . that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.’”

Voltaire’s reading of China stuck with me while reading Chinese journalist and academic Liu Yu’s [刘瑜] collection of essays on American politics and society, Details of Democracy [民主的细节] (Shanghai Sanlian Bookstore, 2011 – in Chinese) .   Liu Yu finds much in the US to praise, but is not, like Voltaire, so wildly uncritical. Unlike Voltaire, Liu Yu has lived in the empire of her imagination and seen its flaws first-hand. Yet like Voltaire’s ‘China’, Liu Yu’s ‘America’ comes off more as an idea than a real place. To Liu Yu, America is a representation of democracy in its most developed form and an embodiment of all those qualities she finds wanting in China: political pluralism, strong civil society, constitutional law, freedom of speech. In short, the America of Liu Yu’s book speaks less to an American reality than it does to a liberal Chinese dream. For this reason, Details of Democracy is a fascinating, albeit frustrating, book.

Born in 1975, Liu Yu’s academic trajectory represents the dream of many in the current ultra-competitive world of Chinese education: undergraduate and masters degrees in political science from Renmin University, a PhD from Columbia, a post-doc at Harvard and teaching positions at Cambridge and China’s prestigious Tsinghua University. Since then, Liu Yu has been frequent contributor to magazines like Southern People [南方人物周刊].   Details of Democracy is thus written with the concision of an accomplished journalist and the analytical rigour of an academic.

In many ways, Details of Democracy is surprisingly familiar, especially to a North American reader. Topics include political talking-head Ann Coulter’s brand of far-right vitriol, the role ‘political correctness’ in public discourse, and the 2008 presidential campaign. The impressive breadth of her focus speaks to Liu Yu’s years of living in the United States and it’s clear that Liu Yu paid close attention to a range of issues from illegal immigration and animal rights, to gay marriage and the Iraq War. Yet her analysis often smacks of the kind of forced political centrism that’s found in the op-eds of Fareed Zakaria or Thomas Friedman. Her views on contentious issues like the Iraq War or illegal immigration sometimes come off as frustratingly non-partisan. Whether this is due to personal indecision, or a desire to remain non-partisan or neutral, is unclear. But for a Western reader already familiar with the political fault lines Liu Yu’s writing traces, Details of Democracy can be a disappointing read.

Yet such a glib judgment would be doing Liu Yu and her book a disservice. Approaching this book in order to gain a finer understanding of American society and politics would be a mistake; better books on the subject are out there, many undoubtedly written by other Chinese writers. Details of Democracy is, after all, a book by a Chinese writer for a general Chinese audience. Rather than Friedman or Zakaria, better corollaries for Liu Yu may be former New Yorker China correspondents Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos.   Just as Hessler and Osnos served as interlocutors for an American audience hungry to understand a rising China, so too does Liu Yu interpret the complexities of the United States for a general Chinese readership with little-to-no personal experience in the country itself. Chinese readers are not starved for analysis on the US; both state and private media report widely on the country. But like the work of Hessler and Osnos, the true value of Liu Yu’s analysis lies in context and detail she provides and which are so often missing from standard Chinese media reporting on the US.

Yet while Liu Yu’s book is ostensibly about American democracy, her real focus is China itself: its society, media, civic culture and government. By a quarter of my way through the book, a pattern to her writing began to emerge: articles which began by examining a particular aspect of American civic life (unions, the minimum wage, constitutional law) would inevitably grow into a more general discussion of the characteristics of a democratic society and, by extension, its absence in China. Liu Yu’s essay on fair-trade coffee is representative: what begins as an examination of ‘ethnical consumerism’ in the US concludes with the suggestion that China’s nationalist youth should spend less time boycotting Japanese goods and more time considering how to use their purchasing power to improve the miserable working conditions of China’s army of migrant industrial workers. American TV’s late-night talk shows prove equally intriguing: what better sign of a country’s political maturity, she notes sardonically, then the fact that every night the president is subjected to the ridicule of television comedians. Liu Yu never explicitly calls for a similar ridiculing of the Communist Party leadership, but this hardly matters. By the end of the essay, the idea is already lodged in the readers’ mind.

This oblique form of criticism is not unique to Liu Yu. Chinese writers have long since mastered the use of creative allusions, roundabout references, and ironic wit to engage in veiled political criticism. The common (and often vulgar) form of this criticism as it appears on the internet in China is now increasingly familiar to Western audiences, thanks to the translation work of websites like ChinaSmack and Tea Leaf Nation. Yet many in the West may be surprised to learn that a book like Liu Yu’s – openly laudatory of democratic governance and political pluralism – is widely available and critically acclaimed. This isn’t to discount the abysmal state of freedom of the press in China. State censorship is real and pervasive. Nonetheless, Liu Yu’s work shows that there are careers to be made by writers willing to push against (but never explicitly violate) the limits on political expression put in place by the Communist Party.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Liu Yu’s book has found favour amongst China’s liberals. Details of Democracy may be too sensitively written a book to dismiss simply as an example of ‘preaching to the choir’. But I am doubtful that many of China’s leftist nationalists would be persuaded by her sympathetic analysis of American democracy. Like China’s leftists, Liu Yu is aware of America’s political flaws and doesn’t shy away from highlighting them. But her analysis is qualitatively different from that of the Chinese left.   For them, the deep inequities of race and class in American society and the USA’s frequent violation of international law point to a hypocrisy underlining American democracy so flagrant that it negates America’s self-ascribed role as a global model of democratic governance. Liu Yu’s analysis is decidedly more sunny. No problem in American politics or society is so great that it cannot be solved through greater commitment to democratic principles.

In this, she may be correct. But given how committed Liu Yu is to using what she likes in the US to criticize what she dislikes in China, I doubt many Chinese leftists (or even more critical readers) would find her arguments convincing. Despite her impressive academic credentials, Details of Democracy reads more like a polemic (albeit a thoughtfully written one) than a piece of academic scholarship. (To be fair, Liu Yu makes no pretense at writing this book as a scholar.)   And like her counterpart Chai Jing [柴静] (whose work I have written about previously and who provided Liu Yu’s book with a laudatory blurb), the name Liu Yu has now become shorthand for a set of liberal political beliefs cherished by her readers and attacked by her detractors. This strikes me as both a testament to the power of her voice, as well as the limits of her critique.

To foreign readers, however, this may be unimportant. Unburdened by a personal stake in these political squabbles, the ‘China watcher’ can simply enjoy Liu Yu’s book on its own terms. Part personal reflection on her years spent abroad, part plea for greater political pluralism at home, Details of Democracy is a fascinating read. One needn’t be persuaded by her analysis of American society to be captivated by her ideas. And as an introduction to the ideas of one of China’s leading liberal voices, one couldn’t find a better work.

emileEmile Dirks is currently a PhD student in Political Science studying Comparative Politics and Development at the University of Toronto.   His research focuses on local responses to Chinese hydroelectric projects in Burma/Myanmar and Indonesia.   Prior to his doctoral studies, Emile worked in the NGO-sector on the Thai-Burma border and pursued language studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University.   Emile can be reached at emile.dirks [at]


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