Democracy or Not

Note: Today, I am going to take a break from my usual topic of clean technology and the environment to comment on the anniversary of two significant events in the history of freedom and democracy.

New York City -- Twenty years ago today, Poland held the first free elections in Eastern Europe since before World War II. Solidarity, led by former electrician Lech Walesa, crushed its main opposition, the Communist Party to win close to 100% of the vote. Walesa went on to become Poland's president, and Poland has since joined the European Union and NATO and emerged as a significant player in Europe with an economy larger than that of Sweden or Belgium. Led today by Donald Tusk, it is emblematic of the democracies that emerged in Europe in 1989 and 1990 following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the great leap forward for Democracy that has occurred more broady since then in much of the world.

Twenty years ago today, however, something quite different happened across the globe in China. The same day that Poles were voting for freedom, on the other side of the globe at Tiannamen Square, the Chinese government decided to quash a several-weeks rebellion that had brought China to a standstill.  The bloody action that followed involved troops firing successive volleys into the crowd in a manner reminiscent of the famous Indian massacre at Jallianwala Bagh that some say marked the end of British moral authority in India. China has since gone on to stage an economic miracle so that by some economic and social indicators it rivals the United States.  While per capital GDP is still a fraction of ours, China today churns out more PhDs, olympic gold medalists and pollution than the United States. The Chinese miracle is indeed more dramatic than that of Japan or any other country in modern history, but it has not led -- contrary to great Western hopes and wishes -- to democracy. Just this week, for example, China censored Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail.

The Polish example -- like that of the Czech Republic and similar states -- is reassuring to those of us in the West. It suggests that without coercion, left to their own devices, people choose democracy and democracy leads to prosperity. You can't have one without the other. Indeed one of the reasons that Gorbachev, Russia and its satellites turned away from Communism in the 1980s toward the American way was that our way seemed not only more enjoyable but so much better at delivering material well-being.

The Chinese example is not so reassuring. While we don't know what would happen without the continuing power of the Communist authorities, the Chinese example suggests that wealth can multiply in the absence of freedom and democracy. Indeed, it suggests that material wealth may act as a substitute instead of a complement to democracy and freedom of expression. 

This is troubling because in the United States we have gotten used to the idea that economic leadership and freedom go hand and hand. Certainly, we have used our economic and military strength to promote -- if imperfectly -- the cause of freedom. Our standard of living, moreover, has been not only an advertisement for our way of life but the draw for many who have chosen democracy.

There is much to validate our point of view in history. With some notable exceptions, free places have been economically and culturally dynamic ones. Ancient writers marveled at Athens' emergence from obscurity in only a matter of years after it embraced democracy and attributed the marvel, including the ferocity with which its people fought -- to their love of freedom. Rome and Carthage, the two most free republics of their day dominated, trade and commerce in the Mediterannean. Venice, a republic dominated trade in the high middle ages, prompting imitation. The Dutch Republic during the 17th century led the world in trade And England during its long sojourn as the world's leading economy was far more democratic than most. All this paved the way for America's experiment with freedom -- the world's greatest -- that has led to unprecdented wealth and prosperity for an unprecedented number as well as unprecedented freedom.

However, there are plenty of civilizations and empires in the world that were simultaneously rich and unfree, from the ancient Assyrian empire to the Incan and Aztec empires in the Americas to the Ottoman empire to the Chinese dynasties. These empires created less excitement and left less of a written record, generally, because they suppressed expression. However, they often generated substantial wealth in gold, decorative art and architecture.

It would be nice if wealth in China leads inexorably to Democracy.  However, we cannot take this for granted.  If China does not embrace the same ideals as the United States, our case will rest on our ability to continue to innovate -- so as to continue to lead economically--and also on our ability to convince the world that freedom has benefits beyond those that are purely economic.