Making Democracy Work

Foreign Policy

The LWVMPC Foreign Policy Interest Group hosts speakers. Highlights of some of those speakers are reported in the Focus newsletter.

China--Changes and Challenges (November 2007)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Minzi Su spoke to the November 2007 Foreign Policy interest group. She grew up in China, worked in state-owned and private companies in China, and was twice elected to city government. Currently she and her teenage daughter are living in Portland where Ms. Su is working on a doctorate in public administration at Portland State University.

Changes

Political--China's government is becoming more responsive to the people. There is more transparency, more knowledge coming in from outside China, and anti-corruption efforts are paying off as evaluation systems make it more difficult to be corrupt. There is more public participation in government, such as public hearings on issues such as prices. Election law allows people to complain about problems that occur during an election.

China's constitution says all the right things about human rights and freedoms, but definitions are somewhat vague and are subject to party interpretation. Sensitive information is controlled. For example, the government suppressed information about the SARS epidemic, but information about it spread by the Internet, and that forced the government to take action to control SARS. The current generation of leaders is forced to be more attuned to peoples' problems and the need to solve them.

Social--The burden on farmers has been reduced. Information about taxes and subsidies is on the Internet, so, since everyone knows what they are supposed to pay, local officials can't charge farmers extra "fees" anymore. Education has been improved in rural areas; nine years of education is compulsory, and funds have been provided for school buildings and to pay teachers. Public health facilities have been improved in rural areas, and farmers are required to pay a small amount per year for this health "insurance" with the government paying the rest; farmers resist paying their share and have to be persuaded to pay "just in case" they need medical care.

Cultural--Ms. Su said that, when she was growing up, it was unusual to see a foreigner, but China is multi-cultural now, at least in cities, where they are numerous. China has exchange programs with various countries now. Cultural facilities are richer now with athletics, the arts, and educational institutions available.

Life--People have been acquiring more things in recent decades and they want more things now. In the 1990s they wanted a phone, computer, air conditioning. In the 2000s they want a house, car, education for their children, insurance. Even rural people have benefited; they now have to spend less of their total income on food, so they have more money for other things. Ms. Su said that people are now more self-reliant and independent than they were when the government owned everything. In addition, people are voluntarily participating in local projects, such as environmental protection. There is more freedom to think and speak although some topics are still sensitive. People accept new ideas and products and are influenced by foreign products and advertisements. Income for both rural and urban people has increased, but the gap between them is growing because income increases much faster in urban areas than in rural ones. Per-capita income is still very low compared to that in Japan and the U.S.

Challenges

Economic--China's growth is coming at too high a price in resources, energy, and damage to the environment. This is not sustainable. China's economy is dependent on investment and exports; domestic consumption is still much too low. Farmers lose their land and move to cities, but they lack training for urban jobs. Factories are a major contributor to the economy, but, as productivity improves, the service industry must absorb more labor. There is still heavy reliance on purchased or licensed patents; Chinese people need to develop more creativity. The government sets goals to reduce pollution, but it is very expensive to reach the goals, and investors don't want to pay the costs.

Social--Development is not even; there are gaps, such as the gap between urban and rural incomes and gaps in regional development. There are gender issues. For example, private employers don't want to hire women because they marry and have children. This is especially hard to rural women whose husbands have left to work in urban areas but who then don't come back; there is a high suicide rate among rural women. Rural housing is primitive, and in many rural areas the government school is too far away for children to attend, so farmers get together to hire a teacher to teach all grades in a primitive schoolroom.

Growth--The Chinese government's goals for the next 20 years are for sustainable development and a harmonious society. Cities are growing fast. Will the cities be able to absorb all the rural young people who want to move there? Chinese people are optimistic that the goals will be achieved because they see life improving for the people they know. Ms. Su said the policies are good but the implementation is questionable. Leaders in some parts of the country are effective while leadership is poor in other places.

Political--Grassroots democracy is working in some parts of China, but election results are still manipulated by party bosses. The judicial system is not independent. China is trying to be friendly with other nations, especially with the U.S.

The United Nations Today (October 2007)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Ramu Damodaran, who heads the Civil Society Service in the United Nations Department of Public Information, spoke in October 2007 to the Foreign Policy interest group and the local United Nations Association on Flying with its Own Wings: The U.N. Today.

Mr. Damodaran noted that the U.N., established October 24, 1945, is now 62 years old. It began with 51 nations and now has 192. The Security Council has ten members plus five with veto power.

The U.N. has come into its own, Mr. Damodaran said. We now have an organization that works on issues important to people, and the key member states are supportive of this. Nations have recognized that there are issues that one nation alone cannot deal with. Some issues are regional or global in scope. Among these are disease, poverty, lack of sanitation, child labor, environmental issues.

Democracy has spread widely enough that delegates know that, when they vote for a treaty at the U.N., their people expect their governments to follow the treaties. The U.N. takes complaints of individuals to their governments and tells the governments, "You signed this treaty; now deal with this person's problem." The U.N. can also send inspectors to see if a government is telling the truth.

The United States should be proud that it insisted that democracy be spread around the world even though other governments now pay more attention to what their own people want than to what the U.S. wants.

The U.N. gathers information--on climate change, for example, a new issue for the U.N. Resources include the intellectual and scientific communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose workers have knowledge of the lives of peoples. The U.N. then disseminates that information to its member nations. This valuable service should not be underestimated.

The U.N. recognizes that a government that brutalizes its own people will eventually attack its neighbors, so the U.N. needs to get involved in protecting people. However, the U.N.'s role in resolving conflict is to make sure it doesn't get involved too early. Regional players are depended on more and more to resolve conflicts because local people understand the situation better. The U.N. is most successful when it is least visible; it does behind-the-scenes work, such as the Secretary General making phone calls, sending emissaries, etc.

Q and A

In answer to a question about establishing a United Nations army, Mr. Damodaran said that most nations want a say in where their soldiers are sent. Further, how many U.N. troops would be needed to cover the number of places where conflicts might erupt? It's a real problem, however, that when there is a U.N. call for troops, member nations often don't contribute the number of troops needed.

The Human Rights Council now has a system by which people can challenge the nominees to the Council, so a country with a bad human-rights record is now less likely to have its representative appointed to the Council.

The United States has not ratified some treaties (for example, the International Criminal Court and the banning of land mines), but it has followed the treaties anyway. Mr. Damodaran pointed out that our ratification system is more complex than that of many other countries since the U.S. Senate has to approve treaties.

Veto power in the Security Council won't change because it would be vetoed. The countries that have the veto power want to keep it, and these countries must not be driven away from the U.N. Further, since other nations influence them to not use it, the nations with veto power avoid its use as long as the issue is one that doesn't hurt the nation with the veto power.

Everyone agrees that the Security Council should be expanded, but there are two main problems that have stalled expansion. (1) What countries should be added? (2) Many resolutions are passed in the small Security Council. Would a larger group work as well as the smaller one does? The permanent members cannot be removed. Two possibilities for expansion are to have regional members or quasi-permanent additional members.

Mr. Damodaran concluded that the U.N. has had success stories when it responded to crises and when it replicates solutions used in similar situations, such as furnishing micro credit in underdeveloped countries.