Oldest Cultures Pose Biggest Hurdles to Liberalization


With a graceful rhythm as old as China, 43-year-old peasant Yang Guilian stood in ankle-deep water and transplanted a handful of rice to a carefully prepared paddy.

In fertile land south of Hangzhou Bay--the cradle of rice cultivation dating back at least 7,000 years to the Neolithic Age--Yang, loose cotton trousers rolled above her knees, handled the thin green seedlings in a manner unchanged for thousands of years.

But an event that morning in eastern Zhijiang province had broken with all tradition. Nothing like it had happened in 3,500 years of dynastic rule. Nor in centuries of Confucian administrative ethic. Nor, until recently, in five decades of communism.

Yang Guilian had voted.


The immediate stakes were small. Yang and other adult villagers of Luo Du, population 1,419, trooped to a ball-bearing factory to cast folded secret ballots for a mayor and five-member local council. By Western standards, it was a primitive affair, heavily monitored by the jealous Communist Party in Beijing.

But the elections in Luo Du--and in other villages throughout China--are at the center of one of the post-Cold War world’s most significant uncertainties: Are grass-roots polls a first step toward democratic upheaval in the world’s most populous nation? Is this the beginning of a process potentially as pivotal as the Yellow Emperor’s defeat of all rival kingdoms, which unified China, or Chairman Mao’s Long March, which installed communism?

In other words, can democracy further evolve, as it has recently in other non-Western societies? In China, the extent of village elections--empowering about 700 million peasants--already ranks as the biggest democratic experiment ever.

Or will the democratic wave that swept the rest of the world come crashing to a halt at the last frontiers, most notably in Asia, as traditional civilizations coldly manipulate token openings solely to sustain authoritarian rule?


What happens in Luo Du will go a long way toward answering that question. It may also help define the next chunk of history. For as the 20th century ends, democracy faces its most profound and perplexing challenges from the world’s oldest cultures.

“The fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points for crisis and bloodshed,” said Samuel P. Huntington, director of Harvard’s Institute for Strategic Studies and author of “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.”

Dividing the world into eight civilizations, he issues his most ominous warnings about two dominant Asian cultures. “Confucian democracy is clearly a contradiction in terms,” he asserted. “And whatever the compatibility of Islam and democracy in theory, in practice they have rarely gone together.”

But the long-term stakes reach far beyond the Confucian and Islamic nations of Asia, Huntington said. As they block democratic growth, cultural differences will be the basis of the post-Cold War world’s worst confrontations. “The next world war, if there is one, will be between civilizations,” he predicted.

Huntington’s theory, like his new book, is highly controversial. “The West does not have a monopoly on democratic aspirations,” countered the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner whose own push for Tibetan autonomy from China is based on democratic tenets. “The quest for equal rights and speech and thought and education and political pluralism based on the input of all the people applies everywhere.”

Democracy’s Last Frontiers

Democracy has in fact made startling inroads in Asia. Taiwan’s first democratic presidential poll last year featured parades of horn-blowing, flag-waving voters marching to the presidential palace on streets manned a decade ago by troops enforcing martial law.

“Taiwan’s elections exploded the myth that somehow democratic elections are not suitable to the Chinese race, because for the first time in 5,000 years of Chinese history, Chinese were able to elect their own ruler,” said Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “To say democracy is not applicable to China is hopelessly racist and a big insult.”


In the Middle East, meanwhile, Palestinians held elections for their first self-governing body, while Jordan and Lebanon conducted their second multi-party polls for parliament--defying predictions of one-person, one-vote only one time when religious parties are included.

“We are still at the beginning of the road compared with others in the world,” acknowledged Jordan’s King Hussein, whose political openings at home may prove to be more daring than his peace accord with Israel. “But we have every good reason to think we can achieve what has been achieved in Europe and more. It will not take centuries, although nothing happens in a mere lifetime. The clock, however, cannot be turned back.”

Yet embryonic democracies in Asian and Islamic countries have been far overshadowed by floundering regimes or outright failures in the 1990s. Generals in Myanmar, formerly Burma, voided results of its first multi-party poll and put the victor under house arrest. Algeria followed a similar course, while Egypt and Tunisia backpedaled from openings of the 1980s. Cambodia’s tentative experiment with democracy, backed by the most expensive U.N. peacekeeping operation, has collapsed into traditional feuds.

Overall, the largest bloc of undemocratic regimes--ruling nearly one-third of the world’s people--is in countries with Confucian or Islamic traditions, from poor and war-ravaged Afghanistan to the oil-rich deserts of Saudi Arabia, from Singapore’s tiny city-state to the expanses of China.

Recent reforms in these societies rarely fully empower. Beijing’s village democracy project, for example, fills a vacuum in local leadership after the breakup of inefficient rural collectives. It also transfers unpopular tasks such as tax collection and birth-control enforcement to the local level.

China’s current intentions were better illustrated at a four-hour trial in October at Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court. Wang Dan, 27-year-old hero of the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, was sentenced to 11 more years in prison--this time for his articles abroad calling for democratic reform. Wang’s closed-door trial completed China’s new crackdown on dissidents.

“The leaders of China and many Asian societies have no use for liberal democracy,” Huntington said in an interview. In Confucian tradition, he said, “harmony and cooperation are preferred over disagreement and competition. Order and respect for hierarchy are central values. Conflict between ideas, groups and parties is viewed as dangerous.”

Line Between Religion, Politics Is Blurred


Democracy in Muslim societies may face even higher hurdles. Islam, which means “submission,” emphasizes community over individual rights. Because it offers rules for governing society as well as spiritual beliefs, the line between religion and politics is blurred.

So far, democracy’s track record in the Islamic world is the poorest of any bloc of nations. The world’s eight most-authoritarian monarchies are in Islamic countries, as are four of the world’s five “outlaw” states--Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Iran.

Even Islam’s most daring experiments are tepid.

Nasser Sharhan, a 24-year-old political science major with a neat black mustache, voted for the first time Oct. 7 in Kuwait, the ultramodern emirate whose land once abutted ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization where the emperor Hammurabi codified the world’s first laws more than 3,700 years ago.

The campaign was extravagant, as befits a city-state that claims 10% of the world’s oil reserves. Tables stacked with whole roasted goats or lambs and plates of figs and dates lured voters into tents where candidates railed against the past parliament, pledged better public services and condemned corruption. The sheikdom is by far the most politically progressive Arab state in the strategic Persian Gulf region.

Yet Sharhan was among a small elite who were allowed to vote; his uncle, an independent candidate for parliament, was among a still smaller elite allowed to run. Of Kuwait’s 1.7 million people, only 107,000 may vote. Among those who may not are women, police officers, members of the army, many civil servants and those whose Kuwaiti ancestry does not extend back to before the 1920s.

“We are just in the first step,” Sharhan conceded. “We need to do many things, such as bring in the ladies, to reach real democracy. In the States it took more than 100 years to give ladies the vote, and it’ll take some time here too.”

The power of the 50-member parliament, which meets in a seafront building designed by the architect of the Sydney Opera House, is limited by the emir’s unappealable veto. He can disband parliament--as he did in 1976 and again in 1986, only to revive it reluctantly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He appoints the prime minister and Cabinet. Key posts are kept within the family. Formal parties are taboo.

“You want your style of government adopted in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa. But your democracy will never work in every country in the world,” argued Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “There are other systems in the world [that] will never understand it.”

‘Trying to Sell Democracy Like a Bottle of Coca-Cola’

Huntington claims the critical factor is Western culture. “The ease and extent to which non-Western societies become democratic depends on Western cultural influence. Democracy is an import from the West,” he said.

Yet democracy has always been the most organic and flexible form of government. Two millenniums ago, its Greek founders empowered only educated, upper-class white males. By the 20th century’s end, its boundaries embrace women, nonwhite races and lower classes in Hindu-dominated India, Roman Catholic Chile, Muslim Mali, Shinto Japan and Buddhist Thailand.

One of democracy’s strengths has been its ability to adapt to local conditions. And its evolution is far from over. Indeed, many of democracy’s boldest experiments may still lie ahead as it penetrates the final frontiers--and moves in new directions.

“Americans and Europeans have been trying to sell democracy like a bottle of Coca-Cola. You go into a shop, buy it, open it and drink it,” said former Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere. “Unless it’s done in the American or European way, they say it’s not democracy.

“That’s nonsense. Countries in Africa and other regions need a chance to develop their own brands of democracy.”

Innovations From Blending Cultures

In the 1990s, democracy’s greatest innovations are coming from blends with non-Western cultures, from Bolivia’s Indians to Botswana’s tribes.

On Bolivia’s breath-sapping Andean plateaus, 14,000 feet above sea level, an Indian civilization as sophisticated as that of ancient Egypt thrived six centuries before Christ--a sharp contrast to the instability of the 19th century and most of the 20th, when 189 regimes held power in Bolivia during a 162-year period.

To stabilize its young democracy, Bolivia is now tapping into its past. Aymara Indians--men conspicuous by their bowler hats and women by their colorful multilayered skirts--today elect local representatives as they did centuries ago through clan-based groups called ayllus.

Divided into quarters to grow diverse crops, ayllus once elected a chief authority to oversee agriculture, religious rites and clan coordination. Leaders rotated annually among quarters. Today, ayllus elect local governments to run everything from schools to development projects. Other Indians do the same through family- or community-based groups.

“We haven’t imposed one way of electing representatives. Traditional ways are taken into account,” said President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. “These natural institutions are finding ways of expressing themselves which bring government closer to the people and make our national democratic culture stronger.”

Bolivia may go even further. As part of a constitutional overhaul launched in 1993, one proposal mandates that national law be compatible with traditional laws.

The changes have already made a difference in a society that is about 65% indigenous. More than 430 Indian and mixed-race people have been elected to local councils since 1993. Bolivia’s vice president, Victor Hugo Cardenas, is an Aymara and the highest-ranking Indian ever to hold office in any of the Americas.

In Botswana, Africa’s most stable country, Tswana tribal traditions define democracy. “Most of what we do as a state has been upgraded from a tribal structure,” said President Ketumile Masire.

“If you go to parliament, it’s not much different from what used to happen at a kgotla, or village council, where everyone has the right to speak and where issues are discussed and a consensus evolved and the chief would pronounce the decision not taken by him, but by the kgotla.”

The House of Chiefs plays a strong advisory role on all legislation--much like Britain’s House of Lords. Its influence led the government to adopt compromise abortion laws that legalize the practice only when the mother’s life is endangered.

The government ignores the chiefs’ advice “at its peril,” Masire said. “In new democracies, it’s generally better to start with what you know and work up to what you haven’t done before.”

As democracies evolve in new places, they need to get out from under the long shadow cast by the West, said Polish political philosopher Marcin Krol. “Democracy’s future depends on its ability to change, adapt and learn,” Krol said. “The more rigid democratic theory becomes, the less hope we can have.”

In a 1994 speech at Stanford University, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel called the Western formula for democracy “only half a recipe” that “arouses skepticism and mistrust in many parts of the world.”

A growing number of U.S. experts agree. The White House’s Office on Democracy came up with five universal principles by which to judge whether a particular democracy is succeeding:

* Free and fair elections.

* Right of political opposition to operate without restrictions.

* Limits on the power of the state to arrest, detain or torture.

* Right to organize in minorities, in labor groups or around special interests.

* An independent judiciary to check the executive’s power.

“But after that, there’s an enormous range of differences in the way democratic governments can function,” said Morton H. Halperin, former director of the Office of Democracy, who formulated the list in 1993.

“And those principles are not a Western invention or culturally bound. . . . They’re understood as well by Mongolians and Albanians and Cambodians.”

Confucian and Islamic societies are not exempt. Indeed, one of the world’s most controversial regimes emerged from a revolution that sought not just to end 2,500 years of monarchy but also to develop a culturally compatible blend of democracy and Shiite Islam. The result was the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Its republican constitution, which draws heavily from those of France and Belgium, enshrines all five of the White House’s principles. In elections last spring for the national legislature, the Majlis, more than 3,200 candidates of widely diverse views ran for 270 seats. Jews, Christians, Armenians and Zoroastrians vied for seats proportionate to their populations. All females over age 15 were allowed to vote; the Majlis again ended up with more female members than the U.S. Senate.

The Iranian system’s flaws are tied less to structures than to undemocratic practices, from challenging candidates’ Islamic credentials to allegedly killing dissidents abroad. Not surprisingly, the liveliest debate in Iran today centers on better blends of Islam and democracy.

“Forcing society to live as defined in the Koran 1,400 years ago won’t work. The way of living has changed. But that doesn’t mean that democracy can’t grow in Islamic societies,” said Turkish President Suleyman Demirel. “The problem is finding the right balance, because democracy is just as powerful a way of life as tradition is.”

Searching for Just the Right Balance

The democratic challenge of the 21st century is likely to center on the search for just that critical balance.

Yet Islamic and Confucian societies are not without traditions that are compatible with democracy or hold the seeds for greater participation. Despite parliament’s revival, Kuwaiti voters get more attention to their interests at diwaniyahs than in elections.

A Bedouin tradition dating back centuries, diwaniyahs are an Arabian version of a political salon where men sit on carpets or cushions and discuss community issues, debate politics and appeal for help. Kuwait’s parliament emerged from a 1921 proposal by diwaniyahs to create an advisory council for the emir.

“I go to different diwaniyahs at least once a week, depending on what concerns me,” said Sharhan, the student. “We consult among ourselves. Often it leads to action, decisions or a resolution.”

In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia and Oman have also introduced Consultative Councils, drawn from the Koran’s emphasis on developing consensus out of consultation. They are still controlled forums: Members are appointed, and dissidents are often still more likely to end up in jail than in public debates.

But the gleaming high-rise capitals of Riyadh and Muscat face mounting pressure to deal with societies changed by their own wealth in the generation since oil prices quadrupled. Literacy, urbanization, communications and exposure to the outside world have produced unprecedented expectations.

“In our religion, the ruler has to be consultative. He’s not supposed to do whatever he likes,” said Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who faces a parliament with deep sectarian differences. “In today’s world, the idea of sharing power is unavoidable. No leader can afford to ignore it.”

Women are increasingly on the front lines. In demonstrations, petitions to the king, seminars and media appearances, the new Democratic Women’s Assn. in Morocco is pushing to overhaul the entire legal code to give women full equality in personal and political life.

The new Jordanian Women’s Union has created a support system, covering such matters as campaigning and legislative coalition-building, for female candidates in next year’s elections. A political rights education program for women has a hotline run by Jordan’s growing cadre of female lawyers--300 now, with 500 more women in law school, up from just two a generation ago.

In the 1990s, Arab women are increasingly running for parliament. Two won in Morocco, two in Yemen and one in Jordan in 1993; six in Tunisia in 1994; 10 in Egypt in 1995; and five in the Palestinian Authority and three in Lebanon in 1996. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s only opposition for president in January was indefatigable human rights activist Samiha Khalil.

And the latest fad in Kuwait is female diwaniyahs.

“If democracy didn’t exist, Arab women would have invented it,” reflected Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan sociologist and author of “Fears of Trespass,” about her childhood growing up in a harem.

“We Muslim women are walking into the modern world with pride, knowing the quest for dignity, democracy, human rights and full participation in the political and social affairs of our country stems not from imported Western values but is a true part of Muslim tradition.”

Momentum Is Gathering

Once started, the momentum of evolution is hard to stop, as China is learning. Its first village committees emerged spontaneously in the early 1980s, in defiance of Communist leadership and Confucian tradition--as economic reforms made inefficient political systems obsolete. The results improved local efficiency.

Since then, grass-roots democracy has expanded rapidly, with the 1987 Organic Law on Village Committees opening the way for gradual legal elections and a 1994 amendment allowing secret ballots. By the end of 1997, 95% of China’s 900,000 villages are scheduled to have voted.

With most village chiefs no longer members of the Communist Party, power has begun to shift. As economic reforms improve living standards and resources, council functions are expanding. And as they gain access to varying levels of input, voters are carving out lists of demands.

For Yang Guilian, an energetic, wiry mother of two, the priority is development. For the first time in her life, Yang explained on election day, she felt she had something to gain or lose that could be affected by the quality of local leadership--specifically, financing for the small pig farm that supplements her income from the rice paddy.

“We need more capital to expand,” she said, as pigs of assorted sizes squealed on the first floor of the two-story building that doubles as home and sty.

Can China’s nascent brand of democracy expand beyond the village? “Some people already talk about grass-roots democracy working its way up the system--to townships, counties and then who knows?” Fan Yu, a village democracy program officer in the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said during a U.S. visit. “If it’s not good for the people, then it will disappear. But if it’s a good idea, then no one can stop it.”

Whatever evolves in China is unlikely to look like any Western model.

“To extend democratic procedures to other societies, democracy will take on characteristics of those cultures,” Huntington conceded. “We could end up with very different versions of democracy, and that could be very healthy for democracy.”

Times staff writer Rone Tempest contributed to this report from Luo Du.



“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”



Magna Carta--Signed by King John of England in 1215, it guaranteed civil and political liberties.

Bill of Rights--First 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, they guarantee rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and worship.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen--Framed by leaders of the French Revolution in 1789, it asserted the equality of men and the sovereignty of the people, and guaranteed the rights of “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.”


Culture Clash

The largest bloc of undemocratic regimes--ruling nearly one-third of the world’s people--takes in countries with Confucian or Islamic traditions, from tiny Singapore to vast China, from war-ravaged Afghanistan to oil-rich Saudi Arabia.


Confucianism is a system of ethics propagated by Chinese philosopher and social reformer Confucius in the 5th century B.C. During a period of repression, strife and corruption, Confucius promoted moderation, morality and statecraft. Societies heavily influenced today by Confucian history or tradition include China, North and South Korea, Singapore and many East Asian countries with large Chinese communities.



Islam is a religion established in the 7th century by the prophet Muhammad after revelations from God through the archangel Gabriel. Muslims consider Islam to be an extension of a single religious tradition that began with Judaism and continued through Christianity. Islam, which means “submission” in Arabic, is the world’s fastest-growing religion and is the third largest in the United States.

“Confucian democracy is clearly a contradiction in terms. And whatever the compatibility of Islam and democracy in theory, in practice they have rarely gone together.”

--Samuel P. Huntington, director of Harvard’s Institute for Strategic Studies



“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”



Principles of Democracy

The White House’s Office on Democracy has developed five universal principles by which to judge whether a particular democracy is succeeding. It must have:

* Free and fair elections

* Right of political opposition to operate without restrictions

* Limits on the power of the state to arrest, detain or torture

* Right to organize in minorities, in labor groups or around special interests

* An independent judiciary to check the executive’s power


About This Series

After spreading to many new countries in the past decade, democracy is in trouble in many corners of the globe.

Sunday: The paramount reason for the imperilment of democracy is its failure to meet the economic aspirations that motivated democracy’s boom in the first place.

Monday: New freedoms have unleashed a host of old evils. Two in particular--ethnic violence and political corruption--are corroding democracy from within.

Today: As democracy spreads, it faces its most profound challenges from two of the world’s oldest cultures: Islam and Confucianism.

Wednesday: Devolution--the transfer of power from the national government to the regional and even the municipal levels--is the most dynamic trend in today’s new democracies.