Phantom Democracy: Rethinking Politics in China

Researcher: Professor John Keane and Dr Giovanni Navarria

This project explores the counter-intuitive idea that China is entangled in a complex experiment with a new political form that we call ‘phantom democracy’. The unfamiliar phrase has a rich genealogy, but our immediate aim is to highlight the inadequacies of several influential contemporary interpretations of Chinese politics, including the view that China is a raw instance of ‘state capitalism’ (Slavoj Žižek), or a typical case of an ‘authoritarian regime’ (Juan Linz), or as an exemplar of ‘people’s democracy’ founded upon a flourishing ‘civil society’ (Yu Keping). In our view, these interpretations fail to grasp the unusual ways in which the Chinese polity is becoming a simulacrum of the type of locally-defined democratic vision sketched in such documents as the Charter ’08 manifesto. We argue that the contemporary development of phantom democracy befuddles our inherited narratives of democratisation. China is neither straightforwardly an ‘authoritarian’ nor a ‘state capitalist regime’ nor a ‘people’s democracy’. It is undoubtedly describable as a one-party-dominated political system marked by such well-recorded dysfunctions as vast undisclosed business fiefdoms, violence, censorship, corruption and hypocrisy. Less noticed are the manifold ways in which this system is also nurturing experiments with a wide range of ‘democratic’ tools. There is some truth in the view that China is ‘the advocate and builder of democracy’ (Liu Jianfei). Some trends are obvious: the proliferating rhetoric of ‘democracy’, the constant public referencing of ‘the Taiwan model’ and the spread of village-level elections are examples. Less obvious trends include the introduction of accountability and competition mechanisms into public bureaucracy, the rise of independent ‘public opinion leaders’, the development of ‘silent contracts’ between the Party and sections of the middle class and the spreading use by Party officials of public opinion polls and democratic ‘campaign styles’.

The instrumental use by Party officials of digitally networked media as an ‘early warning device’ is especially significant. We consider the field of digital communications as the key laboratory for testing the strengths and weaknesses and possible unintended consequences of phantom democracy. Using concepts such as ‘power as shared weakness’ and ‘networked citizens’, we analyse the ways in which online media increasingly shape not only the economy but also the prevailing power and conflict dynamics between state and citizens. We show why the growing use of the Internet in China’s social, economic and political structures exposes the Party to unforeseen weaknesses that are increasingly exploited by citizens, used by them to contest and restrain its power monopoly; and we consider the possibility that this citizen resistance to publicly unaccountable power will determine the fate of phantom democracy.

Democracy in Antarctica

Democracy: a small word that harbours the big idea that people can restrain arbitrary power and govern themselves, through their chosen representatives. Yet we live in an age when key decisions from afar increasingly push and pull the local lives of citizens, leading many to conclude that democracy has no chance of survival in the face of regional and global forces that powerfully undermine the whole ideal of citizens governing themselves as equals. The trend  leads pundits and practitioners towards one of two conclusions: either democracies must strive to claw back as much ‘foreign’ power as they can, or the whole ideal of democracy must be abandoned, replaced by what is variously called ‘governance’, or ‘smart power’ exercised by technocrats and other unelected officials.

What is genuinely interesting about Antarctica, the vast sixth geological continent at the bottom of our world, is the way its governing arrangements defy all these real-world trends, and ways of thinking. Antarctica resembles a laboratory in which, for more than half a century, political experiments have been going on that are of great relevance to the future of democracy. These experiments can teach us important things about the present and future contours of democracy – and whether it can take advantage of the opportunities and survive the worrying challenges of the early twenty-first century.

This project looks to Antarctica as a cutting-edge case of the self-democratisation of humans, the rejection of our own long-standing arrogant presumption that we are masters and possessors of nature. But its significance is greater than this. Antarctica is a post-sovereign and law-abiding polity engaged in world-leading experiments in the art of enfranchising nature, ensuring its tangible presence as an equal in human politics. The experiments pose a fundamental challenge to those scholars who fix on fair and free elections as the core mechanism and ethical principle of democracy. Developments in Antarctica confront us with fundamental questions about the meaning of democracy, and whether it has a future. It forces us to think about how we think about democracy. This project asks a fundamental question: Can democracy come to mean a way of life and a potent method of rendering power publicly accountable by means of institutions in which humans and their biosphere are treated symmetrically, as equals, as subjects and objects who simultaneously act and are acted upon within geographical contexts that mediate and bind humans and their biomes together?

Antarctica is a strange political space for democrats. It is best described as a species of monitory democracy in which arbitrary power is subject to institutional restraint, intense public scrutiny and key decisions made by unelected representatives. It is a remarkable political experiment of great global relevance.

Can this novel species of dispersed democracy in monitory form survive the mounting pressures that come with the twenty-first century? How relevant is the political and legal arrangements of Antarctica for the way we understand present-day democracy and imagine its future?

Media and Democracy in a Decadent Age

We live in a revolutionary age of communicative abundance in which many media innovations – from satellite broadcasting to iPhones, electronic books, Freegate and cloud computing – spawn great fascination mixed with excitement. In the field of politics, hopeful talk of digital democracy, web 2.0, cybercitizens and e-government is flourishing. This project acknowledges the many thrilling ways that communicative abundance is fundamentally altering the landscape of our lives, and our politics, often for the better. New patterns of public monitoring of power are especially striking, even in cross-border settings. But a basic premise of the project is that too little attention has been paid to the troubling counter-trends, the decadent media developments that encourage concentrations of cunning power without limit, so weakening the spirit and substance of democracy. Clever new methods of government censorship – the Chinese arts of using the Internet to control the Internet are among the most sophisticated – and the use by governments and corporations of spin tactics and back-channel public relations are the most obvious examples. Echo chambers, rumour storms, Berlusconi-style mass media populism, flat earth news, big political lies, cyber-attacks, online gated communities, publicity bombs and organised media silence in the face of unaccountable power are trends that also bode ill for democracy. This project aims to understand and account for these trends, and how best to deal with them. It explains why media decadence is harmful for the democratic body politic and tackles some tough but fateful questions: which forces are chiefly responsible for media decadence? Should we be cheered by the rise of the blog scene, or worried by the collapse of newspaper business models and the lingering culture of red-blooded journalism, which often stands accused of such bad habits as hunting in packs, its eyes on bad news, egged on by newsroom rules that include titillation, sensationalism and the excessive concentration on personalities? What (if anything) can be done about the new media decadence? Is improved legal regulation our best hope? How effective are media literacy campaigns, or efforts to redefine public service media for the twenty-first century? And, finally, the really discomposing questions: when judged in terms of the principle of free and open communication, does the age of communicative abundance on balance proffer more risk than promise? Are there developing parallels with the early twentieth century, when print journalism and radio and film broadcasting hastened the widespread collapse of parliamentary democracy? Are the media failures of our age the harbingers of profoundly authoritarian trends that might ultimately result in the birth of ‘post-democracy’ – polities in which governments claim to represent majorities that are artefacts of media, money, organisation and force of arms? If that happened, what, if anything, would be lost? In plain words: why should anybody care about media decadence?

Read Professor John Keane’s prologue to Ramón A. Feenstra’s recently published book entitled “