There is no set recipe for democracy. Still, we can agree that the ingredients must include basic guarantees of free speech and free elections: If you don't have the right to speak out against those in charge — and eventually vote them out of power — you are living under some form of rule that cannot be called democratic.
Over the past 48 hours, China, the world's largest autocracy, has inadvertently reminded us what a democracy is. It is true that few have considered the country anything approaching democratic since the 1949 revolution that brought on Mao Zedong's decades of brutal dictatorship. But the decision in the early 1980s, by then Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping, to set a limit on the presidency of two five-year terms has at least given some semblance of renewal. On Sunday, that was swept away by the current leader, as Xi Jinping has moved to extend his rule beyond 2023, effectively giving him the right to rule indefinitely.
That other component in any would-be democracy, free speech, is a bit harder for the powers-that-be in Beijing to control. The BBC has noted that the decision to end term limits set off rounds of criticism on China's social media site Sina Weibo. Not surprisingly the censors quickly stepped in, banning such basic phrases as "I don't agree," "election term," and "proclaiming oneself an emperor."
A sprinkling of free speech does not change the fundamental flavor of an autocratic regime.
Meanwhile in China's grayest area of democracy, the former British colony of Hong Kong, the prominent daily newspaper, The South China Morning Post, went ahead on Tuesday with a front-page article, raising major questions about Xi's decision. The daily quoted Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst with consultancy firm Gavekal Dragonomics, who blamed current problems on "Xi's concentration of power at the top level: where the person making policy is increasingly insulated from criticism or feedback, leading to bad decisions and poor results."
An interesting exception to prove the rule, for a sprinkling of free speech does not change the fundamental flavor of an autocratic regime.
Meanwhile, in countries that pride themselves on guaranteeing free speech and free elections, there are other kinds of risks. Ahead of national elections in Italy on Sunday, we are reminded that people saying what's on their minds, and politicians looking to unseat those in power, is not in itself always a good thing.
The increasingly popular leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, has made anti-immigrant rhetoric the centerpiece of his campaign, and Milan-based Corriere della Sera daily reports on at least one of the consequences. A mother of two adopted children wrote a bitter Facebook message to the candidate: "Dear Salvini, I am a mother of two splendid adopted African children … I wanted to thank you for the gift you've given to my children of moments of terror quite out of the ordinary." The 49-year-old mother says that her daughter now cries at night with the fear that if Salvini wins, she will be sent back to Africa, while her son has recently been subjected to virulent racist insults from his soccer teammates.
One of the great weaknesses of a democracy is that bad people can wind up in charge. The only antidote, of course, is that same democracy that guarantees they won't stay there forever.
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