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November 16, 2018

G-spot: Just what do the Chinese want to teach us about multi-party democracy?

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Nasa leader Raila Odinga
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Nasa leader Raila Odinga

While I won’t claim to be a follower of China’s Chairman Mao, I must say that I have always liked the quote: “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.”

I like it so much, I have used it on my Twitter Bio, as it expresses what I hope to encourage on social media as well in life: the sharing of many ideas. I must admit that I only recently found out that the saying was originally used by Mao in 1957, at a time when the Chinese intelligentsia was invited to criticise China’s then political system.

I suppose that period, even though it was only six weeks long, would be comparable to the Kanu Review Committee, popularly known as the “Saitoti Committee”, which we had in Kenya in 1990–91, when Kenyans were invited to blow off steam and criticise the country’s then only legal political party.

While in Kenya these criticisms can be credited with helping set the stage for internal changes within the ruling party and the eventual repeal of Section 2A, which opened the way to a multiparty democracy, in China, some historians reckon that the exhortation to let a thousand flowers blossom was actually a trap. They claims that this was just a way to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to “show themselves as critical of the regime.”

As one who grew up in the paranoid, rumour-driven and generally unhealthy political space that was one-party rule Kenya, I can relate to the suspicions that the call to criticise the Chinese Communist Party was a trap. Any place where the law allows for only one party tends to be completely intolerant of opposition and deals ruthlessly with dissidence. Kenya under Kanu single-party rule was the perfect example of this.

In its heyday, Kanu was so against any competitive ideas, it banned any books that it thought might spread such dissidence, including many of Chairman Mao’s books, which were outlawed by Jomo Kenyatta’s government back in the 1960s — before the country deviated from the path of multi-party democracy. (By the way, I wonder if, now that we are such good buddies with the Chinese, the Little Red Book is freely on sale in Kenya?)

The point here is opposition parties are not allowed in modern China and haven’t been allowed since the 1940s. So it is fair to assume that nobody in the Chinese leadership today has ever had any experience of competing for votes with other parties.

So what exactly do the ruling parties of Kenya and more recently South Africa — both constitutional democracies — hope to learn about democratic electoral practices from the CCP? Recently the secretary general of South Africa’s ruling ANC party led a delegation to China, coming back to tell an ANC elections communications strategy workshop that CCP officials would train party staff ahead of the 2019 elections.

Meanwhile in Kenya a week earlier, there were reports that the Jubilee Party would have its officials trained in “democracy and party management” by the CCP. Is a return to one-party rule what all the bridge building in Kenya portends?

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