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Talking democracy: China's lesson in Denmark

About the author
Grahame Thompson is professor of political economy at The Open University.

Several years ago I was involved in a discussion with Chinese academic members of the Communist Party about democracy in China. My hosts' knowledge of all the main western writers associated with the popular notion of deliberative democracy genuinely surprised me. They argued that democracy was alive and well in China, and pointed to the thick layers of deliberation and participation that could be found in Chinese political life.

It was clear that for Chinese officialdom, the procedural dimensions to democracy were everything. Its substantive dimensions - such as an independent judiciary and rule of law, a separation of powers, genuine contestation and compromise over political outcomes, a free media - were out of consideration. As long as certain deliberative norms were in place (such as transparency, due process, the representativeness of participants) the deliberations of such forums could, in the Chinese view, deliver democracy.

These thoughts on my Chinese experiences returned on 5-6 September 2006 when I was a participant in an interesting experiment in deliberative democracy in Denmark. This event could prove to be highly significant since its ambition is to become a genuinely global initiative in gathering opinions and developing a programme for action in the fraught area of value conflict between cultures and religions.

Its background to the project lies in the notorious "cartoon crisis" of February-March 2006. The originating, obscure trigger of the crisis - the publication on 30 September 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of caricatures on the subject of Islam, Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed - snowballed into a global controversy; Muslims across the world protested, sometimes violently, against Danish and other western interests. From Indonesia to Iran, Turkey to Lebanon, there were calls for a widespread boycott of Danish goods.

For most people outside Denmark, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the profound effect these events had inside the country, amongst both the population at large and its political elite. Danes are not used to seeing their embassies burned and their flag trampled on the ground.

As a response, the "Coexistence of Civilisations" project was launched in Denmark, sponsored by the weekly journal and associated think-tank Mandag Morgen (Monday Morning). After several preliminary meetings the Copenhagen Coexistence Lab was convened in September. This brought together over a hundred experts, politicians and opinion-formers from some twenty countries to discuss what they saw as the main challenges to peaceful coexistence in the early 21st century.

The results of this experiment are to be followed by similar events throughout the world (the "Coexistence Expedition") to gather a wider range of opinions and suggestions, culminating in a further meeting in Copenhagen in 2007-08.

Grahame Thompson is professor of political economy at the Open University. He is the co-author (with Paul Hirst) of Globalisation in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (1999) and Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organisation (2003)

Also by Grahame Thompson in openDemocracy:

"The Age of Confusion" (September 2003)

"A strident Victorian or a realistic pluralist?" (October 2003)

"The limits to globalisation: questions for Held and Wolf"
(July 2004)

"Learning tolerance" (December 2004)

"What is fundamentalism?"
(9 March 2006)

The thinking group

After being involved as a speaker in a preliminary meeting, and acting as one of the facilitators for the event, my role in Copenhagen was as a direct participant and observer of the gathering. My interest lies less in the actual outcomes of the process (interesting though these are) than in the process itself. In particular, it provokes the question: what does the process reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of deliberative democracy - because this is what the event at its heart turned out to be.

Initially, we were split into three workshops to each discuss and offer suggestions of ten "challenges to future coexistence", and the reasons for the choices. These were then brought to a full meeting of the whole group where a series of votes were taken to narrow the thirty down to a final five (the challenges proposed ranged from "create trust and understanding" and "make 'good news' interesting" to "overcome ethnocentricity" and "avoid double standards"). In a display of efficiency, the voting process was conducted electronically so anonymity was preserved.

Apart from being great fun, the process was interesting, for three reasons.

First, it taught everyone that listening is as important as speaking in these forums. To get consensus on contentious issues - an important feature of the initial workshops - proved more difficult than anticipated. The participants came from varied backgrounds and most were speaking in a second language (English). To pull the discussion together, to get a reasonable list of agreed challenges that meant more or less the same for everyone, and to provide reasons for these, proved a tense and exhausting experience at times. Participation is not an easy option.

Second, the main deliberative forum and voting process - whilst broadly fair - had its drawbacks. The facilitators were called upon to explain and justify the ten challenges arising from each group. This opened up fresh discussion that was at that stage perhaps inappropriate; in any case, it resulted in several important amendments to the challenges going forward in each round of voting. Even members of the sub-groups themselves often objected to the formulations from their own group as these appeared, were modified, and voted upon.

Moreover, between votes there was also further discussion and dispute. The problem here was not the messiness of the process as that certain voices became at this point much more important than others. For instance, several religious figures - who announced their status as such - were prominent in getting challenges that they did not like changed in a way that suited them better. Some academic members of the audience acted in similar fashion. The lesson I learned from this was: eternal vigilance! Until the moment of the vote, things can change, so keeping alert is crucial if and when there is a serious issue at stake.

A further overall result of the process was that it was the rather bland and unobjectionable challenges that emerged as the final five. Anything that sounded too controversial was stripped out during the discussions and voting process. Deliberation of this sort is not a way to get radical proposals on the agenda.

Third, there remains a need for flexibility at crucial moments. To some extent because of partisanship over the challenges from particular groups, the whole process nearly got stuck in the final voting round to establish the ultimate five. (On reflection, it might have been more sensible to have opted for six rather than five concluding challenges, since the number is arbitrary anyway.) The final five were "empower the powerless", "ensure freedom of religion", "create public spaces for coexistence", "ensure judicial independence", and "overcome the 'security agenda'".

Was the whole experiment worthwhile? Even though it was on a small scale - and independently of the actual results - to undertake this kind of venture is salutary. Deliberative forums are interesting and important occasions for the exercises of democratic activity, but they are obviously not a substitute for the more formal apparatus of democratic decision-making.

This Danish experiment - now being carried forward into many other countries and regions of the world - proved to me that my reservations during the discussions I had several years earlier in China were entirely appropriate. Deliberative democracy is not a substitute for formal and substantive democracy: at best it is a complement of it.

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