The removal of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye on March 10, 2017, was perhaps a reminder of what it means for the people to govern themselves. The press exposed Park’s corruption, the informed public took to the streets in peaceful candlelight protests, the courts impeached and imprisoned her, and the people democratic elected her replacement in a smooth transition of power—all within a span of seven months. The New York Times called the proceedings a democratic “miracle.” I see it more as simply a functional democracy—the cornerstone of justice today.
Despite the rise of China and some global regression towards more authoritarian governments, democracy is still most adequately equipped to serve the best interest of the people. On the surface, countries with different forms of government can appear to have different goals. For example, the US Constitution states in its preamble that the purpose of the state is to “establish Justice… and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The first ten amendments state individual civil and human rights. China’s preamble marks a stark contrast, with the revised constitution focusing on managing the nation’s economic development under its socialist policies. However, Chapter II of the Chinese Constitution, ‘The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens,’ lists the freedoms of speech, religion, and press. In other words, even authoritarian China values and vows to protects fundamental individual rights. In fact, back in 1948, China voted for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So if most countries, whether authoritarian or democratic, share common goals of securing these freedoms, why is democracy uniquely valuable?
Historically, rights and freedoms are best protected in a democracy. In the 17th century, John Locke argued that life, liberty, and estate were natural rights, which later inspired the American Revolution and the establishment of American democracy. But why can democracy protect these rights better than any other system? According to Larry Diamond of Stanford University, a modern liberal democracy can be defined with four major components: fair elections, political participation of citizens, protection of civil and human rights, and the equal rule of law. These four elements ensure a system of checks and balances; power flows bottom up through fair elections, and excesses are kept in check through term limits, a multi-party system, and most importantly, a citizenry educated through a free press—which, in fact, the US Constitution included as its first amendment. The combination of these factors results in a functional democracy in which the government is held accountable by the governed. Thus, free speech is essential to a democracy, or any functional government.
Suppressing free press has both social and economic consequences. Most grave, though, is the fact that citizens are uninformed and the government is not held accountable. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has closed more than 140 media outlets and incarcerated more than 45,000 suspected political dissenters, demonstrating his increasingly unchecked power. The Human Rights Watch 2017 report says that China’s media consistently hides government abuses, including severe punishment of human rights activists. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, an advocate for human rights and political reform in China, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion” by criticizing the nation’s one-party rule. In developing nations such as Kazakhstan or Equatorial Guinea, authoritarian leaders pocketing the nation’s profits from their natural resources. They hire public relations firms to hide the corruption, safe from exposure by a free press. Similarly, according to UK foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat, Russian president Vladimir Putin has stolen over three hundred billion dollars from the Russian people, while peaceful anti-corruption protesters were detained in hundreds throughout the spring and summer of 2017. Beyond the abuses and criminal acts themselves, the underlying problem is that politicians are not held accountable since the public is uninformed and thus unable to dissent. A free press educates the people and thus empowers them to make informed decisions — in the interest of the nation as a whole.
In addition, free speech has economic benefits. The unhampered exchange of ideas is crucial for the sustainability of any well-functioning economy. Especially in the technology-driven 21st century, innovation is the key for any nation’s long-term economic success. A study from the Journal of Political Economy demonstrates that American cities were able to grow primarily due to the “cross-fertilization” of ideas through free interactions and expression of findings. In nations where creativity and the sharing of ideas through free expression are suppressed, technological development is inevitably stalled. Internets with strict censorship of social media or databases obstruct individuals’ ability to share and develop ideas based on existing information online. For instance, fewer patents, as a result, are filed in these authoritarian nations, according to the Washington Post. In fact, France as a single nation filed more patents in 2016 than the entire Arab World of 22 states. Nations that encourage innovation by the sharing of ideas on an uncensored internet, through the building of ideas and information on academic platforms such as Google Scholar, like South Korea and Germany, see evidently high GDP rankings of 12th and fourth, respectively. South Korea’s largely technology-based economy, with its dominating conglomerate Samsung, portrays the paradigm of a successful creative economy grounded on innovation through unrestricted communication via the internet. Economists Curtis Simon and Clark Nardinelli wrote that the growths of creative economies “in large part arises from what happens when people with information get together and talk. The talk is necessary to turn information into productive knowledge.’
The one exception to this trend seems to be China; for the past few decades, communist China has displayed impressive economic growth, achieving the world’s highest economic growth rate of $23.12 trillion in 2017. Yet, rather than fueled by freedom-driven innovation, China developed through imitation, according to a study from Stanford University; the Chinese manufacturing industry simply copied the methods of already successful companies. But the Chinese Communist Party’s power continues to grow, and the strengthening “Great Firewall” of media censorship only stands in the way of the innovative direction the state hopes to take. Professors from elite universities are already leaving China due to the difficulties of conducting research in hard sciences within the parameters of censorship. There have already been calls to allow access to Google Scholar for research purposes. The restriction of foreign media outlets bars Chinese researchers from being able to access crucial knowledge for innovation and scientific development. While it has traced the footsteps of developed economies, China no longer has other nations to imitate—the only new development that lies ahead requires the sharing of information and ideas.
On the other hand, recent events illustrate what a free press can do for a democratic nation. In South Korea, the free press played a pivotal role in the removal of President Park, culminating a scandal that exposed the web of corrupt deals between the government and conglomerates. Park was impeached and jailed on charges of leaking secret government documents to a friend (Choi Soon-Shil) and pulling money from the nation’s biggest corporations for non-governmental purposes. The scandal began with the free press, as the Korean media network JTBC reported on Choi’s abandoned computer that contained evidence of classified government information. Free speech and media inspired and empowered the public to protest in the movement that led to the impeachment of Park after the press expose. Over a span of twenty weeks, millions of Korean citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest President Park, participating in the free expression of dissent only possible in a democracy.
Moreover, South Korea is an example of how democracy allows for free speech in an increasingly digitally connected world. Through social media platforms like Facebook, Kakao, and Twitter, news of the scandal quickly spread, and citizens were able to efficiently organize protests. The hashtag “Step down, Park Geun Hye” went viral, exponentially mobilizing public opinion. The entire process, from the first breaking news of the scandal to the removal of Park, was driven by a free press and an informed citizenry who had the freedom of speech. In a manner exclusive to democracies, individual citizens protesting were effectively connected with each other through the media and thoroughly informed of the government’s corruption through the free press. As a result, South Korea benefitted both politically and economically: it rid the government of a highly incompetent leader as well as exposing the corruption tied to the nation’s biggest businesses.
Of course, liberal democracy has never been a political panacea. Even the US is struggling with an authoritarian president and illiberal movements. Despite these flaws, however, the fundamental values of liberal democracies transcend any particular administration. China may be an economic giant, but it’s restrictions on free speech are self-defeating. Regardless of whether democracy is flawless in practice, it provides a flexible, self-correcting system that best deals with old challenges, such as corrupt leaders, and new ones, such as social media. To live in a democracy is to secure power for the powerless.