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One Citizen, One Vote or Civics on Maui vis-a-vis China

March 17, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Recently I attended a political party caucus on Maui. The 2012 Election Year is not the crucial 2008 Elections, only four years ago, when a little-known junior Senator from Illinois was elected President of the United States. It was an exciting campaign (with a female Alaskan Governor as a Vice-President candidate), and the election perhaps reflected the times, a reach for youth, for global sensitivity, a weariness regarding constant war and readiness for war. The Illinois Senator was unusual in spending his childhood in Hawai’i* and a foreign country, Indonesia, with the world’s highest number of Muslims (more than Pakistan) in its population.

My Maui political party caucus had more attendees than expected in a less exciting Presidential campaign match – even the local party chairman mentioned this a couple of times. On a week night, although one could arrive straight from work to the caucus venue, there were far more retired residents participating in the caucus. I recall in my Honolulu Farrington high school civics courses that in order to participate in the political process, a citizen must have some free time. In the early Greek city-states, like Athens, the “free citizens” could gather and discuss fixing the local marketplace pothole or raising taxes or declaring war on Sparta.

If one is stuck working at a hospital or night-shift Wailea hotel bartending, getting involved in a party political process is challenging. Although a Maui citizen is absolutely free to join any political party, or to start his/her own (why not?), one requires a lot more free time to promote one’s agenda, and then incorporate it into a political party’s platform.

Although I mention obstacles in participating in a free democratic society, this messy, long process that involves listening to many citizens’ voices is far fairer, far more precious compared to many other societies. To vote for a Maui County Council member to represent our interests on Maui (and Molokai and Lanai) seem so matter-of-fact, but Mauians should never take this one-citizen, one-vote democratic process for granted (every Hawai’i annual election has analysts shaking their heads at the barely 60% voter turn-out – there are other countries, like Australia, Brazil, and Singapore, with compulsory – and enforced – voting laws, but that is another topic: Mauians would revolt if one was fined real money for not voting in an election).

From about 15 years ago I have visited the People’s Republic of China many times. I have visited cities (and even towns) down the Eastern seaboard, a kind of analog to the U.S. West coast, from Dalian and Tianjin in the far northeast to the capital Beijing to the West Lake area of Hangzhou to Ningbo to neon-filled Shanghai down to the warmer southern cities of Xiamen, then to the “new city” of Shenzhen, and finally the old trading center of Guangzhou. I have hired teams throughout China, visited dozens of firms, research centers, and have toured leading universities, like Tsinghua and Beijing University in Beijing, and Fudan in Shanghai. I do not speak Chinese, yet have completed deals and contracts utilizing interpreters and local managers.

The strangest conversations in China I have had were with very well-educated Chinese about politics. In 5-star hotel lobbies like at the Ritz-Carlton or Grand Hyatt in Beijing, I would mention over fragrant flower-blossom tea that it seemed odd that in the 21st century, a Beijing resident could not organize his or her own political party nor could a Chinese citizen, educated at a top university in engineering or medicine, vote for the new mayor of Beijing (or a town with the same number of residents on Maui).

The responses I got from my former colleagues or friends ranged from “we must get the economy going first, then politics” or “the Communist Party thinks of the best future for us, and we should follow the Party” or “we do not have the same level of educated people as in the West, so we need firm leadership” or “there are many different kinds of democratic systems, and you should not impose your Western system on the Chinese”.

As U.S. citizens in a democratic society, we would scoff at such pat responses. To Americans and citizens of many other countries (U.S., European, Indian, Japanese) various political parties and citizens' voting -- granted, though very messy and time-consuming -- best implements democratic ideals.

In spite of the global economic malaise, in 2012 China's economy shall grow at a blistering rate of 7 – 8 percent. The Chinese currency – the yuan -- has increased against the U.S. dollar (and the Japanese yen), and so Chinese tourists have been on buying binges in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, and New York. One Chinese telecoms colleague (let’s call him “S.”) who graduated from a Beijing university in the early 1990s confessed to me that his family had food and clothing ration coupons when S. was a child and he never ate in restaurants (since serving food to customers is a capitalist business operation and illegal up to the late 1980s in China).

By the early 2000s S. had bought a car and a condo, and he and his family took annual overseas vacations, like Canada and Europe (a huge challenge for most Maui families now, let alone taking all the children to Honolulu, and museums, shopping, sports). Plus S. gained a lot of weight due to eating out almost all the time (his spouse had an engineering manager job with a U.S. high tech firm), and they had a live-in maid who cleaned the apartment and cooked meals, with far more meat and sweets than S. had in his childhood.

But with all the benefits of a middle-class life S. could not launch his own political party nor could he vote for his local city mayor, nor for his provincial party head, nor for the Chinese President or Prime Minister – but he was absolutely happy and OK with his rights and obligations as a Chinese citizen.

Of course not everybody in the one-billion Chinese population has attained such economic levels, but enough were content with the economic progress of the Chinese nation-state so there is a wide range of support for the current Chinese government (the number of middle-class Chinese probably exceeds three times the population of Japan).

Will Mauians give up some essential democratic rights – like a social contract with society – in order to have a higher standard of living? Or are democratic political process so ingrained with Mauians that citizens will always retain the right to nag, criticize, participate, write Letters to the Editor, head a political party precinct and draft party platforms, and in the ultimate step, run for political office?

*In 1958 – 1959 the Alaska and Hawai’i Territorial delegations worked closely together so that Alaska would be granted Statehood first (the so-called “Alaska First” strategy), then it would be easier for Hawai’i to gather pro-Statehood Congressional votes, especially among Southern States that had concerns about Hawai’i’s high non-Caucasian population. Then, as even now, unfortunately, some Mainland Americans feel that Hawai’i, a State with over a million U.S. citizens, is not really “part” of the “real” U.S.


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