Saturday, July 28, 2007

When and where has the public trusted governments

Journalist Li Daton's article "Beijing baozi and public trust" in the latest issue of Open Democracy ( provides plenty of material for thought.

He writes:
"... in matters of public safety, public confidence in the government has been seriously eroded. People would rather believe rumours spread by their family and friends than announcements by the government. They have good reason. During the Sars epidemic, the government denied there was a problem; when the Songhua river disaster led to water supplies being cut off in the city of Harbin, the government claimed it was "fixing water pipes". Indeed, even officials from the state council information office admitted on 13 July 2007 that local governments "cover up 90% of negative news stories" and leave uncovered "less than 10%". In such a climate, it is hard for the public to entrust the government with its safety. This real and widespread public feeling is becoming a source of opposition to the government. But if the sentiment continues to build, it is not just the government that will be damaged: public safety too will be threatened - for safety cannot be built on rumours. It is self-evident that the key to solving the problem is political reform. A government that is not accountable to the public, not controlled by its vote, not forced by a free press to tell the truth, will inevitably find itself in a crisis of governance. In the end, both those in power and the public pay a heavy price."

Well, all I can say is that I hope political reform will come to Communist China but that is up to the elites in China.

The question that Li Daton's comments raises for me is: have governments always or never had public trust? Clearly neither. 100% is a difficult if not impossible to achieve in either direction, but 80% should be possible, or at least 60%. And yet as one surveys history and geography, it is astonishing how rarely people have trusted their government. There is a direct relationship between the behaviour of the rulers/elits and the degree to which the people trust them. Though there were individual kings or specific elites who acted on widely-agreed public service ideals, such individuals/ groups were few and far between.

The first systematic attempts to create systems and structures for clean and trustworthy government were attempted by the Hebrew people under the inspiration of their prophets - in other words, as far as I can discover, the Hebrews were the first people to go beyond general exhortation (such as is found in Buddhist, Hindu and other teaching around the world) and actually put into practice structural means of limiting the power of the king or elites and of holding them accountable.

However, that progress in human history went on the back burner, so to speak, as the Hebrew kingdoms disappeared after David and Solomon.

It was not till the 12th century rediscovery of the Hebrew principles in Europe, which led eventually to the Magisterial Reformations of Calvin and Cromwell, Zwingli and Hus and Luther and the rest, that these principles were put into effect again. Then of course, under the influence of the Radical Reformation, these Hebrew principles were put even more systematically into effect in the states that united to form the USA.

It was specifically due to the implementation of these Hebrew ideas that Europe and the USA arose from being some of the poorest areas of the world, to becoming some of the richest parts of the world.

Today, it is these Hebrew principles that are being universalised as globalisation marches on, leading to a conflict between the traditional exploitative ways of kings and elites in most of the world through history, and the new Hebrew-style expectations around the world. That is why traditional societies have to choose between their traditional ways of doing things and "modern" (i.e. ancient Hebrew) principles of governance and transparency and confession and reparation and repentance and so on.

It is not only China that has to choose but most of the rest of the world as well. That is one of the unseen and unrecognised drivers of world conflict today. Sphere: Related Content

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