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Catherine Sampson and her Amazing Magic Democratic Underpants!
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By David Fergusion

In "Charter 08 – A bold call for change", Catherine Sampson returns to the Guardian's well-worn theme of imminent regime collapse in China. She still does not provide much evidence outside wishful thinking. China has just announced an economic package to support its economy similar in size to the United Kingdom's. The key difference is that China will be using real money for its economic support, while the UK will be using non-existent money that Gordon Brown has invented to shore up an economy whose debts already exceed its GDP.

But Sampson's real objective is to tell us about the 300 Chinese academics, lawyers and officials who have signed a document called "Charter 08", demanding wholesale changes in the governing of China. I wish I could find out more about this document, but the authorities will not let me access it. I think this is a mistake for two reasons.

The first reason is that its suppression is a gift horse to people like Ms Sampson. She is reported to have lived in China for 15 years, but it seems that during that time she has never found a single positive word to say about the place. She does occasionally find herself scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of criticism, although I remain eternally grateful to her for revealing one of the great human rights scandals of all time while looking for something negative to say about the Olympics. I refer, of course to the tragic case of the Englishman who was forced to eat his toblerone before he was allowed into a venue.

The second reason is a more important one: In the current international economic climate, I do not think there has ever been a time when it was more important to examine the claims made on behalf of democracy. One of Winston Churchill's most famous dictums goes: "…democracy is the worst form of Government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." I genuinely wonder if he would still hold to that view if he were alive today. Somebody needs to subject the allegations and demands of Charter 08 to some proper scrutiny, and see what comes out the other end. It would be easier to do that if you could read them.

I would not deny for one instant that the signatories to this charter know more about China than I ever will. But I am immodest enough to suggest that I might know a lot more about democracy than they do – particularly about its shortcomings. So does Catherine Sampson, for that matter. Perhaps she might care to open their eyes a little. Democracy is not a pair of amazing magic underpants – get up one morning and put them on; Hey presto! All your problems are gone!

The first of the Charter's demands cited by Sampson is for "Free Elections". Free elections are like "world peace" – who could possibly be opposed to either? But like world peace, the devil is in the detail. One simple and obvious question that needs to be answered is this: "Who would organize these elections, and how?" Another one is "Who would assure that the elections really are free, and how?"

They have free elections in India. India is a sensible country to compare with China. The two countries are the biggest in the world – the only two that are remotely comparable in size. They both established their current states fairly recently – just after the Second World War. Both were emerging from a long period of occupation, dominance, and exploitation by external powers. Both were third-world countries facing similar problems of poverty and want.

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