Citizens of a nation with low level of education can still embrace democracy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am


A number of pro-Beijing commentators have written in the Hong Kong media, arguing that China is still largely uneducated and therefore not ready for democracy. I question the validity of this point of view.

Is there in fact a correlation between education and democracy?

When English speakers colonised North America, most of the people were illiterate.

Yet from the very beginning, from the 1600s onwards, throughout the colonies local villagers elected their aldermen and selected their leaders democratically.

While development of true universal suffrage took until the 1960s to really be complete, the United States has more than 400 years of democratic experience, and during much of this time people were not well educated.

Between 1972 and 1975, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan.

While in Kapisa province as a science teacher trainer, I lived in a small village where the shopkeepers, several dozen located along the side of the tree-lined main dirt road, were all illiterate.

The Watergate scandal came to a conclusion at that time.

I was regularly reading Time magazine and The New York Times' News of the Week in Review, my only news contact with America, other than BBC radio.

The locals regularly listened to the BBC Farsi World Service on their short wave radios.

There was no electricity, telephone, paved roads or running water then, and we all lived in mud houses.

One day after reading that constitutional law experts predicted a government crisis because president Richard Nixon would refuse to testify to Congress, invoking executive privilege, I ventured into the shops to chat.

The shopkeepers said to me, 'We heard that people in your government want to question your Nixon. But Nixon, is your king, correct? And you cannot question a king.

'First you have to remove him, then you can question him.' Their political assessment in fact developed further from there, but I was struck by how they understood clearly many issues governing a society, and that lack of the written word meant nothing to their intelligence or wisdom.

Isn't the same true throughout China?

Toby Marion, Pok Fu Lam