In 221 BC, a unified China was born after 500 years of fighting between warring states. This new dynasty would be called Chin and its emperor, the first in China, had conquered 6 neighbouring feudal states in 10 short years.
Having unified the country by war, he gained absolute power and unleashed a slew of ambitious initiatives, unifying China’s measurement units, currency, culture, and language. Unification was codified in laws that severely punished anyone who didn’t obey. Old literature was burned and philosophers were executed to suppress dissents. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were forced to leave their homes and travel for months by foot in freezing weather to construct the Great Wall. Many young and able men died on the journey. Citizens were tired by years of war, the assiduous uprooting of their local cultures, and the separation between loved ones. But it didn’t matter, for the emperor had the only vote in the country that counted. So people revolted, ending a dynasty 15 years after its inception, plunging a newly unified China into chaos for 5 years. This was life under dictatorship – where people could only listen. When they want to be heard, chaos and revolt would often follow.
About 3 centuries earlier in another part of the world, the city state of Athens showed a different model of government. One of its prominent features was an assembly (Ecclesia) that occurred around 40 times a year, where every ordinary citizen could gather to listen to proposed laws, and vote to pass, reject, or return them for amendment. The assembly is also a place to elect officials. It was in Athens that the word “democracy” came into being. In Greek, it means “rule of the people”.
Democracy is a political system in which the people choose how and who will govern them. All citizens are given the freedom to voice their own view, with each voice having equal weight. Through voting, democracy allows the change of government and policies to occur without violence, and every citizen has an opportunity to be heard. In democracy, people have a voice and the government cannot silence them simply for its pleasure.
To me, democracy is the opportunity to have an impact on the country through my voice. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to know that if I form a point view through learning, and vote to help bring it to reality, then I am no longer an indifferent observer but an activist making a change. I become part owner of this country. It means I participate in a community of people with whom I share much in common to craft a future we deem beautiful, and that others’ lives could be better because of my contribution. I could help a friend’s parents pay less for home care, or help to fund the education for a child from a low income family, or help to attract foreign investment in green technology that creates more jobs for my neighbours. Democracy gives me the opportunity to change my world through my voice.
Democracy also gives me the opportunity to build a legacy. My family immigrated to Canada in 1997 and I have received for free what previous generations of Canadians have built through democracy – a safe and prosperous society, a high quality education system, universal health care, and more importantly, the laws and policies that value respect for minorities, compassion for the less fortunate in society, and appreciation for diverse points of view. These are qualities I admire, aspire to, and feel compelled to protect and pass on to the generations of Canadians after me so they may learn the values that the country has stood for. Democracy is the opportunity to shape the legacy I will be proud to call my own and pass it onto others as it had been passed to me.
There is a sequel to the Chin dynasty story. Even though the dynasty survived for only 15 years, the Chin emperor managed to leave an infrastructure for national unification and a centralized government system with emperor having absolute power. For more than 2000 years since Chin, China would remain largely a unified country with dictatorial rule.* Many succeeding emperors found no incentive to educate the public, and in some dynasties intellectuals were actively persecuted. I often wondered how different China’s history would have been had its people been allowed to demand for more education. Could China have led the industrial revolution? We might never find out for sure.
Chin dynasty left a legacy in building its nation, but it stemmed from the emperor’s choices. The impact of this legacy was felt by many generations after Chin, yet Chin’s own people had no opportunity to choose that legacy. I could only imagine what that must have felt like, to live in someone else’s aspirations.
Canada faces many challenges today, ranging from youth unemployment to global warming. Democracy means these problems are opportunities for ordinary Canadians like me to be nation builders. With democracy we can shape a legacy for generations of Canadians to enjoy, a legacy we can proudly call our own.
* Apr 4, 2012. Correction: Dr. Yu mentioned that China actually spent more of its years as a divided nation than unified, if starting the count from the the dynasties before Chin.