From the CEO: Personalized and Personal Democracy

by John Rendon on May 2, 2012

As I write while reflecting on the Islands Forum 2012 conference I just attended in Singapore, reserving the right to revise and extend my remarks, there are two grand strategic challenges with which ‘Democracy’ is confronted.

First, the personalization of the bubble or the ‘multi-verse,’ in which people seek only that information that reaffirms pre-existing belief sets. This is further exacerbated by the invisible, stalking algorithms that tailor & package the content that one’s individual searches seek (Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”). Augmenting this grand challenge is the absence of the perceived unbiased mediator, telling/informing the body politic of information and providing content on subjects about which they should be informed, whether they are interested or not — the front page, if you will.

The second grand challenge is the emergence of a new form of democracy, which I call ‘participatory democracy,’ in which citizens, particularly young ones, seek a say and a dialogue with their respective governments regarding the choices and challenges with which their nation is confronted as it looks to the future and grapples with the present. Most governments, as we heard in Singapore, are ill-prepared to deal with this emergence, which I believe will affect every country, over time.

Think of a global tectonic shift. Governments for the most part are rooted in monologue, predicated on a foundation of control, while the ‘new normal’ is rooted in dialogue and predicated on community. After centuries of practicing ‘Statecraft‘ with aligned, adversarial, and neutral parties, governments are now in desperate need of tactics, tools, and procedures for ‘Streetcraft.’

There remains time, although not that much, for many countries to design the change they are about to undergo, in order to minimize the disruption, thereby reducing the likelihood of devolution. Those countries that choose to ignore the opportunity of design, will be, I fear, doomed to a potential of violent disruption and a long slow period of destabilization. Time will tell and so shall we.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Bagley May 4, 2012 at 7:17 am

Well said, John… And I believe that when “participatory democracy” is enhanced by better “economic diplomacy” the result will be more peace and security.


Randy White November 21, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Mr. Rendon,

I am confused about your post. Are you saying that the “Top down” approach needs to embrace the “street level-up” approach more? Do you see this as evolution, or devolution, as you mentioned?

I agree with you about your example of confirmation bias (which people seek only that information that reaffirms pre-existing belief sets). This was easily witnessed in the most recent American elections, where people filtered out those from their network who held different views – deepening their own myopic “multi-verse”.

Your idea of access to information from an “unbiased mediator” will remain a challenge as people can presently live in any world view they wish, depending on the number of information outlets they locate that supports the view from their personal lense. Add in that the populace is well aware of propaganda parading as news, and receiving shared messaging from their social networks and it is no wonder people are tuning out from mainstream media in the search for “unbiased” reporting. Any reporting backed by funding is suspect, and any reporting from the grass-roots level is disregarded as unprofessional and is challenged to provide cited sources. What is the happy medium?

In regards to the drivers and motivations for “participatory democracy”, emerging trends such as the “Sharing Economy” in western, consumer-oriented countries seek to democratize peer-to-peer markets and empower entrepreneurs and communities. But this is merely for access to goods and services. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and other declining economies (including America), this model is growing as people have access to less money.

Hence, I see the emergence of participatory democracy as two-fold: (1) Focusing on combined gov+citizens information creation and consumption , and (2), access to goods and services. It is when people are cut off from (2) that they organize protests via (1).

You might get a chuckle from an example of this here:


Ed Lynch November 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm

I agree that the “new normal’ is rooted in dialogue and predicated on community” and is apparently being accepted in China. Below is an article that supports your thesis.

By Hu Jia, Published: July 6

Last month brought the end of the official period that my political rights were suspended. Under Chinese law, I am now free to say whatever I want.
But a week before this happened, local police who for the past year have largely prevented visitors from reaching me began to stop me from going out. And I was beaten.

June is a tense, sensitive time in China. There is the anniversary of the Tianamnen massacre on June 4. State security steps up “home surveillance,”
or house arrest, each year on the people viewed as threats or likely to protest. Under such home surveillance, police don’t observe legal procedures. They don’t tell me when it will be over or why they are there.
I can’t tell if I can go outside from one day to the next.

Then there is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, which hundreds of thousands of Chinese should mark. But Chinese authorities hold no commemorations. They hope that citizens do not learn of the designation, because the ruling party uses torture to govern.

June 26 is a significant day for me. When the Chinese government announced the slogan of the Beijing Olympics, “One World, One Dream,” on June 26, 2005, I thought the Olympics would be an opportunity to promote freedom and democracy in Chinese society.

But one year later, when two lawyers and I drove to Dongshigu village on June 26, 2006, to investigate and collect evidence regarding the arrest of the blind lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng, our car was blocked by local government staff, and we were violently attacked. Before that, I had been followed for 41 consecutive days.

I was convicted in 2008 of “incitement to subvert state power” and jailed for more than three years. When I was released from prison on June 26, 2011, my home and the roads around it were blocked by uniformed and plainclothes police. More than 200 officers sought to stop my visitors. I realized I had gone from a small prison with high walls and electric fences to a big prison in society.

A couple of things are clear to me: Unless democracy grants all Chinese citizens freedom, I won’t enjoy freedom as an individual. And with the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress due to be held in the autumn, political housecleaning has started.

When Chinese people are deprived of their political rights, they are not allowed to vote or to attend elections, assemblies, parades or protests.
They are not allowed to publish articles, accept interviews or speak in public. But the truth is that Chinese citizens’ political rights have been effectively suspended for decades. We don’t have general elections, so we cannot choose our ruler. We don’t have an independent judiciary; the Communist Party’s political and legal affairs committee is the final judge.

Moreover, all branches of the government, including the tax bureau, the religious affairs bureau and the family-planning commission, prioritize maintaining stability. Weiwen, or “stability maintenance,” is the biggest crime committed by the government and the most common violation of human rights.

The mistreatment of Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei and me underscores how taxpayers’ money is wasted – not just the detentions and abuse but the human resources and exorbitant sums spent to prevent us from speaking out.
The government acts illegitimately because in China power is superior to law. And the interests of the ruling party always stand opposite to the interests of people.

For 63 years, China has been engaged in a civil war, between its people and the party, over dignity and rights. In recent decades, the Tiananmen massacre, the suppression of Falun Gong and religious freedom, and violent “family planning” policies all have contributed to a human rights disaster. In a democratic system, this government would have been impeached hundreds of times. Consider just the one-child policy that has produced countless tragedies. Millions of infants have been killed. The daily abuses of power feed more disasters. China has institutionalized abuse of power, through the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, and individuals within the system, such as Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, also take advantage of their positions.

Amid the global tide of democratization, China’s stagnation is equal to retrogression. The question of who succeeds Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is not important now. Citizens are the most important force for political reform – and what matters is our courage and wisdom, what actions we take, and how many citizens wake up.

The Communist Party has never taken the initiative to reform. Officials have made small changes only when faced with domestic or international pressure, or when they felt they stood to lose more if they did not change. Even the slightest progress in China comes at a huge price paid by citizens – with their dignity, freedom, wealth, health and lives.

Human rights violation is the core issue of Chinese society. The government’s “National Human Rights Action of China” plan, released in 2008, has proven to be empty words. The new plan issued last month doesn’t need to be taken seriously. China’s people should make their own Citizens’
Human Rights Action Plan: outline their hopes and what they will do to achieve them.

I, as an ordinary Chinese citizen, have some plans for the next year: I intend to strive for more space for free speech and freedom of religion and to appeal for better treatment and the release of political prisoners; I will urge officials to publicly disclose their assets; I will ask the National People’s Congress to approve the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been postponed in China for 14 years; I will help coordinate citizens’ human rights actions; and I will advocate abolishing the Central Propaganda Department and the Political and Legal Affairs Committee – those branches of government that support the dictatorship through lies, terror and violence.

This is an era to make changes at the individual and institutional levels.
Democratization of China should be a global priority. Wherever Chinese politicians visit, appeals about human rights should be heard. Meetings with dissidents should be routine for the foreign politicians and diplomats who come here. And we hope that foreign electorates will support candidates who pay attention to China’s human rights issues and condemn those politicians and businesses that consider only their own interests.

No matter how severe the environment, China’s people have reason to be confident and optimistic. We can encourage and comfort the old: Democracy will be realized in this lifetime. In an autocratic society, both the rulers and their subjects live in fear. The rulers’ cruelty is rooted in their fear of resistance or punishment. Autocracy as an institution continuously produces crime, bitterness and tragedy.

Turning China into a democratic and lawful society in the next 10 years is the only peaceful option. Conciliation will never arrive without truth or confession. The sooner the Communist Party wakes up, the smaller the cost will be.


Leave a Comment