I read a post by Steve Hsu and saw something worth reposting. A TED speaker Eric X. Li had a presentation in which he defended China’s development path as a viable alternative to the standard one advocated in the west. There are of course significant issues that Li glosses over or doesn’t mention, but that’s true of any other person making an argument. For a subject as broad and complex as China’s developmental path, it’s impossible to put things completely in context and if you tried it would take an absurd amount of time to cover. It’s worth seeing a well made differing opinion for it’s own sake.
1. Adaptability: Political scientists say that one-party systems are incapable of self-correction. Li counters this with the fact that the Party has self-corrected dramatically in the last 64 years, more than any other country in recent memory. The Party’s policies encompassed land collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, and Jiang Zemin opening Party membership to private businesspeople — “something unimaginable during Mao’s rule.” And the Party self-corrects in dramatic fashion. New rules get enacted to correct past mistakes, such as term limits with mandatory retirement rates. We also often hear that China is in dire need of political reform, but Li argues this is rhetoric — even if critics don’t see the reform they want to see, political reforms have never stopped. Chinese society is unrecognizable today as compared to 30 years ago. In fact, Li says, “I would venture to suggest that the Party is world’s leading expert in political reform.”
The biggest issue I see here is that so many forms of speech are regulated. While it’s true that the party is capable of self-correction, many of those corrections didn’t happen until a great deal of human suffering had already occurred. Without a free press, how can the worst corruption get weeded out in time to reduce suffering or abuse of power? Even with a free press, this is a pressing issue in the US, so how much more of a problem must it be in China?
2. Meritocracy Another assumption is that one-party rule leads to a closed political system in which power gets concentrated in the hands of the few, leading to bad governance and corruption. Li argues that actually, the Party is one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world. Only one fifth of Politburo members come from privileged backgrounds, and in the Central Committee of more than 300, the percentage is even smaller. This is thanks to a body little known to Westerners — the Party’s Organization Department system that guides candidates through integrated career tracks for Chinese officials, recruiting college graduates into entry-level positions and promoting them through the ranks, including high officialdom — a process requiring up to three decades. While patronage plays a role, merit is the underlying driver, says Li. “Within this system,” Li says, “and this is not a put-down – merely a statement of fact: George W. Bush and Barack Obama, before running for president, would not have made small-county chief in China’s system.”
I actually think this is the best argument in China’s favor. Political grooming is serious and the leaders that reach high positions are serious people. It’s debatable whether this might limit political innovation, but competency should rarely be a question. The system also hasn’t produced a leader so drunk on power that he starves millions of people to death since Mao. Today’s crop of leaders have to show that they’ve met developmental goals before they move onto higher positions, and while those stats can be massaged everyone knows that their measuring stick is practical development and not a retreat into ideological purism at the cost of development.
3. Legitimacy Westerners assume that multiparty elections with universal suffrage is the only source of legitimacy. When asked how the Party justifies legitimacy, Li asks, “How about competency?” He cites the fact that since 1949 when the Party took over, China was mired in civil war and foreign aggression, and its average life expectancy was 41. Today, it’s the second largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity. Pew Research polls of public attitudes suggest consistently that citizens are highly satisfied with how the country and nation are progressing. A Financial Times survey recently released suggests that 93% of China’s Generation Y are optimistic about their country’s future. Says Li: “If this isn’t legitimacy, I don’t know what is.” Contrast this, he suggests, to the dismal performance of many electoral democracies around the world: “Governments get elected and then fall below approval a few months later and stay there or fall until the next election. Democracy is becoming a perpetual cycle of ‘elect and regret.’”
Legitimacy might be on solid footing right now, but it wasn’t just a few decades ago. The leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria all probably felt that their legitimacy was pretty solid before things changed. The Communist party has high approval because the general track of China is currently upwards, but if the Chinese still believe in a mandate of heaven, all it would take to shake that approval is a negative economic trend, some natural disasters, and a few political missteps. The stability of a democracy or republic comes in part because the people can kick out the current party and its leaders. Term limits address the issue in some ways, but the party will always retain power. Whether this is enough to satisfy the general public when the shit hits the fan is an open question.
Of course, Li concedes the country faces enormous challenges: pollution, population, food safety, and on the political front, corruption, which is widespread and undermines moral legitimacy. But the argument that the one-party system causes corruption doesn’t hold water. According to the Transparency International index of corruption, China has recently ranked between 70 and 80 among 170 countries and moving up, while India, the largest electoral democracy in the world, is at 95 and dropping.
Agreed. Democracy itself, if not partnered with an educated public and strong institutions can be a governing nightmare. China has certainly shown that their development path is viable.