Why China prefers its own political model

The Chinese model is still evolving, even as Zhang Weiwei explains to the European readers in the Europe’s  World journal (europesworld.org) . His statement: “Having myself travelled to over 100 countries, most of them developing ones, I cannot recall a single case of successful modernisation through liberal democracy …” is one that truly stands out for me.  Because this reminds me of Malaysia, which is a fledging democracy that is trying to be a liberal democracy in recent years.

There is an  overdose of politics in Malaysia nowadays, which I feel is unhealthy as people are being manipulated by self-serving politicians through their hate propaganda campaigns, and thus polarising the people. It is a fact that political parties gain votes by attempting to appeal for the interests of the voters, usually by promising or actually giving out benefits to them. But there is also another way to gain votes, that is  to incite them to hate the opposing party or government, particularly when a country has deep rooted ethnic issues. This second method has the added advantage of being  more  cost effective than the first method. Thus I am not surprised that the politicians have resorted to the second method in the more liberal atmosphere in Malaysia. The use of new internet media which is a great source of unsubstantiated news and rumours  has far reaching implications in this respect.

Spring 2013

by Zhang WeiWei

The world’s largest country and second largest economy has no tradition whatsoever of liberal democracy, says Zhang WeiWei, and many reasons for being wary of adversarial western political systems. He explains why Chinese see their own model as best suited to China’s needs.

China is often portrayed in the Western media as beset with social and political crises, awaiting only a colourful revolution to make it a liberal democracy. But China’s recent 18th Party Congress clearly demonstrated that this isn’t on the cards, and instead suggests that the country has found its own way to success, officially called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Many in the West may dismiss this as nothing more than an attempt to further delay much-needed political reform, without which China’s future would be hopeless. After so many wrong predictions about the future of the Middle Kingdom, here are five reasons why it’s time to take Beijing’s claims seriously.

1. Common sense. China’s population is larger than those of North America, Europe, Russia and Japan combined, and has no tradition whatsoever of liberal democracy and memories are still fresh of the devastating breakup of the Soviet Union. Going further back, China’s more recent history saw chaos and wars, and on average from 1840 to 1978 a major upheaval every seven or eight years. So the Chinese fear of chaos is based on common sense and its collective memory, with very real fears that the country might well become ungovernable if it were to adopt the adversarial Western political system.
China is in many ways unique. It is an amalgam of the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state. It is a product of hundreds of states amalgamated over its long history into one. A very rough analogy would be something along the lines of the ancient Roman Empire continuing to this day as a unified modern state with a centralised government and modern economy while retaining all its diverse traditions and cultures, and with a huge population still all speaking Latin as their common language.
And leaving China aside for a moment, not even the European Union as the birthplace of liberal democracy and with only one third of China’s population yet find it’s unable to afford its own liberal democracy model. If it chooses to retain popular elections as a way of selecting its top leaders, the EU may well end up facing chaos or even disintegration.
2. Empirical evidence. China tried American-style democracy after its 1911 Republic Revolution, and it turned out to be a devastating catastrophe. The country was immediately plunged into chaos and civil war, with hundreds of political parties vying for power and with warlords fighting one another with the support of various foreign powers. The economy was shattered and tens of millions lost their lives in the decades that followed. That lesson remains so sharp that even today ordinary Chinese are most fearful of luan, the Chinese word meaning chaos. Independent opinion surveys on values in China show that public order is generally ranked top, whereas for Americans freedom of speech is the number one value (even though, one may wonder how a politically correct society like the United States can have genuine freedom of speech).
Having myself travelled to over 100 countries, most of them developing ones, I cannot recall a single case of successful modernisation through liberal democracy, and there’s no better example illustrating this than the huge gap between India and China: both countries started at a similar level of development six decades ago, and today China’s GDP is four times greater and life expectancy 10 years longer.
3. Performance. China has arguably performed better than most liberal democracies over the past three decades, especially in those domains that are of greatest concern to most Chinese. China has its share of problems, some of which are very serious and call for determined solutions, but the country’s success overall is beyond question. China has performed better than all other developing countries combined, including all the liberal democracies of the developing world. Some 70% of the world’s poverty eradication has been achieved in China over the past 20 years, according to the United Nations.
And China has also performed better than all the transitional democracies combined, because the Chinese economy has grown 18-fold since 1979. Eastern Europe, for example, albeit from a very different starting point, has seen its collective economy only double in size.
As well as performing better than many developed countries, China now has a huge ‘developed region’ with a population of about 300m, about the same population as the U.S., and in many ways it matches the developed countries in overall prosperity and life expectancy. China’s first-tier cities like Shanghai are today able to compete with New York or London, while its ‘developed region’ is engaged in a dynamic and mutually beneficial interaction with the rest of China – China’s ‘emerging region’. This mutually reinforcing interaction explains to a large extent why China is able to rise so fast.
4. Competition. The liberal democracy model is in deep trouble, witnessing the financial and economic crises of deeply indebted America and of distressed Europe. Despite its well-known strengths, liberal democracy as an institution has been seriously eroded by such persistent problems as demagoguery, short-termism, simple-minded populism, the excessive influence of money and the role played by special interests.
Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has proved itself by no means easy to achieve among the liberal democracies. Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz would not otherwise have criticised, perhaps too harshly, the American polity as “of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%”. Even Francis Fukuyama, the advocate of the end of history thesis lamented in a Financial Times op-ed two years ago that American democracy now has little to teach China.
5. The China model. The economic successes of the China model have attracted global attention, but the model’s political and institutional ramifications have received comparatively little notice, perhaps for ideological reasons. Without much fanfare, Beijing has introduced significant reforms into its political governance and has established a system of what can be called ‘‘selection plus election’’: competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and popular support through a vigorous process of screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various small-scale elections.
In line with the Confucian tradition of meritocratic governance, Beijing practices – not always successfully – meritocracy across the whole political stratum. Performance criteria for poverty eradication, job creation, local economic and social development and, increasingly, a cleaner environment are key factors in the promotion of local officials. China’s dramatic rise over the past three decades has been inseparable from this meritocratic political model. Leaving aside sensational official corruption scandals and other social ills, China’s governance, like the Chinese economy, remains resilient and robust.
A good example of this was the line-up at the 18th Party Congress of the next generation of Chinese leaders. Six out of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, have served at least twice as the party secretary of a Chinese province with a respectable performance. It takes extraordinary talent and skill to govern a typical Chinese province, which on average is the size of four to five European countries combined. Indeed, the Chinese system of meritocracy makes it inconceivable that anyone as incompetent as America’s George W. Bush or Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda could ever get to the top.
It’s not far-fetched to claim that the China model is arguably more about leadership, and that it’s capable of planning for the next generation, while the liberal democracy model is increasingly about showmanship and seems content with planning for the next election, or even the next 100 days.
China’s meritocratic governance challenges the stereotypical dichotomy of democracy versus autocracy. From China’s point of view, the nature of the state, including its legitimacy, has to be defined by its substance, i.e. good governance, competent leadership and success in satisfying the citizenry. So despite its many deficiencies, the Chinese polity has delivered the world’s fastest growing economy and has vastly improved living standards for most Chinese. According to the Washington-based Pew research centre, 82% of Chinese surveyed in 2012 felt optimistic about their future, well ahead of all the Western liberal democracies.
Winston Churchill’s famous dictum “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried” may be true in the Western cultural context. And many Chinese even paraphrase Churchill’s remark into what China’s great strategist Sun Tze called xiaxiace, or the least bad option, which allows for the exit of bad leaders. But in China’s Confucian tradition of meritocracy, a state should always strive for what’s called shangshangce, or the best of the best options by choosing leaders of the highest calibre.
This isn’t easy, but efforts to this end should be ceaseless. China’s political and institutional innovations so far have produced a system which has in many ways combined the best option of selecting well-tested meritocratic leaders and the least bad option of ensuring the exit of bad leaders through a collective leadership and strict term and age limits. China’s meritocratic model of ‘selection plus election’ now seems increasingly in a position to compete with the Western model of popular democracy.
China has learnt much from the West, and will continue to do so to its own benefit. It may now be time for the West, to use Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase, to “emancipate the mind” and learn a bit more about, or even from, Chinese ideas and practices. The China model, with the further improvements that can be expected, is likely to cement China’s rise in about a decade to the status of the world’s largest economy, with all the associated economic and political ramifications that means for China and for the rest of the world.
Zhang Weiwei is professor of international relations at Fudan University, Shanghai, and the author of China’s recent best-seller “the China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State”. He worked as English interpreter for Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders in the mid-1980s. zhangweiweiyes@yahoo.c


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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