HONG KONG – At a time when the United States and Europe are beset by economic crises, it is natural that the Western model of economic development, including a democratic political system, should be viewed with some skepticism while China’s growth model is greatly enhanced.
However, the Chinese government has not sought to promote itself as a model for other countries. Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao said last spring that “China never sees its development as a model.” Instead, he said, all countries have their own development paths that suit their national conditions and “we respect the choice of their people.”
Besides, China has explained that what it does, including the practice of socialism, is with “Chinese characteristics” and so, by definition, cannot be replicated by other countries.
Nonetheless, heated debates have arisen in China and abroad on the viability of the “China model,” with increased voices raised to defend China’s authoritarian system.
One of the greatest proponents of the China model is Zhang Weiwei of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and author of the forthcoming book “China Shocks.”
He has written: “As China rises, the influence of the Chinese Model on the outside world will likely be greater and greater.”
Zhang acknowledges that China’s experience reflects its own national circumstances and so will be difficult for other countries to emulate but, he says, some concepts, such as the idea that “good versus poor governance is far more important than democratic versus authoritarian government” might have an international impact.
This idea was also stressed by Han Zhu, whom the China Daily identified as a research fellow of the Sinolizing Research Center, when he wrote that one characteristic of the China model is “good governance, in which the political legitimacy of the ruling party and government does not come from a one-time election but from long-term good governance.”
A venture-capitalist in Shanghai, Eric X. Li, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times recently in which he argued that, despite the lack of elections, the Chinese government does enjoy the support of the people.”
“According to the Pew Research Center,” he wrote, “the Chinese Government enjoys popular support that is among the highest in the world. The Chinese people’s satisfaction with the direction of their country was at 87 percent in 2010 and has been consistently above 80 percent in recent years.”
He asked: “How do most governments produced by election compare with these numbers?”
Francis Fukuyama, who two decades ago wrote the book “The End of History and the Last Man” in which he argued that Western liberal democracy was the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution, now acknowledges the quality of China’s authoritarian government, especially its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly and relatively well.
He also acknowledges that Chinese leaders “try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response.”
But while acknowledging the strength of the Chinese system, Fukuyama says he doubts whether its top-down system of accountability can be sustained and, in any event, the Chinese system is sui generis and “is not up for export.”
Within China, Yang Jisheng, an author and former Xinhua reporter, says that the “China model” is only the latest round of criticism of Westernization in China.
He cited approvingly a 20th century philosopher, Ai Siqi, who said in 1940: “All reactionary thought in contemporary China is of the same tradition — it emphasizes China’s ‘national characteristics,’ harps on China’s ‘special nature,’ and wipes aside the general principles of humanity, arguing that China’s social development can only follow China’s own path.”
Without denying the remarkable progress China has made in recent decades and the support of the Chinese people for the country’s current policies, there is a logical problem with those who argue in favor of an authoritarian government.
What if, one day, the Chinese government should lose the support of the majority of China’s people — as was certainly the case during a large part of Mao Zedong’s quarter-century rule? Will it step down because of a Pew survey?
Unless the answer is yes, it seems pointless to say that the government currently enjoys the support of the people.
And, if the answer is yes, who will a new government be chosen?
Will there need to be another revolution? In the absence of democracy, it seems that a self-perpetuating authoritarian regime cannot convincingly argue not only that all is well but that all will remain well indefinitely, with no mechanism for the resolution of problems if they arise, on the ground that they will never arise.
Frank Ching is a journalist and political commentator based in Hong Kong