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Is China a world-beating model of governance?

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Even though Barack Obama was re-elected handsomely as president of the United States, his ability to govern has been severely limited by the continuing vicious infighting with Congress over the budget.

The sound of squabbling from the schoolyard brawl of Washington’s political academy must be music to the ears of those who say that American democracy always was a fraud and now it is broken.

The contrast between the fractious partisan fighting in Washington and the smooth way that the changing of the guard is now going on in China, with choreographed precision that could not be bettered by Her Britannic Majesty’s brigade of guards, has emboldened some people to assert that we have seen the global future and is the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

The problem will come if enough people start believing this. Well-connected Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X Li certainly does.

Let him have his moment of fun. In his most recent article on the virtues of the Chinese system, Li claims that it is the supreme meritocracy that rewards tested and proven talent: “A person with Barack Obama’s pre-presidential professional experience would not even be the manager of a small county in China’s system.” (What would he say about Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?)

To rub the message home, he contrasts Obama with China’s new leader Xi Jinping: “By the time he made it to the top, Xi had already managed total populations of over 150 million and combined GDPs of more than $1.5 trillion.”

The chutzpah of Li’s claim is that he makes it in Foreign Affairs, the granddaddy of American journals of current affairs and practical political philosophy. Now he asserts that notwithstanding daunting challenges, “In the next decade, China will continue to rise, not fade.

“The country’s leaders will consolidate the one-party model and, in the process, challenge the West’s conventional wisdom about political development and the inevitable march toward electoral democracy. In the capital of the Middle Kingdom, the world might witness the birth of a post-democratic future.”

Li skates daringly over the historical record, citing the land collectivization of the early 1950s, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution as proof of the Communist Party’s “extraordinary adaptability.

The underlying goal has always been economic health,” claims Li, “and when a policy did not work — for example, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution — China was able to find something that did: for example, Deng’s reforms, which catapulted the Chinese economy into the position of second largest in the world.”

He praises the party’s organization department for its role in the selection, evaluation and promotion of candidates through the three state-controlled systems, the civil service, state-owned enterprises and government social organizations, such as universities. Reference to universities shows the all-embracing role of the state in China’s Communist regime.

He claims that the meritocracy encourages entrepreneurial spirit as officials take risks to compete and differentiate themselves from their colleagues.

Of course, he plays fast and sometimes very loose with facts that are inconvenient to his case. These include a supposed meritocracy that is neither as open nor as merit-based as he assumes; the important role of the princelings, such as Xi himself, who are the descendants of the Communist founding fathers; the ways of measuring real popular support for the party given its grip on the levers of power; and the implications of the rise and fall of Bo Xilai for the rule of law and indeed for the party.

Corruption, Li admits, could “seriously harm the CCP’s reputation. But it will not derail party rule anytime soon.”

He claims that China today is less corrupt than the U.S. when it was going through its industrialization 150 years ago and less violent. It is also less corrupt, Li says, citing Transparency International tables, than other electoral democracies, such as Greece, India, Indonesia, Argentina and the Philippines.

Given the mess in the U.S. — which is far more serious than the schoolyard brawl and extends to the suffocating of the Great American Dream and subversion of democracy by the superrich — it may be tempting to assert the superiority of the Chinese model, “the Beijing consensus,” as some people have already termed it. Former leading banker turned Yale University academic Stephen Roach even terms Xi and incoming premier Li Keqiang as “China’s Dream Team.”

But for China itself there are still deep flaws in the model, many to do with the age old question posed by Juvenal, who asked who guards the guards. Eric Li ventures a number of suggestions for improvements that resemble steps toward democracy.

Why not go the whole way? Are the Chinese people not as ready and intelligent mature and aware as Americans or Indians or any Europeans to decide their own leaders?

The underlying problem with the “Beijing consensus” is that it is very much Chinese and involves very little consensus, whether we’re talking about economic or political systems.

Michael Pettis of Peking University eloquently explains that the Chinese economic model owes much to that devised for the infant U.S. by the first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. But that was for an economy taking its first steps in the world. It does not work so well when the economy has become the world power that China now is.

Is China’s model better for the world?

Politically, China’s Communist Party rule is unique, the culmination of victory in a long and violent struggle. No doubt many dictators would like to claim the model as their cover.

The problem for the world is that there is a growing nationalist edge to the Chinese political view, sometimes through a fog. This is especially dangerous when the world needs leaders who are capable of looking beyond their own boundaries at the repercussions and damage that their policies may bring.

Kevin Rafferty is the editor in chief of Plainwords Media.

  • phu

    It’s as ridiculous to suggest that China’s government is a victory of Communism as it is to believe that America’s is a marvel of democracy. They’re both flawed in painful ways that stops them from exercising their responsibility of representing the will of the people; that they’re flawed in different ways does not (intrinsically) make either better or worse. That distinction almost always becomes far to subjective for useful comparison.

    The idea that we live in a time “when the world needs leaders who are capable of looking beyond their own boundaries at the repercussions and damage that their policies may bring” is the elephant in the room that absolutely everyone everywhere seems to be either actively ignoring or vigorously denying. Without recognizing this and moving, as a species, in a more sustainable and sane direction, it won’t matter who has the best government. All of them will derail one another.

    That this seems to be one of the only articles I’ve read recently making even passing mention of this is disappointing but not surprising. Hopefully China’s leaders are thinking more carefully about this than those in the US, but somehow I doubt this very much.

  • Eddie spaghetti

    What meritocracy? Chinese leaders are selected based on their parents affilliations to past revolutionary ‘heroes’, hence the term princlings, it is true that giving citizens no recourse to engage in debate of public policy is probably more efficient, and imprisoning the public for questioning thier leaders probably speeds up policy making too, but if you like that system we could look to feudal Europe as an example of good governance.

    • Richard Z Wei

      While advancement in Chinese political echelon may not be based entirely on meritocracy, it is probably more meritocracy-based than most other major countries. Take at look at the members of the poliburo – the percentage of princeling is far less than in the Japanese diet for example.

      But most importantly, even when someone has a strong family background (such as Xi), he still needs to prove himself by administering large organizations for many years. That’s very different from Western democracies where the only real tests a top leader needs is amassing votes – After all, Obama was only a junior senator before getting elected.

      • Eddie spaghetti

        I would disagree, four out of seven members of the politburo are princelings, that is a pretty high number. how many members of the Japanese diet are cronyies of Hirohito? As for elected officials like Obama the people choose them to represent them so i guess they feel they are qualified. The Chinese NPC is the richest parliament in the world, it would suggest to me that money and connections are more qualification than merit.

  • lg

    It appears to me that China is moving a little to the right as they have seen benefit in a more open nation and a free market. The old guard of hard liners are gone and China seems to have moved faster towards the middle of the road of politics. Russia by contrast became stagnant with corruption in their government that was present during the cold war era. america has numerous Chinese nationals living and working in the US and are considered friends to those Americans who know them. I am sure that they correspond with friends and family back home to say that the propaganda presented about the US is false.
    As to Obama and Congress being at odds with each other , it is part of the process of “checks and balances” where one branch of the government is NOT allowed to dominate others. Communist may consider this a weakness, we Americans consider it a stength to protect us from the chance a Dictator or despot decides to try to take control of the government.
    Lazarus