HONG KONG – 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.