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Eric X. Li

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Democracy Is Not the Answer

Posted: 05/16/2012 7:34 am

This is a written Q&A with Rachel Beitarie of the Israeli daily newspaper the Calcalist, published on May 3, 2012.

Beitarie: I would like to start not with a comparison of the Chinese and other systems of government, but by a look at the Chinese model itself. You said at the talk with Anand Giridharadas at the Aspen Institute (I'm rephrasing a bit) that we know what the Chinese model isn't -- it isn't liberal democracy, and it isn't capitalism, but that what it is was not yet well defined. Could you try and define it anyway? What is the end of the Chinese model and what are the means to get there?

Li: What is the "end" of political governance? Thomas Jefferson probably defined it best for the modern West: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and governments that prove to be destructive to such ends must be overthrown. This Jeffersonian articulation of the end of governance was the culmination of cultural and religious developments unique to the West. Such developments placed the individual at the center of the universe as the basic and sovereign unit of human society. However, they did not occur in non-Western societies and their resulting political philosophy is, therefore, not universal.

In the Chinese tradition, an enduring definition of the end of political governance was articulated by Confucius two and a half millenniums ago. He called it Xiao Kang (as differentiated from Da Tong -- an unattainable ideal). In contemporary terms it can be described as a society of general peace and prosperity with a just legal order and built upon a righteous moral foundation. Interestingly enough, when Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms in 1979 he declared that the goal of the Chinese nation in the next phase of its development was to build or, perhaps more accurately, rebuild a Xiao Kang society.

It was probably no accident that Mr. Deng, in declaring China's national goal, did not rely on the modern Communist ideologies that were instrumental in the revolution that established the People's Republic, but rather reached deep into China's ancient tradition, to Confucius. Measured by the "end" as articulated by Confucius and by Deng, the current one-party state model has so far served China well, albeit with real shortcomings.

The current China model has the following components:

1. Political authority, combined with moral authority, is vested in a single political organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which represents the entirety of the Chinese nation. This is in contrast to systems under which multiple parties represent different sectors of a nation state.
2. Meritocracy underlies the effectiveness and survival of the ruling organization. A highly sophisticated, elaborate, and rigorous system of selection and promotion within the CCP is designed to recruit those with capabilities and integrity into the Party and move them up the ranks if they choose government service as their careers.
3. The preeminence of political authority is central to the China model. This ensures no special groups, be it capital or talents, can develop capabilities that enable them to place their interests above the national interests. The market and the so-called civil society are both subservient to political authority.
4. Pragmatism is central and ideologies are peripheral. As economic development is seen as of paramount importance to China at the current stage, the political system is designed and adjusted to maximize its success. As the nation's needs and conditions change, political adjustments can follow.

The current practice of the Chinese model is far from obtaining the ideal state in each of these components. Widespread corruption and the wealth gap are but two examples.


Beitarie: In your recent New York Times op-ed you write: The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith. China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country's national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years. I think many, even in western countries, would agree with your view of the democratic system being dysfunctional in many ways. However, going back to the Chinese system, I'd say leaders definitely allow participation only if it serves what they see as the country's national interests. But where do the rulers draw their authority from to decide what those national interests are? And in the absence of judicial oversight, popular vote or free press, what is the mechanism the Chinese model suggests to alert the rulers of being wrong about what they regard as national interests?

Li: One characteristic of the China model is what Francis Fukuyama once called "responsive authoritarianism". Many would agree that the Chinese government seems to have developed the ability to "feel the pulse" of the nation and adjust its politics in response to it while keeping it largely in alignment with the country's long-term interests.

Indeed, historical facts demonstrate that self-correction, a capability many ascribe to democratic systems, has been the most notable characteristic of the CCP. Since the Party established the People's Republic in 1949, under the leadership of a single political party, changes in China's government policies and political environment have covered the widest possible spectrum. From the so-called "New Democratic" coalition at the beginning to the dramatic land reforms of the early 1950's, from the Great Leap Forward to the quasi privatization of farm land in the early 1960's, from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping's market reform and Jiang Zemin's re-definition of the Party through his "Theory of Three Represents", China's domestic politics is almost unrecognizable from one period to another.

In foreign policy, China moved from a close alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1950's to a virtual alliance with the United States in the 1970's and 80's to contain the former. Today, its pursuit of an independent course in an increasingly multi-polar world is distinctive among the nations of the world. No one could deny that its leaders, from Mao to Deng, from Jiang to Hu and to Xi later this year, differ as widely in political outlooks and policy priorities as those that move in and out of power under any other political systems. Through the six decades, there have been many blunders and corresponding course corrections. The Cultural Revolution - a disaster - was outright condemned. And the country went from its shattered state to the China we know today. The facts demonstrate this extraordinary capability of a one-party system for change and self-correction.

On the other hand, the records of electoral regimes around the world indicate that party rotation through elections may not provide the needed flexibility or self-correction. In the United States, elections may have produced new presidents and Congressional majorities, but do not seem to have done much to tackle America's long-term challenges. In Europe, governments regularly get voted in and out, but no elections have produced even the minimal corrections required to address their monumental distress. In the one-prime-minster-per-year Japan, elections and party rotations have failed to lift the country out of its 20-year stagnation. Perhaps this could explain why governments produced by elections routinely fall substantially below 50% approval rating in their countries and China's one-party government retains above 80% approval for decades.

The question is how could a political organization that seems to have a monopoly on power be so agile and flexible? One answer is the upward mobility that seems to have been successfully engineered into the CCP's DNA. The CCP's Politburo, the highest ruling body of the Party and the state, consists of 25 members. At the current count, only five of them come from any background of wealth or power, the so-called princelings. The other twenty, including the President and the Prime Minister, come from totally ordinary backgrounds with no special political or economic advantages. They worked and competed their way to the top. In the larger Central Committee, those with privileged backgrounds are even scarcer. Compare that to the U.S. Senate? A visit to any top university campus in China would make it obvious to anyone that the CCP continues to attract the best and the brightest of the country's youth into its ranks. In fact, one can suggest without much risk that the CCP may be one of the most meritocratic and upwardly mobile major political organizations in the world today - far more meritocratic than the ruling elites of most Western countries and the vast majority of developing countries. This upward mobility in its political system helps ensure the rulers are not disconnected from society; in fact, they are of the same generation as the ordinary populace.


Beitarie: At the Aspen Institute discussion you talked a bit about the consent of the ruled, and you rightly pointed out very high rates of support to the government in China. Of course, there is data of a different kind as well, like the growing number of mass incidents in rural areas, and lately also in urban ones, that the ruling party itself cites as a cause for worry. I would like to ask a more basic question though: in that talk you said: "If they lose the consent of the ruled, they are in trouble." I think history shows us that every ruler without exception eventually loses the consent of the ruled. If so, I see a flaw in the Chinese model in that it won't allow for a regime change in any other means but violent ones. Even if we don't see democracy as an end to itself, wouldn't periodical popular vote be a sensible mechanism for making sure the ruled are indeed consenting? Or can China develop a different mechanism that will allow the Chinese people a say in who would rule them?

Li: This question compares an apple to an orange. It is what Francis Fukuyam calls the "bad emperor" problem. How do you get rid of an emperor if and when he turns bad?

But this is a faux proposition. There is an old Chinese saying, "the people are like water; the ruler is a ship on that water. Water can carry the ship; water can overturn the ship." Today, nation-states have replaced empires and kingdoms. In this analogy, water is still the people. The ship, however, is no longer just an emperor and his dynasty but the larger and far more sophisticated political system that constitutes the modern nation-state. China's one-party rule is enshrined in its constitution, just as America's electoral democracy is in its. The Chinese people's overwhelming and sustained support for the Party's leadership, as consistently reflected in independent public opinion surveys, is within the context of the nation's one-party political constitution, and therefore can only be interpreted as support for this fundamental system of government. Americans' support for either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party ebbs and flows but it is not necessarily linked to popular support for its fundamental system of electoral democracy. At the moment, both nations' peoples support their respective political constitutions.

Some say that in the hypothetical situation in which the Party lost popular support it should step down from power, and only when this is ensured the support of the people the Party currently carries could be rendered legitimate. Such argument, if pushed to its logical conclusion, would mean that if, in a hypothetical situation, the current electoral regime in America lost the people's support the U.S. must do away with elections, cancel the Bill of Rights, and install an authoritarian or some other system of governance. This, of course, is absurd. Rulers may be succeeded or rotated peacefully within established systems of governance. Political systems themselves cannot be changed on a dime. With few exceptions, political systems change quickly only through revolutions. In America's short history, it took two violent wars on its soil to establish and consolidate its current governing system. Even within an electoral democracy, it is nearly impossible to change from a presidential system to a parliamentary one or vice versa.

The fact is China's rulers have changed, from Mao to Deng to Jiang to Hu to Xi. The breath and depth of change in their politics have proven greater than those of most rulers produced by democratic elections, and the Party's continued survival and success indicate the general support it enjoys. The question is can the CCP's power mechanism continue to produce rulers that are responsive and accepted by the populace? It's a big "if."

The idea of consent is hyped. The political ideology of the modern West equates the so-called consent of the governed to legitimacy. This is form over substance and procedure over essence. And such equation is in need of some verification. Most public opinion polls indicate that a large majority of governments in the world that came to power through elections carry substantially lower than 50% approval rating. Most of them, including the recent governments of the United States and much of Europe, consistently fall below that mark soon after their elections and stay there throughout their terms. Is this the "consent" democracies produce? If so, such "consent" seems to be all procedure with little substance. In fact, social movements in America and Europe point to a decisive loss of legitimacy of their governments among their populations. It seems that even in the West, the birthplace of modern democracy, the so-called consent produced by elections is a legal form devoid of moral authority. Legally consensual but morally bankrupt do not legitimacy make.


Beitarie: I have been in China since 2002, and one development I've noticed over the years might be described as the gradual building up of a civil society. I don't necessarily mean to include political dissidents in this phenomenon but rather groups like animal rights activists, environmentalists, charities, etc. Many small organizations, acting sometimes at a very local level to address issues they care about. You stated, however, that the Chinese model as you view it does not recognize a civil society that exists outside of the government, would you care to elaborate on that point? Are those developments in China negative in your view? Why?

Li: Refer to answer one regarding China's model of governance. The development of civil society is indeed healthy. In fact it is one avenue through which the government has been able to "feel the pulse" of the nation and be more responsive. A civil society of course exists outside the government, but in the Chinese model, it is not, and cannot be, above the nation's overall political authority.


Beitarie: Following my previous question, one feature you have described of the Chinese model was that of allowing fairly wide personal freedoms, but not participation in governing. To what extent can the two really be distinguished? When people have demands from their government regarding their basic living conditions, like the quality of the air they breathe or the water they drink (as happened lately in Beijing and elsewhere), does this fall under personal freedoms or political organization? In many cases in China (events in Wukan village of Guangdong being a recent and much cited example) people find that coming together and making their demands heard as a group is an effective way to get what they want. Does the Chinese model as you see it object to that? If it does, what is this model's alternative to public participation?

Li: Far from objecting to people's demands related to their living conditions the Chinese government has proved deftly competent in responding to and co-opting such demands, considering the scale of the challenge brought about by Chinese society's rapid change. This actually further enhances the moral authority of the central government. One interesting thing to observe was the highest banner held by the Wukan protestors read: Long Live the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed the leader of the protest movement whom later was elected village chief is a long serving member of the Party.


Beitarie: You rightly point out that liberal democracies have deep roots in Judeo-Christian thinking, a fact probably no one can deny. However, there are two points that bother me here: if I understand you correctly, you suggest China bases its model on its own ancient traditions, specifically Confucianism, yet the organization of the current Chinese regime is borrowed from the soviet union, and its stated ideology (in the Chinese constitution) is Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong's thought. How does that add up?

A second point that you might help me understand is this: Though of course we should respect different cultures and they may influence different forms of governments, if you look into the forming texts of different cultures, you can find that many of the issues are, and always have been, quite similar. Confucius wrote against corruption and abuse of power by the rulers, issues that are evident in both the old testaments and the new one, as well as in the words of thinkers from other cultures. Many of the basic evaluations of what's right or wrong are also remarkably similar in different cultures. Coincidentally, the issue of unchecked power, abuse of power, and official corruption is repeatedly being mentioned as an issue most ordinary Chinese are extremely bothered by. Could it be that some issues are universal and that there are some universal values, and that therefore different cultures can learn from each other or adopt systems that have been working elsewhere?

Li: The fallacy of the so-called universal values is that whenever they are pronounced they cover only the most base or the most abstract. We all want to eat when we are hungry and we want to mate to produce offspring -- very universal. But all animals are like that. What makes man different from animals is the former has culture, which is the foundation of values. And cultures are fundamentally incommensurate to each other, as they have been developed under vastly different conditions, including hard conditions such as geography and climate. On the abstract end, one can claim we all want certain things, such as dignity - who can argue against that? Sounds universal? Yes. But what dignity means not only can be different but also totally opposite among cultures. Someone from the Middle East does not need to be educated on the difference between the meaning of dignity between Jews and Muslims - many are willing to die to defend that difference. For Confucius, dignity of man is derived from the respect he accords to his position in a hierarchy of human relations. This, of course, is fundamentally opposite to what dignity means in the modern West. And yes, unchecked power is indeed wrong in Confucian values as it is in most other cultures. But the very definition of "unchecked power" and how to "check" it are so abstract that the similarity ends there. For example, in Confucian values, power is checked by the inherent moral order of society not by legal means relied upon by the Western tradition.

This is not to say that aspects of alien cultures cannot be imported and absorbed. Buddhism came into China from the outside and became a major feature of the Chinese civilization. The success or failure of such importation depends on how consistent it is with the fundamentals of the host cultures, whether in its original or adapted forms. Marxism found deep resonance in China's Confucian egalitarianism and its modern features were much needed in China's desperate attempt to modernize. As such, Marxism's adapted forms have taken roots in modern China.


Beitarie: At the Aspen Institute you've mentioned Ai Weiwei and said he should have been imprisoned. I've interviewed Mr. Ai a couple of weeks ago. And when I was preparing these questions it struck me that you and he have quite a few shared biographical details: both from families who were persecuted in the revolutionary era, both were given the opportunity to go abroad at a young age, and you both chose to come back to China despite no doubt having other options. You have both also became successful and influential in your respective fields. What Ai told me he aims for, is actually not very different from what you advocate yourself. I quote from my interview with him: "I don't ask for much. Just the freedom to create, and the freedom for everyone to say what they want". Why is that a problem? If the Chinese model is valid and successful and right for China, why is it necessary to imprison its critics rather than debate with them in the same way you are debating ideas? You asserted that what you've learned from your time in the U.S. was pluralism and the space for debate, yet China seems to be limiting more and more the space for pluralistic debate within its own society. Do you think that's wise by the rulers?

Li: The degree of pluralism and the space for debate should be calibrated by the conditions of a society at particular times. History will tell if China's current degree and space are conducive to its long-term success.

"I don't ask for much. Just the freedom to create, and the freedom for everyone to say what they want". That, indeed, is simple enough of a statement. However, it is asking for much - too much. One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom - "the freedom for everyone to say what they want." But of course nothing can be further from the truth grounded in thousands of years of human experience. Speech is act; and speech has been harmful to human society since time immemorial. In the West, one does not need to go further than 1933 to find an example of the power of speech by just one man, due to the unique circumstances of that particular time and place, causing death and destruction to millions. The prevailing cultural conditions are unique to different societies at different times. It is up to that society to determine the boundaries of speech and alter them as conditions change. Germany, for instance, due to its unique recent history, seems to believe the publication of Mein Kampf must not be allowed.

Contemporary China is experiencing social transformations of which the speed and scale are unprecedented in human history. Under such conditions the fragility of social stability can be easily disrupted by amplified speech. A responsible person, one would think, would consider the consequences of advocating everyone being free to say whatever he wants. An intelligent observer of human society and student of history ought to be more thoughtful than simply asking, "why is that a problem?"


Beitarie: As you might know, in my country, Israel, there is also a lively debate regarding the limits of democracy, with some groups saying the country shouldn't be a democracy at all but should find its own model based on Jewish tradition. You can find the same line of thought in some Muslim countries that try to adopt modern version of Sharia law. Is this what you have in mind when you advocate for different cultures to find their own models? You said the Chinese model was un-exportable. Why?

Li: Cultures are fundamentally incommensurate to each other and that is why the Chinese model is not exportable, neither is the modern Western model. It is no accident that, with a few exceptions due to notably unique circumstances, electoral democracies have not been successful in bringing peace and prosperity to countries outside of the Judeo-Christian West. With all the elections that have been imposed on them by Western conquerors or their own elites, the vast number of countries in Africa and Asia are still mired in poverty and civil strife, causing untold sufferings to hundreds of millions. Perhaps the only thing that is exportable from the Chinese experience is that each culture must find its own path.


Beitarie: Can you elaborate a bit regarding your views on the events of spring 1989 in Beijing. In your New York Times op-ed you described that event as a "vast rebellion". Was it really a rebellion rather than a civil protest? What would have been the consequences had the government acted differently at the time?

Li: Chinese society at that time could not have sustained the enormous and violent disruptions that would have come about if the disturbances were not ended decisively. It was a tragic event, as any that causes death of innocent and even well intentioned people. However, the alternatives would have been far worse - the possibility of a civil war comes to mind. On the contrary, the stability post 1989 has led to hundreds of millions people living better and freer lives than ever.


Follow-ons:

Beitarie: You stress the ability of the system to adapt and self-correct as an advantage of the Chinese model. However, many commentators claim that this ability has been seriously reduced since the days of Deng Xiaoping, who really put the country on a new course. For example, we see that the wealth gap is a serious cause of discontent and disharmony; yet this gap continues to widen. What more, if you look at mass incidents; their number has grown significantly in recent years, a problem recognized by China's top leaders. Wouldn't you agree that the Party has shown itself to be much more competent and zealous in cracking down on protests than on official corruption and abuse of power?

Li: No one, not least the CCP itself, disputes that corruption and the wealth gap are significant problems in China. But one needs to be thoughtful in analyzing the cause of such problems. Are they inherent to China's political system or by products of the rapid change the country is going through? When America was going through its rapid and expansive industrialization a century and a half ago, the violence, wealth gap and corruption were worse than China today. Historical data is abundant. For anecdotal evidence one needs to go no further than Hollywood movies such as Gangs of New York and Let There Be Blood. A few families once controlled the lion's share of the economy of the entire state of California.

Fast forward to the present, according to Transparency International (TI), the top 20 cleanest (least corrupt) places worldwide include only four non-Western polities: Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Qatar -- three of the four are authoritarian regimes; the same three are the only ones that belong to the developing world. By TI's account, China (75) ranks higher than Greece (80), India (95), Philippines (129), Indonesia (100), Argentina (100) and many more, and barely below Italy (69) -- all electoral democracies. Apparently, China's one-party system is less corrupt than electoral democracy in many countries.

If one steps back from ideological bias and examines actual data, both vertically and horizontally, perhaps one can see that the probability for China's political system to over time resolve these by products of its rapid development is at least as good as any other country, regardless of political system, that is undergoing similar change.


Beitarie: You wrote that experiments in democracy outside of Western countries have mostly failed. Some of the most successful examples, though, can be found in China's proximity, and in societies that also carry the Confucian ethos: Japan, South Korea and of course Taiwan, whose population is Chinese. Do you agree that those countries have relatively successful governance systems, and if so, what do you make of that?

Li: Most of the non-Western polities that achieved first-world status in the last half century did so under authoritarian regimes (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) or some form of one-party rule (Japan). In fact, the authoritarian regimes of these places were much more severe than that of today's China. True, some of them have implemented electoral democracies after they became wealthy. But barely a generation has passed since they did so - is it not much too soon for any serious student of history and politics to render judgment on their outcomes?

One more thing needs to be said about those who seem so confident in their political ideology of liberal democracy. Ever since the onset of the 20th century, few things have caused more human suffering than historic determinism. Karl Marx mapped out what he claimed to be an inevitable path for human society ending at Communism. Those who implemented it with ideological fervor brought catastrophe to their peoples, the Chinese being among them. But history had its revenge and the Soviet empire went up in flames. China had, in practice, long since abandoned such grand end-of-history schemes. Now the world's democrats seem to have taken on that same mantle, claiming the inevitability of liberal democracy as man's paradise on earth. Their moral certitude rivals that of their Soviet predecessors. History may be repeating itself.

 
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