China's Bad Emperor Problem

02/28/2014 03:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2014

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of political science at Stanford University and author of "The End of History and the Last Man" and "The Origins of Political Order." His comments here are adapted from his remarks at the 21st Century Council meeting in Beijing in November.

BEIJING -- There are many democratic countries in Europe, such as Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia that are well-governed. On the other hand, some democracies, including the U.S., Italy, and India, have had problems recently in their political decision-making process. They have been mired in partisan gridlock and beholden to special interests; the United States constitutes less of a model of democratic governance than it once did.

When it comes to governance, the effectiveness of the bureaucratic administrative system is the key to performance. China's system has some clear advantages in this respect. What China lacks are institutions of constraint -- either the rule of law or mechanisms of procedural accountability -- that prevent its strong state from behaving dictatorially.

The Chinese bureaucratic system builds on a long history of relatively high quality bureaucracy. China was the first centrally governed country in the world to establish a modern bureaucratic system based on meritocratic capability. In the Qin Dynasty more than 2000 years ago, China was unified with a central administrative system for the first time. European countries only established a similar central administrative system after the end of the 17th century. China, in this sense, was really the first "modern" state.

In the Qin Dynasty more than 2000 years ago, China was unified with a central administrative system for the first time. European countries only established a similar central administrative system after the end of the 17th century. China, in this sense, was really the first "modern" state.

China's key advantage today -- its decisive decision-making processes -- reflects these roots. In this aspect, the difference between China and India is quite obvious. China is strong in building infrastructure facilities: large airports, high-speed railways, bridges and dams because the centralized government structure makes it faster to implement these projects. India has more precipitation on average, but stores much less water than China. Why? Because India's system is unbalanced, with too little effective administration and too much law and political mobilization.

When China was building the Three Gorges Dam, for example, there was a lot of opposition and criticism. But the government disregarded these criticisms and built the dam. In the process, it trampled on the rights of many of its own citizens. By contrast, Tata Auto wanted to build a vehicle company in west Bangalore. There were strikes, protests and even lawsuits by trade unions and peasant organizations. The plant finally had to be built in another state due to strong political opposition.So in certain economic decision-making, the authoritarian Chinese system has strong advantages.

In the case of the U.S., we have a law-based government and formal democratic accountability. The U.S. is not as bad as India in terms of decision-making, but we have our own problems in the political system, for example, coping with long-term fiscal deficits. Every expert knows that this is not sustainable, but our political system is largely paralyzed in doing anything about it by the perpetual confrontation between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Our interest groups are very powerful; our system of checks and balances make it easy for them to block decisions. Decisions that serve broad public interests are not taken in the end simply because of the opposition from some interest groups. It is a tough issue to be addressed in the U.S. Whether we can change this state of affairs over the next few years is important in judging whether the democratic system of the U.S. can be successful in the long run.

China does have a lot of other advantages not particularly rooted in the Chinese history and culture. Compared with the last generation, the Chinese today are relatively free from ideology. The government has tried many innovations. If they work, it goes with them. If not, it drops them. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is actually rigid in making economic policies. Although the U.S. has been known historically for being pragmatic and willing to try new things, of late that has not been the case.

Despite these advantages, the question for China is how sustainable its system is. After the financial crisis, China has done quite well while the U.S., though edging toward recovery, is still a long way from reaching a governing consensus. But which system is more sustainable in the next two to three decades? My preference is still for the American system rather than the Chinese system.

There are two key issues that deserve our attention in the Chinese political system. First, the lack of downward political accountability. If you look at the dynastic history in China, you often see that a highly centralized bureaucratic system with insufficient information and knowledge of the society results in ineffective governance. What bureaucracy brings is corruption and bad governance.To a great extent, this problem can still be observed in China today.

Of course there are many opportunities to collect information. For example we have the Internet and many other modern communication technologies, including the vast microblogging Weibo today in China that has hundreds of millions of participants. However, it remains an issue whether the government is able to respond to popular demands and aspirations and respect public opinion on governance. Downward political accountability should be realized through some form of elections so that leaders always have the sense of threat. Only then will they know that if they don't do the right thing; they won't be elected.

The second issue is the "bad emperor" issue in traditional Chinese history. Undoubtedly, if you have competent and well-trained bureaucrats, or well-educated technical professionals who are dedicated to public interest, this kind of government is better than democratic government in the short term. But there are no institutional rules limiting the power of a bad emperor. The last bad emperor commonly acknowledged as such was Mao Zedong. Such an individual can do far more damage to the society than a constitutionally and democratically constrained democratic leader.

Despite reforms in the last 30 years that specifically limit the tenure of the leadership, having a good emperor doesn't guarantee no bad emperors will emerge. The enforced retirement of political leaders are, after all, Communist Party rules. They are not inscribed in law and thus can be changed at will.

In the end, there is no accountability system to remove a bad emperor if there is one. How can you get a good emperor? How can you make sure good emperors will reproduce themselves generation after generation? There is no ready answer today in the Chinese system.

The only answer in my view is a formal legal system -- that is, rule of law, not rule by law. In this, China has a good distance to go.

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