"We Chinese were astonished when Barack Obama was elected president the first time around," the Peking University scholar Pan Wei told us. "It was unfathomable to us that someone who had no executive administrative experience, but had been just a community organizer, a state senator and only a U.S. senator for a brief time could be chosen to lead the world's superpower."
By contrast, China's leaders today get nowhere near the top unless they have run two or three provinces the size of several European countries, climbed the strict evaluation and competitive placement ladder of the Communist Party's Organization Department and spent considerable time at the Central Party School being exposed to national problems and networking with other leaders from around the country.
Indeed, China's new leader, Xi Jinping, rose through the ranks in Fujian Province, and then was party chief in Zheijang and Shanghai as well as vice president before moving to the top spot in the Party and government.
Though much attention has rightly focused on the debilitating decay of China's system in recent years due to the enveloping corruption of princeling nepotism and state capitalist cronyism, we should not lose sight of the meritocratic qualities of governance -- what Professor Pan calls China's "institutional civilization" going back to the origins of its mandarin examination system -- that have made the world's second largest economy what it is today.
China's awesome accomplishment of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in only three decades -- while building bustling megacities connected by the world's largest hi-speed rail network and with schools in Shanghai that test the best globally -- is due to the effectiveness of the most enduring set of governing principles in history. China's "min-ben" system of competent civil servants acting "for the welfare of all families" goes back 3,000 years to the Western Zhou dynasty.
George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore -- another Confucian-oriented state that has had far greater success rooting out corruption than China -- has no doubts. For him, the Middle Kingdom's post-Mao success is due to its "modern-day mandarinate" at the national level that is "largely meritocratic" and geared to advancing the common good.
"It is meritocracy that makes the Chinese polity different from electoral democracy. The meritocratic principle based on competition holds the same central position in the history of Chinese governance as the electoral principle holds in democracies," says Pan.
DETOUR FROM CONFUCIUS
Modern China, of course, took a radical detour from its institutional civilization during the Maoist era. The Cultural Revolution was a willful effort to supplant competence with politics, or, in the lingo of the day, "red" over "expert."
In those fraught years, anyone with expertise -- whether a violinist or a scientist -- was considered an enemy of the politically correct masses, the sole repository of truth and virtue somehow divined only through the tantrums of teenagers and the whims of the Red Emperor. Schools closed, universities were shuttered, scientific and technological progress stalled and the economy collapsed.
It is a testament to the millennial weight of the Confucian notion of governance that China was so rapidly able to self-correct after the death of Mao through Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up." In order to progress, the Party restored the rule of "experts" over "reds" through de-politicizing governance -- often brutally, as in Tiananmen Square, and by its relentlessly persistent efforts at censorship.
Lately, a proud narrative has emerged in the wake of the West's troubles that China's proven system of effective governance -- with its capacity to mobilize consensus, unity of purpose and long-term implementation of policies -- will outlast the West's brief experiment with liberal electoral democracy which has so far had a shorter life span than most Chinese dynasties.
Whether China or the West ends up on the right side of history -- or they both do -- depends on the capacity of each to self-correct and thus remain sustainable going forward.
GOVERNANCE CIRCUIT BREAKERS
Both China and the Western democracies, particularly the U.S., but also manifestly in places like Italy, are presently experiencing disequilibrium.
To fix itself China needs more re-politicization -- robust popular feedback and accountability to aerate its hidebound mandarinate. Western democracy needs more de-politicization --stronger meritocratic, non-partisan and deliberative practices and institutions -- to escape its capture by the populist, short-term horizon of voters, organized special interests and the paralyzing gridlock of its adversarial political parties.
Governance, as Woodrow Wilson said, is not a mechanism, but an organism. Intelligent governance -- the ability to self-correct and adjust to changed circumstances -- is not a model. It calls for "circuit breakers" within every governing system that can return it to equilibrium when it gets out of whack.
FROM RED TO EXPERT
China's leading new left critic, Wang Hui, argues that the Party leadership has over-corrected in reaction to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution by crushing open political debate in order to eliminate any obstacles on the capitalist road to rapid economic growth.
The restored mandarinate and collective leadership of the past 30 years was designed precisely to prevent bold "risk taking" leaders like Mao with his Great Leap Forward -- or Bo Xilai with his "Singing Red" movement -- from ever again seizing the pinnacle of power. But the inbred nature and tin ear of this radical anti-populism has failed to address rising social tensions until they are now at a boiling point.
As a result of its post-Mao success, China today faces a host of challenges that is pushing it toward a "social cliff": pervasive corruption, lack of rule of law, toxic pollution and the widening chasm between rich and poor.
Even though Wang and many other reformers eschew Western-style democracy, they believe that only free expression, more open political competition and an independent judiciary can align the state's priorities with the pressing social needs of the Chinese people.
With 600 million Weibo users in China today, that country's vast middle class has also become accustomed to openly criticizing the government on every subject from tainted milk to train wrecks, shoddy construction and scandalous officials. This emergent monitory webocracy is the counterpoint to state surveillance: on Weibo, a new system of "sous-veillance," or monitoring the state from below, is taking hold.
Since the legitimacy of the Party is largely rooted in performance, a new kind of systemic accountability is being introduced by the robust feedback enabled by social media. In a recent conversation Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing-blessed former governor of Hong Kong, opined metaphorically that "Facebook must be balanced by the Party." The opposite is also true, and where China is likely headed: The Party will be balanced by Facebook.
How all this translates into political reform over the coming years is the big question than hangs over China's future.
AMERICA'S CONSUMER DEMOCRACY
In our Western democracies, we have an avalanche of robust feedback, but have been unable in recent years to process it into effective governance.
Everyone in a democracy has a voice and can contend for power. But the inability to forge consensus out of the cacophony of voices and the multitude of interests has caused paralysis and gridlock. Our adversarial political system has decayed into partisan rancor and divided the body politic against itself. We just stumble along from debt ceiling to fiscal cliff to sequester without any resolution.
Our formal procedure of accountability -- one person one vote elections -- has been captured by the short-term mentality of voters and what Francis Fukuyama calls "the vetocracy" of organized special interests -- from the gun lobby to teachers unions to the Wall St. revolving door -- that seek to preserve their spoils by blocking any change to the status quo.
Moreover, we've shifted from an industrial democracy where we saved more than we spent, invested in the future and financed the safety net to a consumer democracy.
"In a consumer democracy, all the feedback signals -- the media, the market and politics -- are short term and steer behavior toward immediate gratification."
In a consumer democracy, all the feedback signals -- the media, the market and politics -- are short term and steer behavior toward immediate gratification. We've become a Diet-Coke culture where we seem to expect consumption without savings and government without taxes just as we want sweetness without calories.
Wary of such an outcome, the American Founding Fathers understood that non-political deliberative institutions and practices were necessary to "enlarge the public view." Otherwise, as they rightly feared if today's dysfunction is any measure, the republic would succumb to tyranny of short-term populism and the divisiveness of partisan factions.
CONFUCIUS AND THE FOUNDING FATHERS
Just as China has looked to the roots of its institutional civilization as a circuit breaker after Mao, the U.S. should look to the vision of its Founding Fathers.
The Federalist Papers make it clear that they rejected the direct rule by citizens, as in ancient Greece, in favor of a mixed constitutional system that combined knowledgeable democracy with accountable meritocracy. They understood that the institutional capacity for sober deliberation beyond the political fray to sort out the trade-offs among contesting interests for the common good is as essential a feature of good governance as one person one vote elections.
Thus, in their original design, a republic rooted in popular sovereignty would delegate authority to an unelected Supreme Court, an indirectly elected Senate (elected then by state legislatures), a selected electoral college to "enlarge the views" of the public in choosing a president and, later, a central bank governed by appointed experts insulated from politics. All were meant to check and balance the immediate passions, factions and constituent interests of the elected House of Representatives.
To correct the present dysfunction, we need not only to revisit the political philosophy of the Founders and place it in the framework of the 21st century; we also need to engage in actual institutional design to introduce more non-partisan competence and deliberation into our system so that we can recover the capacity to forge consensus, unity of purpose and the sustainable implementation of long-term policies.
There are plenty of contemporary examples to spark the imagination, one is the Think Long Committee for California -- a group of eminent and experienced Republican and Democratic citizens who were able to reach bipartisan consensus on a tax plan that remained progressive, lowered rates and broadened the base while raising $10 billion in new revenues. Another case were the non-partisan base-closing commissions Congress put in place during the Cold War wind down. Such a depoliticized body made it possible to make decisions in the national interest instead of for the sake of local pork.
GOVERNANCE IS NOT STATIC
As the Founding Fathers understood, governance is not static, but must respond to the conditions a society faces. If we can't manage to be equal to their spirit applied to today's world, the democracy they so carefully crafted is bound to falter.
In many ways, China's and America's crises are the mirror image of each other -- and so are the solutions. Our two political cultures are as distinct as our economies are intertwined. Yet both have much to learn from each other's strengths as well as weaknesses. China needs to lighten up; America needs to tighten up.