Home > Uncategorized > Aspen Ideas Festival Debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei on “China and Democracy” (Video)

Aspen Ideas Festival Debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei on “China and Democracy” (Video)

Aspen Institute has just released the debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei, moderated by James Fallows. See my earlier reaction to JJ Gould’s take (who was in the audience), when this video was still not yet available. Now that I have watched it, I think it is clear that Li trounced Minxin Pei. (JJ Gould clearly ignored many great points Li made; a reminder we should be getting our news more directly rather through journalists.) Li’s arguments were much more grounded in reality whereas Pei’s were – well, often times religious. Notice at the very end when Fallows polled the audience, more people changed their minds following the debate in siding with Li. People also applauded Li when he explained that a system must fit the country’s unique history, culture, and current circumstances. It was in response to whether China’s system is exportable. That particular question struck me once more that Americans tend to think in black and white terms; if you don’t follow my religion, you must be against my religion. Our world need not work in that dichotomy. Another person asked what China could teach America. Li essentially said, accept and tolerate other forms of government. By the way, being tolerant is very much what true democracy strives for, isn’t it?

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  1. July 19th, 2012 at 15:49 | #1

    My comments on both sides: Pei’s initial comments are wholly unconvincing. He gives no evidence that the slow down in China is not a cyclical slow down but a result of “structural contradictions”. First of all, all political and economic systems have structural contradictions in one form or another and all economies go through slow downs and pickups. What evidence is given that this is an exception is not convincing at all. What matters is how China deals with this slowdown. I’m not convinced that their actions have not met the challenges required to keep the economy growing at a relatively fast pace (relative because the rest of the world and China too are suffering large problems now).

    Pei also says that all one party non democratic societies share the problem that economic gains only benefits a small elite. But this is simply false bidirectionally. First, many non democratic societies are quite economically egalitarian. Cuba, N. Korea and Pakistan are just three examples with many other as examples. China’s development has benefited far more than a small elite. In fact, it has lifted 100s of millions of people out of poverty, more so than any society in human history, democratic or otherwise. Second, in the other direction, many societies, by the standards of democracy given by Pei, are very inegalitarian. The US being the most famous example. despite being a fully developed economy, its gini index is now substantially worse than China’s, a developing economy (and by Pei’s standards, a non democratic one).

    http://www.thefairsociety.net/2011/02/world-according-to-gini.html

    Li begins I think with a very good question that needs to be asked but is almost always ignored. Being a philosopher, I like clear definitions because I know how much confusion and fallacies can result without them. Li then gives a very very narrow definition of democracy. The definition he gives is ironic because I’m not sure that under that definition, even the US is that democratic! Additionally many democracies, democracies (hypothetical or real), would not then be classified as “democratic.”

    Li also makes some good points regarding corruption but the biggest point he could have made is that the US has NEVER solved its corruption problems. It is true that many so called democratic countries are very corrupt including the US in the late 19th and early 20th century but it is false to assume that that corruption is now gone due to the system “correcting itself”. What happened was the corruption has since been legalized in the US. Thus it will not show up on Transparency International’s index. But the US today is the most corrupt country in the history of the human race. It is a country that is almost completely run by corporations and the extremely wealthy. That is monstrous corruption. It is ubiquitous corruption.

    Pei then makes a point that is, again, wholly unconvincing. He says that opinion polls are variable (which they are but the Chinese surveys have been consistent over the last 10 years) but then with a straight face says that the Chinese should have a vote. There’s no good reason given that voting is anymore indicative of more “genuine,” “stable” public consent and endorsement than public opinion polls. He also makes silly assertions that the US political system does not rely on force and lies to maintain legitimacy when in fact these are the primary means the US political system can maintain legitimacy. Moreover, many Americans, perhaps even a majority of them, now are starting to realize that.

    Li then makes a completely legitimate point that the two party system in the US and the two presidential hopefuls are only superficially different. There’s really only one party in the US which spews different rhetoric. When you look at actual voting histories and policies, the democratic and republican parties are essentially identical.

    Like he made the point elsewhere, Li now also bring up the points about legitimacy and consent. I think these points are completely sound. But people don’t seem to follow that point to its logical conclusion. The logical conclusion is that consent and legitimacy being a large if not main aspect of democracy. But if China can consistently secure more robust consent from its people than western so-called democracies, we must question our basic notions of what a democracy is and can be.

    I also agree with Li’s points about meritocracy when he compares the Chinese communist party with the US congress. This is a good point.

    Li also makes the accurate claim that debates like this happen all the time in China. It’s foolish and completely ignorant of Chinese society to say that these kinds of speech about the merits or demerits of the Chinese system vis a vis other kinds are outlawed when they are even sometimes encouraged by the CCP.

    But I still disagree with some of Li’s point about China’s model. I think there are major aspects of its model that others can learn from. I also believe that there are things that American and other western systems which are valuable to other non western countries like China. Additionally, I disagree with his (old) points about rights must come from god. No, there are no (or very few) contemporary political philosophers (or even past western philosophers) who would say that human rights come from god. Most would say that some rights come from human nature (naturalism about rights endowed by our evolutionary past) and some rights are man made. But they would also mostly agree with him that in some sense, rights are negotiated. That is, we must balance them with each other to come up with optimal whole. We can arrive at the best balance through the process of coming to a reflective equalibrium and moreover, that point may be different for different societies. So this is somewhat of a strawman and Li may be pleasantly surprised that political philosophy largely tend to agree with him that society is in large part about this negotiating or jostling of rights to come up with a best fit scenario within societies.

    Li’s points are substantially more nuanced and clearer than before. I think his PhD work at Fudan has made him a far more informed debater. His opponents may have also prompted him to make better and more informed points which strengthened his arguments. His points now are far closer to the truth and he is asking more critical questions whereas before he only seemed to be ranting. I’m pleasantly surprised by his argument this time. I’m also pleasantly surprised that Fallows seems to have been rather fair to both interlocutors. His bias (and there can be no doubt as to his personal bias) did not seem to display this time. Pei OTOH, came off as an ideological fool. Confused and unconvincing. His points simply rely on slogans or other superficial arguments which lack depth.

  2. July 20th, 2012 at 13:08 | #2

    @melektaus
    Good analysis. I just want to raise this point to everyone here. If a two party political system is inherently “better” than a one party political system, then wouldn’t a three party or four party system be even better? This is pretty much the mantra repeated time and again by blind ideologues in that having a carnival type election system where hundreds of millions were spent on creating misleading campaigns every few years is a real benefit to common citizens.

    In reality, the PRC is not exactly a one party state as many smaller parties existed in the present political structure of mainland China. Yes, one can argue that no new political party is allowed to be registered but that is not being exactly objective either. The present Chinese central government actually tolerated a multitude of different system better than any government large or small.

    The current PRC government allowed a different administrative system to exist in the form of Macau and HK. On top of that, the PRC also has no problem dealing with the government of Taiwan on many levels, all the way from county, city to province. And the PRC has no problem accepting as many visitors, entrepreneurs, students from these special administrative regions. Of course it is greatly beneficial to the mainland, but the benefits go both ways. Mainland China has become the biggest source of trade surplus to those regions. In fact, China has become the largest export market for Japan, S. Korea, Australia, NZ, Malaysia, Singapore etc too.

    Like it or not, the so-called definition of democracy has been brought down by ideologues as an election system dominated by monetary contributions from big corporations. This is actually what the common folks in China want to avoid. Those who trumpet the advantage of this system always brought up the argument that the “most developed” countries use this system. The prime examples being Norway, Denmark, Finland etc. However, easily 8/10 of other countries in S. America, Africa, Asia who practiced this system are further behind that of China in term of social economic development. So should China adopt a system that almost has an 8/10 failure rate?

    What the world need is a reinterpretation of democracy. In organization like UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF no so-called democratic countries support giving equal rights to everybody. In such a system some countries are always more equal than others. I will only trust those who practice what they preached, until that time China and for that matter most countries should choose a path better suited to them. The present system of “democratic election” of new governments worldwide always ended in a government that is beneficial to the status quo. A new critical rethinking is sorely needed.

  3. July 20th, 2012 at 17:33 | #3

    I am actually appalled by Minxin Pei lack of critical analysis in using simplistic figures to come to conclusion. For example, he said that because former ROK and ROC presidents are in prisons showed that democracy work. Does this mean that democracy is a failure in the US because no presidents are in prison? Eric Li actually fell into this trap by countering that Mrs Mao was sentenced to death in the Chinese system.

    Another example he gave is because so many Chinese officials (actually around ten to twenty thousand out of a current figures of 46 million) fled to the US while almost no US politicians immigrated to the PRC is proof that the US system is superior. Close to one million Canadian work and live in the US while only 10,000 US citizens immigrated to Canada yearly. Can I draw the conclusion that the US is superior to Canada? He failed to realize that a large numbers of those Chinese officials fled overseas are corrupted. If they stayed and the law catches up with them (which almost always do in China) they would be facing the death penalty or life sentence. If we are being critical we could also say that corrupted US officials have no fear of being prosecuted and has no need to flee.

    Bo Xilai case actually proved that being high up is no defence for being corrupted. Two other high ranking officials have been caught and sentenced before, Chen Xitong and Chen Liangyu. So it is nothing new and does show that there are corruption in China. And China is getting better at countering corruption by releasing the central government account to public scrutiny http://www.china.org.cn/china/2012-07/19/content_25955286.htm
    In the future I have no doubt publication of account will go down to the province, county and village level. However, Eric Li does bring up a good point in destructive transparency. The HK bridge link to mainland China was delayed and cost millions in tax payers’ money because an objection was raise. A form of China’s constructive opaqueness would be in global warming issue. In China global warming is accepted as a given and the central government has gone all out to promote renewable energy.

    In the Wukan incident, the Chinese government actually showed how effective it is in dealing with protest. The incident was investigated and the guilty party was arrested and the organizers of the protest was invited into the local government. I was surprised Eric Li did not elaborate on that.

    I feel that the debate is good but is very lacking in reach. The biggest hindrance is that most outsiders do not understanding how’s China political, social and economic system work so they don’t really appreciate why Chinese government take certain action. For example, not too many people understand what is being censored in Chinese internet and news.

    And although I feel that track record is a good yardstick. Any “investor” or “citizen” has to be a critical thinker. The US actually has “great” track records in economical development for the last 100 yrs, so can there be claim that no improvement is needed? Kodak and GM both have excellent records before they got into trouble. So in reality, track records mean nothing if a country or company did not plan for the future. That applies to both China and the US.

  4. July 21st, 2012 at 07:04 | #4

    Well said melektaus and Ray.

    In regards to what Eric said about track record, I think it would be fairer to take into account other comments he’s made. He also argued that the CCP is capable of adapting policies to new circumstances. So, it’s track record plus a vision for the future. And I think that’s Eric’s view, which was Ray’s last point above.

    Minxin Pei is embodiment of a ‘democracy’ crusader. My cousin and I were talking about his factory in Shanghai just couple nights ago during dinner. Little over two decades ago, we were still playing in dirt in rural Fujian. There are countless number of people like my cousin throughout Shanghai and other cities in China. How could Pei claim that China’s system benefits only the ruling elite. His view is so devoid of reality, it’s amazing! My cousin would laugh in his face.

  5. fivewillows
    August 3rd, 2012 at 02:24 | #5

    Pei at around 27.10 says Americans will never claim that their system is illegitimate, that it “stole power” or “cheated.” He forgets Bush and brother Jeb’s Florida Supreme Court stealing the presidency from Gore in 2000; the Citizens United ruling giving corporations unlimited power to spend on democratic elections; the overwhelming funding of almost all politicians by the extremely wealthy SuperPACs. I’m an American–a caucasian one, for what it’s worth–and I disagree with Pei. Our system stopped serving the people a long time ago.

  6. August 3rd, 2012 at 15:53 | #6

    @fivewillows
    I agree with your assessment that America’s system is rigged.

    Also, look at the WSJ bank bailout. WSJ gambles and makes hordes of money for themselves, gambling with derivatives. When they fail, they co-opt the government to bail out with public tax money.

    Let’s also look at lobbying. In China, citizens will know that it’s corruption. Government leaders are not allowed to profit after they leave office. But, in the U.S., leaders often become lobbyists. Americans are indoctrinated to believe lobbying is part of their democracy.

    Until the American media side with the public (you will know when there is enough political will to recognize those problems and genuine steps in fixing them), legitimacy will not be questioned.

    In that sense, Pei is correct in saying Americans will never claim their system is illegitimate. The American media deflects problems within America by falsely accusing others.

    Look at India’s blackout for 600 million people. If that’d happened in China, people would be protesting in the streets. So, democracy is a grand design where the ruling elite cannot be held accountable. All failures can be attributed to political gridlock or others.

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