Eric X. Li had a wonderful op-ed in the NY Times. I really don’t know how he got a piece through, especially since all mine have been rejected. Anyways, hats off to him! Here is his op-ed, with some of my thoughts scribbled throughout.
Counterpoint: Debunking Myths About China
The Chinese Communist Party has been running the largest country in the world for 62 years. How has it done?
We all know the facts: In 1949 when the Communist Party took over, China had been mired in civil wars and dismembered by foreign aggressions; its people had suffered widespread famine; average life-expectancy was a mere 41 years. Today, it is the second largest economy in the world, a great power with global influence, and its people live in increasing prosperity; average life expectancy has reached 74 years.
But the assessment has to go deeper than that, for reasons none other than the apparent discomfort, if not outright disapproval, Western political and intellectual elites feel toward the Communist Party’s leadership. Five misconceptions dominate the Western media’s discourse on China. These misunderstandings need to be debunked by realities.
• China does not hold elections, therefore its rulers do not have the consent of the ruled. According to the Pew Research Center, the Chinese government enjoys popular support that is among the highest in the world. The Chinese people’s satisfaction with the direction of their country was at 87 percent in 2010 and has been consistently above 80 percent in recent years. Sixty-six percent perceive progress in their lives in the last five years. A whopping 74 percent are optimistic about the next five years.
We need to ask: How do most governments produced by elections compare with these numbers? Are elections the only viable way to validate consent and the legitimacy it brings?
China is an authoritarian state in which the party’s political power is concentrated and self-perpetuating. The Communist Party’s Politburo, the highest ruling body, consists of 25 members. Currently, only seven of them come from any background of wealth or power, the so-called princelings. The rest of them, including the president and the prime minister, come from ordinary backgrounds with no special advantages. They worked and competed all the way to the top. In the larger Central Committee, those with privileged backgrounds are even scarcer.
A visit to any top university campus in China would make it obvious to anyone that the Communist Party continues to attract the best and the brightest of the country’s youth. In fact, China’s Communist Party may be one of the most meritocratic and upwardly mobile major political organizations in the world — far more meritocratic than the ruling elites of most Western countries and the vast majority of developing countries. What is wrong with self-perpetuation through merits?
Are elections the only viable way to validate consent and legitimacy? That’s the one million dollar question.
As many may know, I have long held a deep cynicism about whether results of elections truly reflect the voice of the people. Today the phrase “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” seems to be take as the de facto – the only – definition of a democracy – as if any government “of the people” – voted by the people – is automatically one “of the people” and “for the people.” That is absurd!
Democracy in its most basic form is merely a form of rule by mob. A government by the people needs extensive checks – such as that expressed through the U.S. Constitution – to restrain the impulses of the people, to protect the people from the people. But even a Constitutionally checked government can still be very unjust – as I alluded to in this post.
It’s not that I do not believe that the people should have a right to vote, but modern elections – run on a large scale, through news media, drawing on partisan passion, targeted at a populace imbued with a short attention span, many illiterate about math, science, history, economics, and international relations – appear to be at best a pompous reality T.V.-style popularity contest and at worst a mass opiate for the masses that fools the masses into believing they have a voice when they don’t.
In the end, it is important to note that democracy is but an experiment.” It is at best a conviction to be tried, practiced, continually demonstrated and validated, not a value or ideology or religion to be preached and imposed.” Voting is not happiness; it is but a tool to empower human beings.
The Chinese democratic system represents another path at drawing on and harnessing the people’s energy to create a prosperous, peaceful and just society. Instead of depending on elections every few years, running campaigns that so often come down to who creates the best smears, it is about building a sustainable democratic meritocracy that puts professionals in charge of running the country, who – like judges in the U.S. – is somewhat insulated from the people to work for the long-term benefits of the people.
One thing I’m always amazed at is the extent to which people uncritically advocate the norm of relying on the decisions of the masses to make the most important policy decisions. It’s a most dangerous game of “monday night quarterbacking” carried to the extreme. For a electoral democracy to work, it is not sufficient to have elections … or a Constitution (see this post); “many other stars have to align: the media has to be fair and objective to generate good public debates; the people have to be educated enough, well fed enough, and to care enough about the political process to participate in meaningful speech; the public needs to also have a healthy sense of social awareness and public duty to exercise speech toward the good of society – not just for themselves.” (see this post) To brush this aspect of democracy under the rug is akin to asking me to uncritically trust a layman to conduct surgery on me – a fallacy when offered in the form of unsolicited advice – or demand as the case may be – smacks of insincerity, even ill will.
Of course, a democratic meritocracy per se does not guarantee a government that works for the people, either. There is always the possibility that the entrenched elite will hijack the process and manipulate the masses for the benefits of the few. We can argue to no end on which form of government is better. But I think it’s fair to say that all government structures – democratic meritocracies or electoral democracies – are but experiments in the grand noble journey of humanity to empower the masses. Let’s focus on what government today can do, and not – alluding to Deng’s famous parable – on whether the cat is black or white.
• China’s restriction on freedom of expression stifles innovation. China no doubt restricts freedom of expression, especially political speech. But does that impede innovation in Chinese society?
Some of the most successful IPO’s of Internet companies on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq have been Chinese startups. Chinese businesses are well on their way to dominating the global alternative-energy industries. Breakthroughs in public policy have taken private home ownership from near zero in 1990 to at least 80 percent today — among the world’s highest, in this relatively still poor country.
The Royal Society in London reports that China’s share of scientific research papers published in recognized international journals went from 4.4 percent in the period between 1999-2003 to 10.2 percent in the period between 2004-2008, now just behind the United States. In 2008, China overtook France as the world’s number three in contemporary art auction revenues. Fifteen out of 35 living artists worldwide who command seven-digit sales for their work are Chinese. If these facts do not demonstrate innovation, what does?
It is only 30 or so years since China finally escaped from its the shadow of political chaos caused by foreign invasions, civil wars, and internal turmoils. Yes, the CCP way of censorship can sometimes be crude and can suppress innovation. But to the extent CCP does do that, I would not worry too much. It is to the competitive disadvantage of China for the government to suppress its people’s energy and ability. Mark my word, to the extent CCP censorship hampers the development of the Chinese people, CCP censorship will change. But to the extent freedom of speech in China represent the values of a people, let the Chinese people find their own identity – and let them grow or fall with it.
My argument with many about CCP’s censorship is not censorship per se, but government’s right to regulate speech. Every government regulates speech. In the West, for example, expression is often suppressed – almost always by some means of “law” – in the name of national security (e.g., US Patriot Act, whitehouse characterizing wikileaks “reckless and dangerous“), social welfare (e.g., crimes against hate speech, privacy, libel, slander), economic interests (e.g., intellectual property). But when the Chinese gov’t regulates in the name of promoting “social harmony” – many people snicker – as if the welfare of the Chinese people matters little. Many seem almost antsy for the Chinese people to fail. For me, this crosses the line of arguing whether the CCP is trampling over individual rights to whether the Chinese people have a right to govern themselves.
• The Communist Party’s authoritarian rule leads to widespread corruption. No one, not least the party itself, disputes that corruption is a significant problem in China. But does authoritarian rule have anything to do with it?
According to Transparency International, the top 20 cleanest (least corrupt) places worldwide include only four non-Western governments: Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar and Japan — three of the four are authoritarian regimes; the same three are the only ones that belong to the developing world. By Transparency International’s account, China (78) ranks higher than India (87), Philippines (134), Indonesia (110), Argentina (105) and many more, and tied with Greece (78), barely below Italy (67) — all electoral democracies. Apparently, China’s one-party system is less corrupt than many democratic countries.
Whenever we speak of Chinese “corruption,” I roll my eyes. It’s not that I don’t think there is no corruption in China, or that corruption is not important, but that people sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. Sure, I have heard of stories of CCP officials grafting money, entering into special business deals, sending their children to live and study abroad using government funds. These are bad. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Ever since time immemorial, those in power have extracted privileges from the commoners. That’s because there is no free lunch. Those who rule has to eat and enjoy the finer things in life: they don’t work for free. Even the most beneficent kings collected taxes earned through the sweat of the workers and the farmers.
It is no different in the most democratic of societies today. Why do people enter politics in democracies? As a group, are politicians really more magnanimous and self-less than others in their will to “serve”? No. people choose politics as a “career,” just as people choose a career in medicine, law, whatever – to maximize their own private welfare. Since most democratic societies today are capitalistic, we can actually be openly unapologetic about it!
It is no coincidence that in the West election is big business – democratic politics in general is big business. It is important to see that corruption does not just come in the form of wayward officials leaching some money here and there. It also comes about systematically in the way we run our government, the way we allow special interests to run our elections and structure our laws – from our tax code, our antitrust regulation, financial laws, IP laws, environmental protection regulations, to food and drug regulations.
Going back to China, yes I agree government should work for the people. There is much CCP needs to reform to better serve the people. But I personally don’t see any conclusive evidence that the Chinese way of meritocratic governance is systematically or inherently more corrupt than the electoral democratic way of governing.
• China’s success to date is all due to the party’s embrace of capitalism and a market economy. According to the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal annual ranking of free economies, China ranks 135. Developing countries that rank above China (showing a stronger embrace of capitalism and a market economy) include Haiti, Algeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Rwanda — the list goes on. If market economic reform was the only magic China performed, how come many other countries that have implemented a market economy much earlier and deeper than China have not achieved much economic success? What else has China done?
Hypotheses that do not stand up to facts and yet still dominate people’s consciousness are specious and harmful. It is especially dangerous in this case because one cannot imagine a peaceful world order when the political and intellectual establishment of today’s world powers holds views that are built on falsehoods.
In my personal opinion, trying to attribute the source of China’s success is best left to historians. I am sure they can point to many factors, including (but not limited to): the low base of China’s gdp per capita from which China starts its recent development, the always inspiring energy and work ethics of the Chinese people, a respite from wars and internal chaos that have dominated Chinese landscape the last century or two, support from overseas Chinese, global trade, the liberalization of the domestic economy, the leadership of the CCP. But just as people cannot predict future performance of a stock based on its past performance, so cannot the future of the Chinese government be found in its past.
In my opinion, the most important factor to China’s success is preservation of peace at home. Ever since industrialization swept the world, China has not had a chance to develop … until 30 years ago. By continuing to keep peace and tranquility at home, the future of China – whatever path it chooses – will be bright.