Home > Analysis, Opinion, politics > Eric X Li: “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior”

Eric X Li: “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior”

February 16th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

This Op-Ed just published at the NYT from venture capitalist, Eric X Li, “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior” is a must read. Especially to the Western audience bought into democracy as a “faith” will find this opinion unsettling. And it is particularly unsettling because the West is full of doubts these days.

Why China’s Political Model Is Superior
By ERIC X. LI
Published: February 16, 2012

Shanghai

THIS week the Obama administration is playing host to Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent. The world’s most powerful electoral democracy and its largest one-party state are meeting at a time of political transition for both.

Many have characterized the competition between these two giants as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

In the history of human governance, spanning thousands of years, there have been two major experiments in democracy. The first was Athens, which lasted a century and a half; the second is the modern West. If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world. Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

The political franchise expanded, resulting in a greater number of people participating in more and more decisions. As they say in America, “California is the future.” And the future means endless referendums, paralysis and insolvency.

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

The West’s current competition with China is therefore not a face-off between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather the clash of two fundamentally different political outlooks. 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.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.

The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end.

History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.

Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist.

[Update]
Allen has a thoughtful reaction to Eric X. Li’s Op-Ed below, and with a sizable amount of disagreement, I might add. I want to highlight it here:

This is not my favorite writing from Eric. Foremost, the article doesn’t really discuss the subject of the title – why China’s political model is superior. Instead it focuses mainly on the problem of the West. It doesn’t address the top the concerns many in the West have of China – a perception that China is ruthless and afraid of its people and outside ideas…

This is a longer comment than I like, but here are my thoughts reading the op-ed.

If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

This is very true. The founders of the U.S. – as well as the political philosophers of the enlightenment – understood that democracy was a grand experiment. You don’t want rule by mob – hence you have lots of controls – constitutions, laws, checks and balances, etc. – and still you hope for the best. You hope people have the society’s interest in mind – that people can rise beyond petty self-interest to become citizens.

Unlike a free market, where the pursuit of self interest are expected to in the end also produce the most good for society through the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market – there is no such notion of invisible hand about democracy. In fact, if people only pursue self interest, then democracy won’t work – as philosophers, sociologists, and legal theorists have discovered through the study of social choice theory.

So people should be humble – even if proud – when talking about the merits of democracy. It is but an experiment. It is an idea to be discussed and tried – not lectured and imposed.

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

I am not sure if this is correct. The fact that individual is endowed with inalienable rights is an expression for rule of law – due process. It has nothing per se to do with Democracy. The idea that individual is rational is also not how I understand to be what enlightenment is about.

Enlightenment was a reaction against the rigid grip the Church had on all phases of life throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. While it does involve the freedom of individuals to use intelligence and tools to objectively question established thought (mostly religious thoughts), it was less about individual rationality than the use of science, empirical observations, scientific methods, and objective reductionism to gain new knowledge – and to dispose of the old. It is about relying on the studied man with expertise, not having faith in the of collective wisdom of untrained masses.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world.

I don’t think this is true either. Industrial revolution was able to bring about unprecedented economic prosperity by enabling colonialism – which is hardly “democratic: – unless one has a very narrow sense of what is “democratic” again. Democracy may have brought about the political compromises that brought about the necessary balance of power between the monarch, the aristocrats, the church, and the increasingly disgruntled workers to avert continual war as the West industrialized, but the prosperity laid on the oppression of the rest of the world, not some kind of democracy wisdom per se.

Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

This is a good point. America began and subsequently succeeded as a republic, not a democracy per se. America’s biggest transformation throughout its history is the abolishment of slavery and the subsequent civil rights movement. Yet neither came about because of democracy. (Democracy would have perpetuated, not abolished slavery) The end of slavery came about as result of a war to preserve the union – not to free the slaves. Until the very last stage when the hard work has been done (when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of f1964), civil rights was achieved in large part through courageous Supreme Court decisions (i.e. in the the least democratic of ways in a so-called democracy).

Even today, for the most important social and political decisions – Americans look to the Court – not Congress – from abortion to campaign financing rules to the winner of presidential elections. Most of regulations are also promulgated by bureaucrats through administrative rules/laws – environmental protection, tax rules, FDA rules, trade rules, etc. The issues are technical and complex that the average citizen really cannot comprehend. Because of the complexity involved in modern governance, a large part of governance is inherently undemocratic.

As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

There is obviously some grain of truth in there, but I think it’s too cynical. Yes, money may corrupt democratic discourse and decision making, but it is not dispositive. That is, the most money spent does not always guarantee victory. The people still have a voice…

Also spineless politicians per se may be a good thing in one sense. I mean, at least they are doing the biding of the people. The real issue here is that politicians that bend too quickly to the will and whims of the people weakens the Republic – it now becomes a direct democracy – a sort of mob rule. The result is the dysfunctional California governance mentioned in the op-ed. Democracy works when it is highly constrained, but that protection is weakened with spineless politicians.

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.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

Here Eric makes some critical mistakes. What are the national interests? A cynical reader would say, it is to make China a strong nation, the people be damned. This sounds like Hitler – or Wartime Japan – to many…

Another problem is that it makes China seem more monolithic than it is. In reality, there are many interests for China. There are a lot of opinions on many subjects in China – within and without the government. The West already fears a China, Inc. – a faceless monolithic powerful empire that is the antithesis of the humaneness embodied in democracy. This caricature of China intent on building national power is not only inaccurate but won’t help alleviate tensions.

The rest of the article justifying TAM is neither insightful or helpful. Is TAM a necessary evil or a terrible tragedy?

Now I don’t think what happened was necessarily a travesty (if TAM avoided a bloody civil war, I think – from a humanist perspective – it must be considered a good thing).

But my take is that it was probably more a terrible tragedy than a necessary evil. If something like it happen again today, I think the gov’t can resolve the issues without going full force. It would probably be more sophisticated at crowd control, etc.

In any case, whether I am wrong or not – to simply say economic progress is worth mowing down a few hundred people – even if sincerely felt – doesn’t project the kind of value that I think China ought to stand for. China is already seen as this ruthless super efficient machine that may threaten the Western way of life (whatever that is). This conclusion to an already controversial op-ed doesn’t help.

  1. February 16th, 2012 at 17:15 | #1

    I gotta disagree with Li here. He seems to accept that the west is indeed democratic even though he mentioned that there are aspects of it that are not. Rather, I see it as two fundamental different notions of democracy. Remember that the CCP itself has aspirations of being more democratic. But being so means different things for them. Their views, as I’ve talked about in my Rethinking democracy is a discursive and communitarian view as opposed a liberal and procedural view. You can make good philosophical arguments that the Chinese view is far closer to the democratic ideal than the liberal-procedural view.

    Li is surely right that the popular vote wasn’t instituted till blacks and women got it. But even in Athens 88% of the population could not vote. And Spence is surely right as Li quoted him saying that today it is not one person one vote but one dollar one vote. The fundamental question left unanswered is just how “democratic” is this system in the first place?

  2. Anna
    February 16th, 2012 at 17:50 | #2

    I think Li did a good job of pointing out the problems that we in the U.S. are running into with our version of democracy. Whether or not we can overcome those problems is still an open question. Where he falls short, IMO, is in not acknowledging that the Chinese model also has inherent possibilities for problems. Right now their system is working well for them, and some of us here can admire–or even be a tad envious of–some aspects of their government that are producing good results for the country. But, in essence, the current Chinese government is similar to the concept of “enlightened absolutism”. It also derived from the European Enlightenment and is explained at Wikipedia thusly: “…the monarchs ruled with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects in order to strengthen or reinforce their authority. Implicit in this philosophy was that the sovereign knew the interests of his subjects better than they themselves; his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation.” In the Chinese case, those governing also believe that THEY know what is needed. While political participation may not be precluded, it IS circumscribed by and limited to what those in power have decided is best for the country. There is no perfect form of government–various efforts may work well for some period of time, but eventually human weaknesses will reveal where a particular form falls short. China is no different.

  3. Blake Sutton
    February 16th, 2012 at 18:13 | #3

    Nicely put, but I would have to disagree with two things. First, Athens was hardly a democracy by any modern standard. Second, it seems a bit naive to say that America is trending toward “one dollar, one vote.” If you consider the level of political “donations” and the cost of television advertising, it’s more like “one million dollars, one vote.” One dollar, one vote? Perhaps Americans should take pride in the fact that their votes don’t come that cheap.

  4. ViNo
    February 16th, 2012 at 18:22 | #4

    The fact that Eric X Li could publish a rant – sorry opinion – criticizing Western and Democratic nations, in a Western newspaper published in a Democratic country shows how wrong, idiotic and greedy Chinese Communi-capitalists have become. I dare him to publish an Anti-China or Anti-Communist “opinion” in a Chinese newspaper or a website – and survive! That is the difference. We in the Western Democracies may be failing and doomed – but we choose it. In China – you are led to your doom by the Communist party and by the Communi-capitalists – you dont have a choice.

    The Chinese Communi-Capitalists like Eric X Li – feed on the demand of the free and democratic countries for consumer goods while utilizing the poor peasant and working class in China (and now increasingly Africa). The Communi-Capitalists of China would not exist without American innovation and freedoms – they know it – except for Eric X Li who is living a warped and decadent life of his own.

    Without the Chinese Communist Party – the Communi-Capitalists would not survive. Eric.X.Li -defends the Tianammen Massacare as necessary. So was the holocaust ?

    Eric X Li – go back to what you do best – being a vulture capitalist and leave the political process to the people. We in the West are happy with the choice we have.

    I’m not sure if this blog is published from China – but if so, I’m guessing this will be censored soon enough.

    ViNo

  5. February 16th, 2012 at 18:40 | #5

    ^^^looks like another westerner that gets his panties all in a twist at any hint of the mildest criticisms.

  6. February 16th, 2012 at 18:48 | #6

    I should highlight that Eric X Li write from this context which he set up in paragraph #2:

    Many have characterized the competition between these two giants as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

    American foreign policy is predicated on this idea if a foreign government is not “democratic,” it therefore ought to be undermined. So, Eric X Li’s Op-Ed addresses this line of thinking.

    Agreed with takes from Anna, melektaus. We are all humans and a system is only as good as we are able to make the most of it.

    On the approach towards one dollar one vote, I would challenge Blake Sutton to explain this recent phenomenon in America:

    The U.S. government not only didn’t hold Wallstreet responsible for the financial meltdown, but instead took public money to bail them out.

    One thing it could have done is – for example – to make Wallstreet fork over 50% of their profits from the last 5 years as payback to the public.

    Why wasn’t anything like this done?

    Because American leaders know they depend on Wallstreet support in coming elections to win. Without their support, they wouldn’t have sufficient funds to get votes.

    Hence, towards one dollar one vote.

    @ViNo

    Do you read Chinese? How can you conclude there is no article in China criticizing the Chinese system in similar fashion Eric X Li did about democracy?

  7. Emily
    February 16th, 2012 at 18:55 | #7

    Vino, I couldn’t agree more. Eric X Li has also failed to acknowledge the rural peasants who protested the loss of their land to private “entrepreneurs” like himself, and the 2 week protest leading to a quasi-secret election in southern China.

    I understand how China wants to lift its population out of poverty, but how jailing artists poets and writers with no real political influence preserves economic prosperity is beyond me. Is their political model so “superior” that it needs to shield its population with a huge firewall? Or ban books and media people can just hop over to Taiwan and Hong Kong to get anyway? Is the Chinese population not considered sophisticated enough to even have a choice in what they like to read?

    His tone is also distastefully presumptuous. The American system today is obviously broken. But in order to fix it, you must have freedom of press and speech to expose corruption, allow disagreement without fear of being incarcerated or tortured. The only faith Americans have is their right to change their leaders.

    But what America and China does have in common, they’re both veering plutocracy. Americans can have lawyers and go through the system to get justice. The Chinese can have their lawyers jailed and themselves conveniently institutionalized as mental patients.

  8. February 16th, 2012 at 19:59 | #8

    I agree with Emily there is rampant corruption in China. (See my recent interview with Shaun Rein.) China has recently instituted laws making it much more difficult for local corrupt officials to swindle land from peasants.

    However, China prosecutes dissidents for the most part when they violate Chinese law. That is no different than U.S. shutting down web sites belonging to Al Qaeda advocating violence against Americans or taking down of the U.S. government. Granted, the U.S. is more tolerant of political dissent. But that’s because the U.S. has the luxury of the most powerful military. She fears no external threat.

    China’s firewall is smart. It censors subversive web sites. But don’t mistake that to be Chinese government fearful of Western ideas. Look at the number of students sent to the West to study. Xi Jinping – China’s likely next President – has his daughter studying at Harvard. Many Chinese leaders send their kids to the West to study.

    I would in fact argue ideas are flowing into China and whereas there is a mental firewall in the West. It’s built out of arrogance.

    Thus I fully support President Obama’s 100k Strong Initiative. It’s essential for the 21st century.

    >Is the Chinese population not considered sophisticated enough to even have a choice in what they like to read?

    I am sorry to say, Emily, I think you lack understanding despite freedom of the press in America. You are spouting the typical U.S. media narrative.

    You said:

    But what America and China does have in common, they’re both veering plutocracy. Americans can have lawyers and go through the system to get justice. The Chinese can have their lawyers jailed and themselves conveniently institutionalized as mental patients.

    I agree that China has huge judicial corruption. Legalistic culture is more a modern phenomenon for China. 1 legal profession for 9000 citizens – whereas America has 1 for 300. China can’t train enough judges and lawyers fast enough.

  9. pug_ster
    February 16th, 2012 at 20:03 | #9

    @Emily

    The problem with America is that there are so much opinions out there, it seems that people with honest and respectable opinions are drowned out by the crazies and people who can makes the most sensationalized comments out there, which are often false, like that one you made up there.

    Eric Li has nothing to do with the Village protest at Wukan, and the protests has nothing to do with the village election 2 weeks later. The election is anything but secret, as there are plenty of localized elections throughout China.

    Freedom of press and speech in America is nothing but a farce. People who don’t produce “mainstream ideas” like Li are often ridiculed and not published in mainstream media. People like Bradley Manning tried to expose the truth, guess where he ended up? America’s electorial system is a plutocracy so choosing a leader often picking a candidate which is bad or worse.

  10. February 16th, 2012 at 20:19 | #10

    @Emily

    I understand how China wants to lift its population out of poverty, but how jailing artists poets and writers with no real political influence preserves economic prosperity is beyond me.

    If their work have no real political influence then the CCP really has too much time on their hands. And if these work have no real political influence, then it’s no harm no foul anyways. What’s the big deal?

    Is their political model so “superior” that it needs to shield its population with a huge firewall?

    There is still is vast discrepancy in soft power / media reach between East and West. The Firewall is to neutralize that advantage.

    China also has a population of 1.3 billion. Look at the various restrictions of speech each European nation has, from prohibiting of books in Germany to prohibition of clothing in France – add them all up – and it’s only for less than 500 million people. China might look draconian in its lack of speech only because it is interested in liberating the people as a whole, not pandering to a minority at the expense of the whole. On almost all topics of importance (economic policy, social policy, foreign policy) there are vigorous debates. It’s only on the fringes – secession thoughts, attacks that aim to delegitimize the Chinese gov’t, attacks funded by Western gov’ts, etc. – that are prohibited.

    Is the Chinese population not considered sophisticated enough to even have a choice in what they like to read?

    Nazi-sympathetic and “anti-semitic” books are banned in Germany. Many types of porn are outlawed in many nations. If you want to make sermons that are pro Al queda and anti-American in the U.S., don’t be surprised if you are raided and taken to a secret detention facility where you are tortured. In general, hate speech – speech that cause big social harm – are outlawed in the West. Because the West is strong, there are less overt restrictions. But that is a product not of Western thought or tolerance, but of the condition the West has fortunately found itself.

    But in order to fix it, you must have freedom of press and speech to expose corruption, allow disagreement without fear of being incarcerated or tortured. The only faith Americans have is their right to change their leaders.

    That’s fine. It’s a good faith. Yet, a society can be “free” but unconscious. Without active participation and a good dose of social citizenship, your faith will remain a mere faith – detached from anything real. For that deal to be grounded, stars have to align. As I wrote earlier,

    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.

    And as I also mentioned in that post, Assange did not relsease wikileaks docs to the people for a very important reason – because the people are herd – they follow what’s dictated to them – they don’t have the resources to critically digest massive amounts of complex data. That’s why he had to release to the professional press. So democracy is as strong as NYT, or Washingtonpost, or the Financial Times are. Yet you know – they are corporate special interests really – not beholden to the people at all…

    So we come full circle again to this faith thing you talk about…

  11. jxie
    February 16th, 2012 at 20:46 | #11

    @Anna:

    But, in essence, the current Chinese government is similar to the concept of “enlightened absolutism”. It also derived from the European Enlightenment and is explained at Wikipedia thusly: “…the monarchs ruled with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects in order to strengthen or reinforce their authority. Implicit in this philosophy was that the sovereign knew the interests of his subjects better than they themselves; his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation.” In the Chinese case, those governing also believe that THEY know what is needed. While political participation may not be precluded, it IS circumscribed by and limited to what those in power have decided is best for the country. There is no perfect form of government–various efforts may work well for some period of time, but eventually human weaknesses will reveal where a particular form falls short. China is no different.

    This probably describes Singapore well — until they have somebody not named Lee as the person in power. First, at least you acknowledge things seem to work well in China, unlike many others.

    One thing I didn’t quite like Li’s piece is his still framing the discussion in “democracy vs authoritarianism”. China’s system is quite unique in many ways. Among the current top 9 officials (PSC members), one is so-called “Princeling”, and the other 8 were born to families of insignificance. If you are smart, hard-working, and work well with others, with some luck theoretically in China when you reach late 50s to early 60s, you can be promoted all the way to the top. There isn’t monarchs (enlightened or not) vs. the mass.

  12. jxie
    February 16th, 2012 at 21:01 | #12

    Now for those who have paid attention, in the so-call TAM Massacre, now it’s reasonably clear that there were around 200 civilian deaths. Just to put this in context, proportionally that would mean less than 10 deaths in the UK or France, a bit over 40 deaths in the US. Granted, Li was right that it was a heavy price to pay for Chinese.

  13. Wayne
    February 16th, 2012 at 22:15 | #13

    @ViNo
    Firstly you are full of shit Vino.

    Go to any bookstore in China. There are literally tons of books on the Western economic, political, and democratic tradition. If you want books on Jeffersonian democracy, on Athenian democracy, on the rights and wrongs of the death penalty you can get and read em fucking all.

    In fact most Chinese are much more well-versed on things Western than the other way round. Americans, and Westerners in general know diddly fucking squat about China–in spite of their pretensions to be otherwise.

    As for an editorial or article in a main Chinese newspaper, so fucking what? China has her rules, America has her rules. Because I can smoke in your house does not mean I should let you smoke in mine. Perhaps there are good reasons why I would not let you smoke in my house—perhaps I have an asthmatic son…

    China’s priority today is to uplift hundreds of millions of people into the middle class and thus provide the sort of prerequisite that is essential to any functioning democratic nation. A solid core of citizenry, well educated and imbued in good civic virtues, and with a vested interest and identification with the national body politic.

    China’s rapidly expanding middle class is in fact an essential part of the road to democratisation. Anything that jeopardizes this in the interim is basically anti-democratic.

    There is not a functioning democracy in the whole fucking world without a solid middle class.

  14. February 17th, 2012 at 00:31 | #14

    This is not my favorite writing from Eric. Foremost, the article doesn’t really discuss the subject of the title – why China’s political model is superior. Instead it focuses mainly on the problem of the West. It doesn’t address the top the concerns many in the West have of China – a perception that China is ruthless and afraid of its people and outside ideas…

    This is a longer comment than I like, but here are my thoughts reading the op-ed.

    If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

    Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

    This is very true. The founders of the U.S. – as well as the political philosophers of the enlightenment – understood that democracy was a grand experiment. You don’t want rule by mob – hence you have lots of controls – constitutions, laws, checks and balances, etc. – and still you hope for the best. You hope people have the society’s interest in mind – that people can rise beyond petty self-interest to become citizens.

    Unlike a free market, where the pursuit of self interest are expected to in the end also produce the most good for society through the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market – there is no such notion of invisible hand about democracy. In fact, if people only pursue self interest, then democracy won’t work – as philosophers, sociologists, and legal theorists have discovered through the study of social choice theory.

    So people should be humble – even if proud – when talking about the merits of democracy. It is but an experiment. It is an idea to be discussed and tried – not lectured and imposed.

    The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

    I am not sure if this is correct. The fact that individual is endowed with inalienable rights is an expression for rule of law – due process. It has nothing per se to do with Democracy. The idea that individual is rational is also not how I understand to be what enlightenment is about.

    Enlightenment was a reaction against the rigid grip the Church had on all phases of life throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. While it does involve the freedom of individuals to use intelligence and tools to objectively question established thought (mostly religious thoughts), it was less about individual rationality than the use of science, empirical observations, scientific methods, and objective reductionism to gain new knowledge – and to dispose of the old. It is about relying on the studied man with expertise, not having faith in the of collective wisdom of untrained masses.

    In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world.

    I don’t think this is true either. Industrial revolution was able to bring about unprecedented economic prosperity by enabling colonialism – which is hardly “democratic: – unless one has a very narrow sense of what is “democratic” again. Democracy may have brought about the political compromises that brought about the necessary balance of power between the monarch, the aristocrats, the church, and the increasingly disgruntled workers to avert continual war as the West industrialized, but the prosperity laid on the oppression of the rest of the world, not some kind of democracy wisdom per se.

    Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

    The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

    This is a good point. America began and subsequently succeeded as a republic, not a democracy per se. America’s biggest transformation throughout its history is the abolishment of slavery and the subsequent civil rights movement. Yet neither came about because of democracy. (Democracy would have perpetuated, not abolished slavery) The end of slavery came about as result of a war to preserve the union – not to free the slaves. Until the very last stage when the hard work has been done (when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of f1964), civil rights was achieved in large part through courageous Supreme Court decisions (i.e. in the the least democratic of ways in a so-called democracy).

    Even today, for the most important social and political decisions – Americans look to the Court – not Congress – from abortion to campaign financing rules to the winner of presidential elections. Most of regulations are also promulgated by bureaucrats through administrative rules/laws – environmental protection, tax rules, FDA rules, trade rules, etc. The issues are technical and complex that the average citizen really cannot comprehend. Because of the complexity involved in modern governance, a large part of governance is inherently undemocratic.

    As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

    There is obviously some grain of truth in there, but I think it’s too cynical. Yes, money may corrupt democratic discourse and decision making, but it is not dispositive. That is, the most money spent does not always guarantee victory. The people still have a voice…

    Also spineless politicians per se may be a good thing in one sense. I mean, at least they are doing the biding of the people. The real issue here is that politicians that bend too quickly to the will and whims of the people weakens the Republic – it now becomes a direct democracy – a sort of mob rule. The result is the dysfunctional California governance mentioned in the op-ed. Democracy works when it is highly constrained, but that protection is weakened with spineless politicians.

    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.

    However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

    Here Eric makes some critical mistakes. What are the national interests? A cynical reader would say, it is to make China a strong nation, the people be damned. This sounds like Hitler – or Wartime Japan – to many…

    Another problem is that it makes China seem more monolithic than it is. In reality, there are many interests for China. There are a lot of opinions on many subjects in China – within and without the government. The West already fears a China, Inc. – a faceless monolithic powerful empire that is the antithesis of the humaneness embodied in democracy. This caricature of China intent on building national power is not only inaccurate but won’t help alleviate tensions.

    The rest of the article justifying TAM is neither insightful or helpful. Is TAM a necessary evil or a terrible tragedy?

    Now I don’t think what happened was necessarily a travesty (if TAM avoided a bloody civil war, I think – from a humanist perspective – it must be considered a good thing).

    But my take is that it was probably more a terrible tragedy than a necessary evil. If something like it happen again today, I think the gov’t can resolve the issues without going full force. It would probably be more sophisticated at crowd control, etc.

    In any case, whether I am wrong or not – to simply say economic progress is worth mowing down a few hundred people – even if sincerely felt – doesn’t project the kind of value that I think China ought to stand for. China is already seen as this ruthless super efficient machine that may threaten the Western way of life (whatever that is). This conclusion to an already controversial op-ed doesn’t help.

  15. February 17th, 2012 at 02:02 | #15

    @Anna

    I think we need to be careful about using the notion of “enlightened absolutism” to describe China’s tradition or form of gov’t.

    “Enlightened absolutism” is meant to apply to a monarch who has absolute power and who does good for the people as a choice – not duty.

    In the Chinese tradition of governance, the emperor – while absolute in power – has a duty to uphold the mandate of heaven. This means he must provide be an ethical leader, be an upright person, and ensure justice throughout the lands. In other words, even an emperor has an obligation to the people.

    The notion that a gov’t must be checked by the masses protected by rights is not needed if a leader is checked by an even higher order of ethics, duty, and code of conduct.

    Melektaus recently wrote a piece that touched upon this topic. I am sure more we will have more to say about this aspect of Chinese governance / tradition in the future…

  16. Lime
    February 17th, 2012 at 03:50 | #16

    @Allen
    I think you’re taking a rather naive view of Chinese history. Although you’re right about the theory of the Mandate of Heaven, in practice it rarely worked out that way. The withdrawal of the Mandate was always an after the fact thing. The Chinese imperial governments generally did not go down without a fight, and there were a lot more repressed rebellions than there were successful ones. So in practice, imperial China was no different than autocracies in Europe or anywhere else in the world.

    But it’s kind of irrelevant to Anna’s comment anyways, because she’s talking about the modern Communist Party of China China, which is not an imperial dynasty and has no Mandate of Heaven. Additionally, the distinction between choosing to govern with the people’s interests at heart or being obligated to is more or less aside from the main point of her comment. I think the comparison is valid; for good or for ill, the Chinese government’s philosophy is that they know what’s good for the people better than the people themselves, and political participation among the general population is indeed circumscribed by the decisions made by the ruling class. I’m not arguing that’s a bad thing necessarily, but Anna’s still essentially right.

  17. LOLZ
    February 17th, 2012 at 07:06 | #17

    I would argue against Li’s point that the Western nations view Democracy is an end in itself. I think this is what many Western NeoCons and their supporters believe, but I don’t think all Western citizens believe this. Leaders of the Western nations tend to be win elections by pretending to be democracy idealists, but Western nation’s foreign policies tend to be realistic. If America the nation values democracy over all other values and sees Democracy as an end, how is it possible that the US has supported (and still continue to support) so many dictators?

  18. jxie
    February 17th, 2012 at 08:19 | #18

    @Lime

    Which specific part of the Chinese history are you talking about? For the bulk of the Chinese recorded history, the power of Emperor was checked by the power of Prime Minister — the emperors (with some exceptions) didn’t have the absolute power. Often time, emperor’s wishes as mundane as expanding the imperial palace could be vetoed by the bureaucratic apparatus. Somebody had a research that the prime ministers in the Chinese history, on average came from more humble families than the US presidents. Effectively for the most part you don’t have “those who governed” vs “those who were governed”. If you bought in the system, were smart enough, driven enough and lucky enough, you could also move to the top.

    Stable dynasties like Han, Tang, Song, Ming had lasted longer than the US has been in existence. In a way, the falling part of a stable, reasonably checked-and-balanced dynasty was the outliner not the norm. For instance, in as late as 1600 Ming was an all powerful and rich dynasty. Then in only a few decades, the Little Ice Age came, the agricultural dropped precipitously, peasant rebellions started everywhere, and finally an ambitious tribe outside of the Great Wall took over everything. If the global temperature is to drop a few degrees, methinks many Western democracies will drop like flies.

    In the PRC history textbooks, there typically is a chronological list of Chinese dynasties. The funny thing is there isn’t a big thick line drawn between Qing and ROC (listed as 1911 – 1949), or between ROC and PRC, as if anything before the line is pre-modern, and anything after is post-modern. To most Chinese, today is just a continuation of the past.

    Note 1: apology to those who are loyal to ROC — just stating the fact without judgments.
    Note 2: today’s China being a continuation of the past, would make Mao very unhappy.

  19. February 17th, 2012 at 09:30 | #19

    @jxie

    Thanks for the background…

    I guess in comment #15 where I said:

    In the Chinese tradition of governance, the emperor – while absolute in power – has a duty to uphold the mandate of heaven.

    I should have written

    In the Chinese tradition of governance, the emperor – while wielding absolute power in acting through the Imperial Court – has a duty to uphold the mandate of heaven.

    That oversight arose from a rush to comment.

    In the Chinese tradition, the emperor relied heavily on the bureaucrats and his court. That is why there was such emphasis on the examination system. And the bureaucrats and court for the most part were selected democratically and meritocratically.

  20. February 17th, 2012 at 09:34 | #20

    @Lime #16

    I don’t think I have a “naive” view of history. All systems can corrupt. The fact that something has gone corrupt is not an indictment of the system per se.

    Your criticism of my comment appears to imply to me that you think that somehow democracies cannot be so corrupted.

    As even Xi noted even in this somewhat flawed op-ed, the jury is still out. There has been a long history to the Chinese way – and make no mistake – the focus on ethics and integrity of rulers and the focus on justice to me is the essence of the Chinese way of governance. The history of Western democracy (even if short-lived) doesn’t give much confidence about its ability to avoid corruption – if one factors in today’s notion of universal suffrage (how could the founders be so off), colonialism, the continued global injustice perpetrated by the West, its current systemic corruption (money politics, revolving door).

  21. JLemien
    February 17th, 2012 at 10:25 | #21

    I take issue specifically with the description of TAM:

    “The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

    That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.”

    Just so the facts are corrected, only the hardliners inside the party (such as Li Peng and similar conservatives) saw it as a rebellion. It was a protest and a demonstration, but the driving intentions were never to overthrow the party, to start a civil war, or to initiate a rebellion. (There were certainly minority voices who were less respectful of the established order, such as Lu Decheng, but considering how the vast majority of people worked against this more aggressive individuals, these voices were clearly in the minority) In fact, the impression given by the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang is that most of the students merely desired a retraction of the April 26th editorial which characterized the students as anti-party, anti-socialist elements who wish to overthrow the party. Many students saw themselves as patriots fighting corruption, not as anti-party nor anti-socialist. So, it could only be considered a rebellion in the words of Li Peng and politicians of a similar view.

    Secondly, it was ‘put down’ mostly on the night of June 3rd, trailing into the early morning of June 4th. By the time the sun was up on June 4th it was mostly just clean up, as the remaining protesters had already been herded out of the square.

    Finally, the author says that “the alternatives would have been far worse,” which is a strangely nonfactual statement to make seeing as no one knows what the alternatives would have been. However, a few hundred deaths and hundreds (possibly thousands?) more detained and arrested afterwards with various fates does not seem better to me than the most realistic alternative: the standing committee of the central commission publicly acknowledging that the students were patriotic while allowing emotions to cool.

    Just to note, I am not attacking Eric X Li’s argument, but rather I am just trying to reduce the amount of false information while informing people of facts. More info on the details of TAM are available from “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.”

  22. February 17th, 2012 at 11:13 | #22

    @Anna here, here.

  23. Charles Liu
    February 17th, 2012 at 14:26 | #23
  24. pug_ster
    February 17th, 2012 at 17:26 | #24

    I personally don’t know why people bring up the issue of Tiananmen incident when it already happened more than 20 years ago. People like Li keep bringing up this issue like beating a dead cow.

    In the past year, a tiny country Bahrain 50+ people died, many others jailed, and tortured because they oppose the government and is stilled happening today. Yet Western propaganda sweep this issue under the rug.

  25. silentchinese
    February 17th, 2012 at 20:33 | #25

    pug_ster :
    I personally don’t know why people bring up the issue of Tiananmen incident when it already happened more than 20 years ago. People like Li keep bringing up this issue like beating a dead cow.
    In the past year, a tiny country Bahrain 50+ people died, many others jailed, and tortured because they oppose the government and is stilled happening today. Yet Western propaganda sweep this issue under the rug.

    A bigger percentage of its population died in that incident than that of china during 1989 Crisis.

    Yet it still is a big ally of US and host the HQ of US Forces in Gulf.

    and its rulers just god Eric Prince the Blackwater CEO to build him a private army capable of putting down any internal revolts.

    what is wrong with the picture!?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/15/erik-prince-blackwater-united-arab-emirates_n_862098.html

  26. silentchinese
    February 17th, 2012 at 20:38 | #26

    I think generally if one were to take a good hard look at the realities of today’s world. one would find that there is a fundamental theme that is underlying all of trouble that is in today’s world.

    Wether it is Rough and tumble in Rise of China, Trouble in Middle East. Political and Economic morass that is America or European Economy on the edge of abyss.

    There is something fundamentally out of kilter with this world today.

    The discussion here at HH etc are good. but they only scratch the surface.

    I think there is a unifying theme that connects all of these issues. William Hooper comes close.

    I may have come close to it. May Be I will write a article to explore the connection between all.

  27. February 17th, 2012 at 22:24 | #27

    @silentchinese
    I for one will be interested in reading your take. 🙂

  28. Lime
    February 18th, 2012 at 02:05 | #28

    @Allen #20
    I didn’t mean to condemn your whole view of history as naive, just that particular reference to the Mandate of Heaven. My comment was neither about corruption nor democracy. I just felt like sticking up for Anna, who, in my view, made a reasonable comparison. I’m also not condemning the Chinese imperial system. I find it both an impressive and fascinating institution. And as Jxie said above, stable government was in fact the norm, while revolution was the exception most of the time.

    But here’s an issue I have with your comment if you want to talk about democracy and corruption. You say you feel that one of the hallmarks of Chinese governance is “the focus on ethics and integrity of rulers and the focus on justice”, which I assume you feel applies both to the modern Communist state and all the past imperial dynasties. In both Chinese and Anglo-American history (if you’ll allow me to the narrow the “west” down to something a little more discussable), you can find many, many examples where ethics, integrity of the rulers, and justice were all lamentably absent. But do you really think that in Chinese history there was a greater focus on them? It seems to me that even in their apparent absence, they still remain ubiquitous themes in Anglo-American political dialogs as well.

  29. William
    February 18th, 2012 at 09:17 | #29

    @jxie and others. There’s a big problem with the column – it doesn’t deliver what it promises. The title talks about China’s political model. Yet nowhere is this Chinese “model” actually described, despite all the close attention the writer gives to democracy in its Athenian or Federalist varieties.

    Instead, he talks about results (stability, growth, prosperity) and trends (gradually more freedom) but doesn’t tell us anything of value about the “path” by which these are attained. What, in particular, is superior about the model?

    This is important because China obviously doesn’t operate the way it says (on paper) that it does. The party is not a revolutionary working-class collective. The 8-9 other legal political parties don’t seem to do much, and policy doesn’t seem to be actually thrashed out in public at the people’s congresses and PPCCs.

    So tell us what this model is! Are you going to put an argument together, like some in the Chinese administration do (in private) that there’s a lot of informal consultation going on that makes the whole system very responsive? Or are you going to tell us that it’s a Machiavellian system of trade-offs between the elite (party et al) and others who are kept in place with carrot and stick? Or are you going to tell us something else?

    If it’s successful as you say, it seems a bit selfish to keep it all hushed up.

  30. February 18th, 2012 at 09:32 | #30

    @Lime

    But do you really think that in Chinese history there was a greater focus on them? It seems to me that even in their apparent absence, they still remain ubiquitous themes in Anglo-American political dialogs as well.

    In my view, the emphasis on ethics, of the noble leader, of a justice society – is at the essence of the Chinese order. It pervades everything – where the examination system is but one manifestation.

    As for emphasis on ethical leadership in the West, it’s definitely conspicuously lacking. The notion of “invisible hand” in capitalism absolves the requirement of morality in economic activities. The notion of democratic check (vote), of check and balances, and of rule law absolve rulers and ruled of morality in political activities. Sure people talk about them, but it’s not the essence of the econo-political order.

    The above should not be controversial in my view. What is controversial is whether an ethics based check on government and individuals – the essence of the Chinese order – is possible in the modern world.

    The jury is out. The Chinese order – as I understand it – has not returned even in China. But I think China ought to be given the room to rediscover it, as I believe it is beginning to.

  31. zack
    February 18th, 2012 at 11:46 | #31

    oooh, the gloves are off now; the West takes deep offence if there’s anything that doubts the suppose superiority of the Washington Consensus of Liberal Democracies, not unlike the medieval era Catholic Church taking deep offence at a difference form of religion.
    You’ll notice the missionary zeal of Western propagandists take a turn for the hysterical as the evidence demonstrates that the Washington Consensus is not the be-all and end-all for all societies.

  32. LOLZ
    February 18th, 2012 at 22:14 | #32

    William :
    @jxie and others. There’s a big problem with the column – it doesn’t deliver what it promises. The title talks about China’s political model. Yet nowhere is this Chinese “model” actually described, despite all the close attention the writer gives to democracy in its Athenian or Federalist varieties.
    Instead, he talks about results (stability, growth, prosperity) and trends (gradually more freedom) but doesn’t tell us anything of value about the “path” by which these are attained. What, in particular, is superior about the model?

    I think this comment actually proves one of Li’s points. William’s comments showed that he doesn’t really see the vastly improving demographic figures as an end, but he instead argues for a more clear political system comparison. Li’s point on the other hand was that the Chinese system cares about RESULTS measured in demographic numbers, as opposed to Western liberalism which sees Democracy itself as a result and an end. In this regard I didn’t read Li’s essay as necessarily against Democracy, but against the idea of overly emphasizing the political system itself over real results which were produced by changes, political or otherwise.

    I think the model which Li would argue for is one which doesn’t necessarily see the political system itself (Democracy or Authoritarianism) as the ultimate goal. This is also why I don’t agree entire with Li’s generalization, because I don’t think everyone in the West thinks the political system is the end to governance.

  33. February 18th, 2012 at 22:33 | #33

    @LOLZ

    I don’t think everyone in the West thinks the political system is the end to governance.

    It certainly appears that way most of the time though. I mean, people always start the discussion with democracy, human rights, freedom, personal rights, property rights, civil society, separation of power … when in the end, none of this matter. What matters is / should be social welfare – people’s welfare…

  34. William
    February 19th, 2012 at 00:17 | #34

    @Allen

    Let’s talk about means and ends. Let’s also talk about tactics.

    The Chinese strapline of this blog is 为中国说句公道话 . Now there are various ways to do that, but we have to think about how to be effective and persuasive. So does Eric Li.

    That’s why the title of his op-ed is important. Once a reader has seen the title “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior” they’re going to feel short-changed if the writer doesn’t tell them anything about China’s political model. You’re making points about results being the priority in China, but then the op-ed should have been titled “Why There Are Jobs to be had in China” or “Why Things Are Going Better in China”.

    If you promise the reader the answer to “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior” they’re going to want to be told about the “how”, not just the “what”.

    If you just tell them “China’s results are better”, it may be logically true, but it still antagonizes people. It makes them want to think up counter-examples. How about tiny places with lots of oil? Brunei? Results are better there too, but your first reaction is surely “that’s just the oil”. We need cause and effect for China, too.

    Compare to how people talked about Singapore and some other Asian Tigers, particularly in the 1990s. This includes how Lee Kuan Yew himself talked in interviews. They didn’t just say “Singapore is doing well – so there!” That’s preaching to the converted – it sounds good to you, but doesn’t convince others. They went further and talked about how the system there worked. The PAP was described as elitist but apolitical and as having a good mechanism for scouting out people with leadership potential at an early stage (direct invitations), and for co-opting other opinion leaders and successful people (NMPs, et cetera). People tried to go into detail about how low customs duties and light regulation were handy, at the same time as state ownership of the big property developers and industrial groups at least made them contribute to the national agenda, while running as profitable businesses. They mostly ignored sillier stuff like libel laws, and concentrated on early efforts to enshrine family values in law (allowing elderly parents to sue their children for maintenance).

    Let’s not go into too much detail, but for much of the 1990s there was a fairly large strand of opinion that was sympathetic to Singapore. You may or may not like the place, but some people at least were being convinced.

    None of this stuff has yet really been done for China. It certainly hasn’t been done by the Chinese state – there are various reasons why, but it often boils down to “do one thing and say another”. So others need to step into the void.

    To do that we need to take a position, and not say anything that is simply going to get you laughed at by anyone reading from China (I’m writing this from Beijing right now). You certainly have a choice. Do you follow Joshua Cooper Ramo’s line (Beijing Consensus)? Do you accept part of the cynics’ line (there’s an entrenched elite) but argue back saying that the middle class plays a bigger role? Do you go technocratic (build the infrastructure, and eventually it’ll all fall into place)?Or do you take another position? There are plenty of options.

    We need positive arguments.

  35. jxie
    February 19th, 2012 at 00:29 | #35

    @William

    First it’s Eric Li’s piece, which in my opinion was mis-titled. You did raise many good questions. There are still many moving parts in the Chinese political system — China certainly isn’t about to sell it to the world like the West is doing as if it’s the iPhone Final Edition. I wouldn’t call the Chinese political system as superior, but rather Chinese’s approach and willingness to refine and improve its political system, are superior.

    A common misconception is that there hasn’t been much political change or reform since 1989. After Deng’s death, the real power was actually peacefully transferred from one generation (Jiang/Zhu) to the next (Hu/Wen), while the old generation was still alive. Obviously it was supposed to be hard to achieve for those in the highest power of an authoritarian system to give up their power, but how did they do that? Anyway, a precedent has been set, and it’s quite unlikely for anybody to reverse that.

    Then there was the question how the heck Xi was chosen? Obviously there had to be some sort of formal or informal vote or poll. Who were the participants? When did that take place? Xi is pretty much the chosen one now but obvious the top 9 have not been finalized yet, so there is still a lot of political juggling ongoing. Can the process be more transparent or even codified? But if you really think about it, how is that different than the process of the ups and downs of Japanese Jiminto members or any parties’ members, and how most of those past Japanese prime ministers were chosen anyway? There is no equivalent of Primaries in Japan.

    For the time being I am just thankful that the evolving system and process seem to be able to:

    * Get the capable people to the decision making spots.
    * Get things done, on time and on budget.
    * Get the members to largely unite around a common goal of raising the living standard and the standing of the nation.

    Anyway, something unrelated but rather a couple of “wow” moments to me personally to change my view of the Chinese political system:

    1. The arrest and sentence of Chen Liangyu, the former mayor and party chief of Shanghai, supposedly a key member of the “Shanghai Faction”. Obviously it was an unmistakable sign that Jiang was no longer in power. Many cynics thought most high-level CCP members were corrupted and he happened to be a victim of the political infighting. If that’s the case, it’s hard for me to understand why he didn’t keep enough dirt of his peers to protect himself. Actually in a system that is rotten to its core like some suggest, when a member of such high level falls off, you would expect he either is mysteriously killed or sent off with a cushy early retirement. But the SOB was sent to a 18-year prison term at age 60+.

    2. My uncle who retired from the Chinese bureaucratic system a few years ago after he moved up to as high as about 3/4 way to the top, went to Tsinghua the same year as Hu. In some casual conversations with him I got to know Hu as a very smart guy with a photographic memory. He kept a tab on his college peers. Some of them went to pretty high levels, who according to him, were actually the more capable ones back in the college days. Maybe there was some confirmation bias in there but overall my uncle’s judgments have been typically solid. To me, this has got to be a civilization thing — everybody starts at a reasonably egalitarian base and gets moved up by mostly merit.

  36. Lime
    February 19th, 2012 at 03:16 | #36

    @Allen
    I see your point. Well the current Chinese oligarchic, post-socialist system is a pretty new experiment, but in spite of the many horrible failures similar systems in other parts of the world underwent or are undergoing, the Chinese system seems to be sustaining itself. So let’s wait thirty or forty years and see how it’s going then.

  37. raventhorn
    February 19th, 2012 at 13:08 | #37

    @Lime

    The current Western “democratic” post-Imperialist post-Slavery system is also pretty new experiment. I would give it another 50-100 years and then make a reasonable judgment. (Which in the long LONG history of China, would be less than a blink of an eye).

  38. February 19th, 2012 at 14:15 | #38

    @William

    I’d agree with most of what you wrote. As I myself noted in the comments above, Eric failed to show why the Chinese model is better. Merely poking holes in America’s or West’s model does not qualify per se. One need more to explain the “Chinese miracle.”

    Yet as I noted in a prior post:

    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.

    Maybe there is nothing more to China’s success than preservation of peace at home and nothing more to West’s success than aggressive predation of the world (colonialism, Ameerica’s neo-colonial, post WWII forward military thrust). Maybe there is something more – and something more interesting. Maybe there is something to both the Chinese and Western models … from which there is so much we can all learn.

  39. silentchinese
    February 20th, 2012 at 07:31 | #39

    Someone should re-write his article,

    he didn’t delve into the “why” part in “Why China’s Poltical Model Is Superior”, didn’t he?

  40. February 20th, 2012 at 10:49 | #40

    @silentchinese

    I think William Hooper’s ideas (linked on the right) help. I mention Hooper not because he has any connection to / influence with CCP per se. It’s because we had discussed his idea and I find it interesting.

    Huffingtonpost recently had this article of China’s notion of scientific development. It’s good enough as an introduction. To me any answer why Chinese system is better must involve a discussion of this.

    This is a key reason why I think Ann’s comment above (which many seem to like) misses the point. While it may capture what the Chinese form of gov’t is in terms of the Western experience – liberalism and democracy – it is blind to other forces that shapes gov’t – forces that are critical outside the Western experience – forces that everyone – the West included – can learn from.

    Confucian ethics is one force (and I don’t mean it in a lighthearted way that it’s tossed around in the Western press, maybe even amongst some CCP members). Science and empirical objectivity is another. The merger of that ethics + the notion of applying science to create a just society is something that begins to look like the scientific development principle that the CCP has been trying to articulate for the last decade or so or that Hooper tries to articulate. It’s important to note that scientific development is not about relying on the wisdom of the masses, but the expertise of those skilled in rationality, empiricism and science to do what’s best for the masses.

    Yes – this notion of scientific development (merger of ethics + science) may be vague (as the huff post article correctly noted), but so is notion of liberalism and democracy… Both are vague in the sense that both can be corrupted to give rise to bad governance.

    In this comment above I explicitly brought up the issue of ethics that define / control the ruler as a characteristic of Chinese governance. I really think this is the best way to ensure good governance. Relying on the “people” might work if the people can rise above to be good, wise citizens – otherwise you are better off to have wise rulers.

    What about the so-called bad emperor problem? The people can be bad, too. A bigoted populace will want a bigoted result no matter how many times you ask the people. Thus, as I noted above, it’s not surprising that many of the most enlightened reforms of the U.S. have come about through the Supreme Court (not really a “democratic” branch), not an upwelling of people power as might be expressed in the legislature.

    The so-called “bad emperor problem” thus applies equally well to democracy as well as authoritarianism. What is typically offered as a solution to that problem in democracy is so-called liberalism: checks and balances, constitution, private rights, strong civic society – things that constrain the sovereign (the people). But these are things that an authoritarian gov’t can have too. There is nothing inherent about authoritarianism that is incompatible with these things.

    Thus the bad emperor is not really an issue of democracy vs. authoritarianism, but the type of quality control mechanism inherent in each system.

    In the case of China vs. West: it’s really something like technocracy + Confucianism vs. liberalism. (Confucianism actually has a good dose of liberalism built in – in terms of outsourcing governance of people to a strong civic society made of family / clans – a notion that can be updated in the modern society; so does technocracy – how to build good governance, with liberalism as a tool, not an end)

    The framework of scientific development is already there, but the system needs time to mature.

    Maybe I can tie all the thoughts above into a post…

  41. silentchinese
    February 20th, 2012 at 14:23 | #41

    @Allen

    To me the question is very simple.

    Better or Not Better. Superior or Not Superior.

    This involves metric.

    Measurable or un-Measurable, Metric help us determine what is better or worse.

    for example, if a Low rate economic growth, rampant inflation, and political impasse, is desired as “good” or “Plus”, then the chinese system will clearly be measured to be not “Superior”.

    without establishing a clear set of metric, one can not systematically determine what is good and what is superior.

    Now if we go for a philosophical approach and measure only vague qualitative terms, one can still establish a set of metrics, i.e. Long term stablity, Long term peace, Short term satisfaction of population, and rate it qualitatively.

    To William Hooper His approach is slightly different, to him, the very logic of populist democracy is bankrupted.

    For example, Let’s say The social poltical order of the day, that democractic system that elevates individual human rights is best because it has the most utility, is like a Euclidean geometry system. and that the aggregate of individual opinions derives maximum utility in political or economics systems is like the basic 5 axioms of euclidean geometry.

    But,

    The foundation of what’s accepted to be as true and good, i.e. the principle that aggregate of individual opinions derives maximum utility, The Axiom, is clearly debunked by examples in real life.

    yet some still hold on to them like the original 5 axioms in Euclidean geometry, except those Axioms are proven by examples countless times to be not universal. By logic one should realize that we do not live in a Euclidean world. we don;t live in a world where “social poltical order of the day” derives the maximum utility,

    but most of people still don;t realize that.

  42. silentchinese
    February 20th, 2012 at 14:25 | #42

    … but most of people still don;t realize that.

    which clearly shows statistically most people are not rational. How can you use logic to convince illogical people?

    ====

    btw, a relatively rigorious metric based evaluation, is clearly the superior aspect of the chinese system. remember black-white cat?

    Who on this earth will measure the performance of their prefecture executives with economic growth numbers and other indices of progress? and their promotion and career advancement accordingly?

    you can argue the system is imperfect and full of corruption etc etc, but who does this on a massive national scale? no-one.


    To me, these attemots Try to distill the chnese system into some ideological combination (Neo-confucian-Liberal-Authoritarian etc etc) , is clearly anti-thesis to the very superior essence of the chinese system.

  43. February 20th, 2012 at 20:52 | #43

    @silentchinese #41 and @silentchinese #42,

    To me the question is very simple.

    Better or Not Better. Superior or Not Superior.

    This involves metric.

    Measurable or un-Measurable, Metric help us determine what is better or worse.

    without establishing a clear set of metric, one can not systematically determine what is good and what is superior.

    While a metric – spoken or implied – is needed, the determining of a metric is neither simple nor straight forward. Problem is that with changing human circumstances, metrics change. At one time, society’s most important goal may be economics – at another, government restraint – yet another, technological or cultural development – etc.

    Between societies, things could also change… depending on circumstances…

    Human experience and needs cannot be simplified into simple metrics – at least metrics that are measurable and universally agreed. Hence, by extension, I don’t believe in such a thing as Universal values…

  44. raventhorn
    February 24th, 2012 at 19:00 | #44

    Custer finally stewed out a rhetorical turd of an argument: China’s political system should be judged according to what all political systems are supposed to do.

    Erh, “all political systems are supposed to do”? According to whose point of view?

    Then he goes on to ask the questions of “why” China does a list of things. “no free press”, etc.

    Er, aren’t these HIS questions, HIS point of view, HIS ideological views of what political systems are supposed to do??!!

    Well, OK, Custer’s questions are EVERYONE’s questions. If he’s asking, he’s assuming everyone cares as much as he does.

    Oh, NOT. Yet another assumption of a super-ego defeated by reality.

    My questions, which I do not assume that others would care as much in US:

    (1) WHY US would call its “press” free, when it is bought and paid for and owned by large corporations?
    (2) WHY Custer would talk about US government as “it”, when it is “we the People” who governs in a “democracy”?
    And finally:
    (3) WHY can’t “free people” in “Democracy” take responsibility for their own mess, instead of blaming some mysterious “IT” government??

    “We the People” type government certainly fails BIG TIME in the Responsibility department. And isn’t “RESPONSIBILITY” pretty much the ONLY point of even having a “GOVERNMENT”???!!

  45. Citizen
    March 1st, 2012 at 01:43 | #45

    Not sure where to post this, but here’s an excellent and relevant piece on traditional European Conservatism.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/right-minds/

    The parallels with traditional Confucian theory, and with aspects of the current mode of government in China are very strong… no individualism, the importance of preexisting hierarchies, the family as a model structure, the need for the rulers to be of good character, even the distaste for commerce (a strong and often overlooked feature of Confucian China).

    The article also points the difference between this kind of conservatism, and fascism:

    ‘The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.’

    And that’s where the current Chinese model tips into authoritarianism. Where are the restraining traditions and institutions in China now? The CCP, being revolutionaries, wiped them out.

  46. jxie
    March 1st, 2012 at 21:14 | #46

    Found this longish but overall very good interview of Eric Li by Anand Giridharadas, with a lively Q&A session:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2JUHnrb14U

    It touches on many subjects that we have been discussing here.

  47. March 1st, 2012 at 21:27 | #47

    Lol jxie. Check your email.

  48. August 20th, 2013 at 12:52 | #48

    Dear Eric,
    I would like to suggest you to read about “In+Direct” Democracy that is a rough concept that combines one party political system with democracy. I hope we could work together and develop it further into let say “democratic one party political system”
    All Bests
    Tomasz Sinczak
    P.S. “In+Direct” Democracy can be found at democracy.locoglosbi.eu

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.