I am now anxious to watch the debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei at the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, where the topic was “China and Democracy.” Once the video is available, I’ll post. The debate was moderated by The Atlantics’ James Fallows, who actually admits himself here biased. So, perhaps the debate was 1 vs 1 where Pei having gotten a partial referee on his side. Interestingly, J.J. Gould, a deputy editor from the same paper, was in the audience and recounts some key arguments put forth by the three. Not having had access to the actual debate yet, I decided to weight in on Gould’s recount. For Americans, and Westerners in general, there is a great deal of anxiety when it comes to China modernizing. China’s rise challenges their notion that modernity must be predicated on “Democracy.” Actually, if you think about it, why must China’s success challenge that notion? The simple psychology there is, as Henry Kissinger recently observed in his book, “On China:” America (and the West which she leads) pursues her “values with missionary zeal.” They see China as not a “Democracy.” Hence the title of the debate is what it is, isn’t it? I wager there are many Westerners who are sincere in wishing for what the best is for Chinese society. However, much of the anxiety really stems from zeal and intolerance for any other way. In that light, I am countering Pei and Fallows’ assertions.
Gould’s article is on the left column and my take on the right.
Chinese Democracy: Will It Ever Be More Than a Guns n’ Roses Album?
JUL 2 2012, 10:27 PM ET
Minxin Pei, Eric Li, and James Fallows debate the legitimacy and resilience of the People’s Repbublic
|In time of wide-ranging political change initiated by new pro-democracy movements, across North Africa and the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world — change that’s taking place against a centuries-in-the-making historical backdrop where the language of democracy has become increasingly the language of political legitimacy itself — there may be no non-democratic political model with a stronger claim to sustainable legitimacy than China’s.||I think it is incorrect to view the Arab Spring as a clamor for democracy. In the case of Egypt, it was unemployment and corruption due to a non-performing system largely propped up by the United States. The Occupy Wall Street movement in fact drew inspiration from the Arab Spring as well, and the more accurate characterization is people around the world (or pockets of them) generally discontent with their own societies.If democracy is the true salvation, then what the OWS has shown, even in the supposed beacon of democracy, is that it is not working well.|
|So how sustainable is it? At the Aspen Ideas Festival today, Minxin Pei, professor of government and the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, debated the question with Eric X. Li, founder and managing director of Chengwei Capital, a Chinese venture capital company. The exchange was moderated by Atlantic national correspondent, and author ofChina Airborne, James Fallows.|
|Pei’s argument, one he’s been developing for years, is that there are contradictions in the Chinese system that are straining that system and starting to manifest themselves more and more. Pei sees these contradictions on two levels: economic and political. In the economy, he says, we’re seeing a slow-down that’s become cyclical: The economy has been driven primarily by investments at home and exports to developed countries, which isn’t sustainable. In the political sphere, we’re seeing manifestations of a fundamental vulnerability of one-party systems globally: a tendency to drift into benefiting a relatively small, and ultimately predatory, elite at the expense of society generally, and the associated phenomena of high-level corruption and inequality.||It is true that Chinese society is undergoing tremendous stress. The country is in the midst of an industrial revolution. Roughly half of the country’s population still resides in the rural areas, meaning, half a billion people are still yet to move in the coming decades. Imagine 1 billion people on the move within few generations. That’s incredible transformation.Obviously, China will not sustain +10% GDP growth year on year in perpetuity. If there is one truth about our world economy is that it is cyclical.
Pei’s observation that the economy is slowing down says exactly what? Is he implying that the Chinese system inherently is incapable of managing her economy? That’d be ridiculous.
In fact, China’s new 5-year plan is precisely designed to spur domestic consumption, because the leadership expects a cut back on exports to markets like the U.S. and the E.U..
With the crash of the Western financial system in 2008, China immediately put a massive stimulus package in to smooth out the negative impact.
Remember that prior to the crash, China was in fact fighting inflation. It takes conviction and foresight to suddenly go from fighting inflation to stimulus on such a massive scale.
What the Chinese system has shown is in fact adeptness in managing her economy, something many experts in the West in fact admire.
On Pei’s assertion that one-party systems tend to concentrate wealth to a few is just not true. One could easily make the same case about democracies. Look at the wealth gained by the top 1% of Americans versus the rest in the last two decade!
If anything, socioeconomically, Chinese society is more upwardly mobile than ever in her modern history! America’s top listing of billionaires doesn’t really change. Super rich continues to maintain their dominance. However, in China’s case, the top list is much more dynamic.
I agree with Pei’s assertion that there is rampant corruption in China. This is also something acknowledged by the Chinese government. In fact, they see this as one of their top priorities.
What I also find mind boggling is that Americans tolerate the corrupt practice of lobbying in Washington. They also accept bailing out Wall Street and letting the banks off the hook for not complying with government wishes to loan, to spur economic development. Wall Street gambles with peoples savings. They would reap the rewards year after year. When finally their gamble failed, the public would come to their rescue. This is mind-blowing corruption which nobody has been made accountable.
Perhaps Americans can take some comfort in pointing at how corrupt Chinese society is today, but the truth is that both societies ought to address their respective rampant corruptions in their own way.
|Together, Pei claimed, these two domains of contradiction tend to impede the growth of China’s economy and undermine the legitimacy of its government. You can see the last two decades as a story of the rise of the Chinese system, Pei said; but the next 10 to 15 years (no less than 10, no more than 15) will be one of the system’s unraveling. And this is what the United States and the West generally need to worry about — not China’s strength but its weakness, because when the transition to a more democratic system comes, it will be very difficult to manage, particularly given the country’s deep ethnic divisions, its disputed borders, and its complex integration with the global economy.||Legitimacy applies both to one-party or multi-party political systems. Besides the OWS, also look at the recent London riots.Gordon Chang more than 10 years ago forecasted the same thing in his book, “The Coming Collapse of China.” I just checked, and China didn’t collapse.
Francis Fukuyama pronounced the “End of History” at the end of the Cold War. He would come to regret for spouting such nonsense.
I am sure Chang would be eager for Pei to co-author version 2.0 of that book. Ten years from that, they could write version 3.0. If we look at Chinese history, then he may eventually be right a few times within a millennium.
If Chinese society suddenly collapses, I don’t think it will be difficult to manage for the United States. The U.S. would be dealing with individually weakened pieces. China has also settled most of her land border disputes, a fact Gould has left out.
On the other hand, if there is a sudden collapse of the United States, that would be a much graver danger for the world. The United States could descend into fascism. With her military might, there could be a rampage across the planet.
Even if you take a more benign view towards an American collapse, as Zbigniew Brzezinski try to argue recently, the world may succumb to chaos while different countries try to realign politically.
|Li responded by conceding — despite the populist idiom of the Chinese Communist Party and the “People’s Republic” itself — that if you understand democracy specifically around the idea of one person having one vote in a competitive multiparty system, China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? “I’m a venture capitalist,” Li said, “so I look at track records.” In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.||There were other accomplishments important for Westerners to understand. After seeing how much power Mao had, Deng Xiaoping reformed the political system where only the National People’s Congress (NPC) has the power to elect the President. Presidents are limited to two terms maximum.The Chinese Communist Party’s own constitution has adopted the “scientific development concept,” whereby policies are experimented and adopted only when observable evidence proves so.
Many would agree with the observation that in America and much of the West, scientists are co-opted to serve politics and ideology.
If there is a report card for the last few decades, Chinese leadership clearly performed better than their Western counter parts.
|Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn’t specify what these were), but they’ve been dwarfed by China’s achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I’m at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that’s engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company’s top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn’t make sense. “The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. … I think the answer is clear.”|
|Track records may not contain all the information you need to place a good bet, Fallows pointed out: “The Wang computer company had a very strong track record — until it didn’t.”||Rome had a track record until it didn’t. Lehman Brothers had a track record until it didn’t. Today’s democracies might have a track record – – until it didn’t.The truth is, when societies fail to progress, that’s when you try to fix them. The West has not offered any convincing argument why the current Chinese system will not evolve successfully.|
|China’s is in any case a complicated track record, Pei argued — and one “with a lot of cliff-hanging moments.” From the Great Leap Forward, through a period of mass famine, and all the initial stages of the Communist system’s consolidation, the cost of that system’s development is measurable in tens of millions of lives. “This was one of most violent episodes in Chinese history,” Pei said. “The Mao regime outdid all other emperors” in bloodshed — “and China’s history is full of bloody emperors.”||I agree with Pei that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were disasters. That was under very different circumstances when Mao had tremendous power and could unilaterally sustain bad policies. It happened when ideologically, China didn’t understand greedy capitalism would prove more productive. Those are lessons learned.Pei is quite specious in lumping in “bloody emperors” in describe modern China. First of all, there aren’t emperors any more.
Since we are talking about democracy, where do we place WW1 and WW2? Where do we place slavery? Where do we place the hundreds of thousands Iraqi children killed by the Iraq war?
If Pei would like to pin all the ills of China’s 5000 year history to the modern Chinese, then he mind as well argue the illegitimacy of all modern democracies.
This line of argument is incredibly weak.
|When you look at the future of this system, Pei said, the issue is: How does it compare with similar “companies”? And is it in a “sector” that shows future growth? To answer this, the most important issue is the ultimate collapse of similar one-party systems around the world. The longest-surviving among them ever was the Soviet Union, which didn’t make it past 70 years. Chinese Communism has been in power for 63. So if you consider the Soviet lifespan, and the nature of what ultimately limited it, would you “invest” in the Chinese system’s political future today?||There were Chinese dynasties with an emperor at the helm that lasted much longer than most democracies on this planet.This is cherry-picking some data to support one’s argument.|
|It wasn’t that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the “one person, one vote” definition seriously.||Li makes an excellent point here. I would add, with the Patriot Act, the American democracy is yet different than from immediately before.|
|Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they’re charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? “It’s like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”||The two ruling parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have reached a point where they no longer can compromise. Look at the number of bills stuck in both houses.|
|Corruption in China is a big problem, Li concedes, but that needs to be understood in a proper context: In Transparency International‘s ranking, for example, all of the top-20 least-corrupt countries in the world, except four, are Western, and among that four, only Japan is democratic; the rest of the TI’s top-20 that are not from the West are autocracies. The question, Li said, is whether corruption is inherent to the political system, or whether it’s a byproduct of rapid development — noting the portrayals of earlier times in the development of the United States portrayed in films like Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood. “China should have at least as good a shot of correcting for corruption as any other system.”|
|On the greater reported levels of support for government and public institutions reported among Chinese relative to Americans, Pei said, “popular opinion surveys are highly variable” — and one of the factors that really tends to affect it is past experience. I.e., the Maoist era was terrible. But in any event, if you really want to test whether people accept the current system, rather than using popular-opinion polling as an indicator of legitimacy, “give them the real test — give them the vote.” In the United States, Pei said, citizens get angry, but they don’t question the legitimacy of the system in a way that people do in power systems maintained by lies, cheating, and violence. The world today has 120 democracies; 80 have made transitions to electoral democracy in last ten 10 years. Yes, corruption exists everywhere, but the main thing to take away from the TI list is that the world’s least-corrupt countries are almost all democracies. The exceptions are the autocracies. Democracies cannot, to be sure, eliminate corruption altogether; but autocracies have no hope combating it effectively. The three conditions any political system needs to check corruption, Pei said, are free media, the rule of law, and nongovernmental-organization / civil-society monitoring. None of these things are available in autocracies.||Pei does not understand China.Chinese government censorship against ‘dissidents’ are normally against political opposition. If we look at Weibo and the Chinese Internet, criticisms are many. The Chinese media are increasingly shedding light in dark areas.
China recently has passed laws requiring government departments to disclose information.
China is slowly marching towards rule of law. Judicial corruption is still rampant.
However, as more court cases are reported, the more Chinese society will become aware of the legal recourse.
Absent of that awareness, people bribe officials or pull in their friends to help them settle disputes. It is the sense of justice from the more ‘powerful’ that help disputes settle.
That’s how Chinese society has worked for millennia, and towards rule of law takes time. It’s a cultural transformation.
Chinese workers are increasingly suing companies and winning.
This is an undeniable trend, which apparently Pei does not see.
|Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.||Fallows questioning is symptomatic of the Western mind-set: everything is black and white; is it the best or the worst?|
|“I am saying the former.”||Personally, I am not sure. Society constantly evolves, and if we look at China’s 5000 year history, the pendulum always seemed capable of swinging.The Chinese leaders usually will state that China adapts to suit her unique circumstances. They normally do not profess any ideal system.|
|The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world’s advance democracies.||Agreed.|
|Much has changed, Pei agreed, but the one thing that has not is the political system. If you look at footage of the National People’s Congress, for example, there you see stasis. People have changed, society has changed, the economy has changed — but one thing that has not changed is political system. There must, Pei emphasized, be meaningful compatibility among society, the economy, and the political system. But the political system doesn’t want to change. More than that, it wants society to change slower than it’s changing. “At some point, either the political system gives, or social system slows down.”||Pei asserts the need for compatibility between society, the economy, and the political system.I would agree with that.
However, he doesn’t explain why those three pieces are not compatible within Chinese society.
Do OWS and the bickering between the Republicans and the Democrats represent incompatibility within the American society?
What gives Pei the ‘faith’ that democracy by itself could fix the ‘incompatibility’ in America?
Has Pei confirmed with the Chinese leadership that they are giving up?
|Pei copped to regularly fantasizing about how China could become democratic. “Economic performance is the key,” he said. If it stays as strong as it’s been, that would mean one kind of transition; but if it falls off, the Communist party will face rising social discontent. The party will ultimately split, and one of the splinter groups will end up trying to tap into that social discontent to gain legitimacy. No democratic transition has ever occurred without support from elements of the ruling elite, Pei said, and China won’t be an exception.||I agree that economic performance is key.That idea applies in democracies as well. Imagine if unemployment rate in America is at 25%. Think of the London riot if U.K.’s unemployment is doubled what it is today.
If such situations persist, it may be possible that democracy turns toward fascism and then dictatorship. Groups of people could get killed in a genocidal fashion.
|It’s a fallacy to say the system hasn’t changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People’s Conference — most conspicuously, its members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren’t interested in this kind of story; they’re interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.||Agreed.|
|Fallows then asked Li about expatriation among the families of Chinese elites, noting the degree to which they’ve come to move their assets, or send their children to school, outside China. Li had little to say on this point, admitting that it was an issue, though insisting that it’s highly overplayed. (Pei pointed out that the data on these matters are difficult to come by, but there are at least hundreds of cases of Chinese officials looking for American passports — and you don’t ever see American officials looking for Chinese passports.)||This is easily explained. The American standard of living is light years ahead of the Chinese. Do we see rich Chinese clamoring for Indian passports? After all, India is a democracy.Do Indians and Mexicans clamor for the American passport just like the Chinese do? Absolutely.
If America is relatively poor like China and if China is relatively rich like America, Americans would be eager for a one-party and non-“democratic” Chinese passport.
More Africans are finding their way into China now because China represents opportunity and higher standard of living.
|Li wanted to go instead to what he clearly sees as the bigger picture and the real comparative context for assessing the legitimacy and durability of the Chinese system: the weakness of American democracy, both in its ability to live up to its ideals and in its ultimate ability to justify them.|
|By the standards of democracy that he, Pei, and Fallows agreed to at the outset of the conversation, Li insisted, some of the greatest political leaders in American history were illegitimate. Washington was illegitimate; Lincoln was illegitimate; and if you take the 1965 Civil Rights Act as the beginning point for anything that could really be considered democracy by our own parameters for the idea — as Li clearly would — even Roosevelt was illegitimate.|
|In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. “If they’re from men, they’re not absolute; they can be negotiated.” It was only too bad there wasn’t time to discuss what “negotiated” means here.|
|“I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech,” he added later. “Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial.”|
|Asked about the Chinese government’s censorship of the Internet, and its potential for exacerbating social disaffection and economic deceleration, Li asserted that these would be negligible. Pei disagreed: Internet censorship, he said, is a massively futile and regressive thing: It’s targeted toward very few people, but it inconveniences millions. Pei said that he didn’t know if this practice has played any real part in slowing down the economy, but he’s sure that it’s had a social cost. Ask Chinese people which they’d rather have, faster internet connection or access to social media, Pei said, and they’d say the latter.||I agree with Li that the government censorship has minimal impact.Looking at the number of Chinese students studying English within China, studying abroad, and working for Western companies, the flow of Western ideas into Chinese society is immense.
If there is any censorship, it is a mental firewall within the Western world towards anything Chinese. Do you know of any Westerner searching on Baidu in Chinese on some research done in China?
Internet in China is fast, and certainly fast enough for the Chinese.
Since Twitter and Facebook are blocked in China, I understand his point about how this lack of access from within China inconveniences some.
China’s position is that those tools while unwilling to subjugate to Chinese jurisdictions within the Chinese border, must not be allowed, otherwise they’d be used as tools of political opposition.
For Westerners in China, they are already accustomed to VPN’s, so the censorship is really an inconvenience.
|Earlier this week, here in Aspen, when The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about technology and democracy, the conversation turned to a similar question: http://bcove.me/f8b7xohb||What Eric Schmidt has proven is that as a company, Google is arrogant enough to think they can take on the Chinese government. It’s misguided.Fortunately, China is still pragmatic in allowing Android and some of Google’s other products to continue to operate in China.
Google could have a dominant position in China right now, especially given the synergy between Android on smartphones and Google’s services. Instead, Google’s services are dwindling in importance in the Chinese market.
Apple enjoys are much more dominant position with the iPhone and iCloud working in tandem.
It is quite inappropriate for a corporation to flaunt not complying with any society’s law.
So, what’s the punch line? Be tolerant. Accept that other societies have ideas of their own. And that’s actually very much in alignment with the democractic ideal. If Westerners have so much faith in “Democracy,” then have confidence that others will be clamoring for it.