Home > Analysis, politics > 中共的生命力——后民主时代在中国开启 – “The Post-Democratic Future Begins in China” by Eric Li

中共的生命力——后民主时代在中国开启 – “The Post-Democratic Future Begins in China” by Eric Li

In his latest essay (in both Chinese and English), Eric X. Li wrote, “Many developing countries have already come to learn that democracy doesn’t solve all their problems. For them, China’s example is important. Its recent success and the failures of the West offer a stark contrast.” Of course, Li is not arguing that democratic systems are invalid. He merely argues that the universality claim is invalid. He also explains how China’s system is meritocratic, and despite a single-party rule, is able to be very adaptable. For those who genuinely believe in universality, they would do well by explaining why a country as rich and as powerful as the United States is plagued with problems of dismal approval for her politicians and incessant budget crisis nationally and locally.

Henry Kissinger often characterizes American foreign policy as one of pursuing values with missionary zeal. Perhaps the crux of the issue behind the universality claim on democracy is not about values but more about politics. As China propels forward with her own system, third-world countries around the planet will increasingly have more courage to pursue destiny their own way.

Li’s essay offers much more than I dare to summarize. As you know, many of us on this blog follow his work. I strongly recommend our readers heading here for a read. The English version follows the Chinese version. His essay is also being published by Foreign Affairs, but much of the content is behind a pay-wall.

  1. 54Reptilian
    January 13th, 2013 at 03:08 | #1

    I beg to differ on many of Eric Li’s assertions. The CCP is one of the most rigidly inflexible institutions in the world. It is bound by the weight of its own propaganda about its role in China’s past. China was able to move into a market economy and modernity only after the death of Mao Zedong, and only after the post-Mao power struggle ended with Deng Xiaoping as victor. Remember Mao wanted Hua Guofeng to succeed him, not Deng. Li speaks as if the CCP experienced a metanoia and in its infinite wisdom ultimately decided to walk down the path of capitalism as a conscious decision to become more like the rest of the world.

    Jiang Zemin’s time saw the opening of CCP ranks to businessmen not because the CCP wanted to diversify its constituency, but because the CCP demigods realized that the Party had to co-opt the burgeoning class of businessmen, otherwise it will have to later deal with a sizeable sector of society with money and economic power that is outside of the Party’s direct influence. Businessmen of course saw the opportunities that came with Party membership and gladly signed on. In nature, this relationship is called mutualism—in plainspeak, “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” The example about China’s rapprochement with the US is not a good example of change spurred on by the need to shift ideological gears. The foremost motivation was to counter the Soviet Union, which Mao himself saw as a bigger threat to China than the US half a world away. The economic carrots that came to China later are a perquisite secondary to the aim of achieving strategic balance against the Soviets. It is decidedly not how Li portrayed it to be: that China shifted alliances out of proactive wisdom and flexibility, and as a result achieved prosperity. It was primarily about survival against the Russian bear that was much better armed than China.

    “Before this, political leaders had been able to use their positions to accumulate power and perpetuate their rules”—and you, Eric Li, seriously think this situation does not happen now, or happens less frequently than before? The CCP is “heavily meritocratic”? The CCP is “one of the most meritocratic institutions in the world”? Eric Li would make a good stand-up comedian if he decides to retire from business. You mean to say patronage politics and guanxi are not the more crucial factors in political promotions? That a governor or mayor seeking to become Provincial Party Secretary and later a member of the Politburo Standing Committee does not need heavyweight political backing from someone much more senior? And that that backing would be attained only after years of canoodling and buying of favors? Has Li never heard of the common practice of 买官? Seriously, Eric Li just lost all credibility there. The fact that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came from middle-class backgrounds are not definitive indicators of party meritocracy. Hu and Wen had power bases firmly settled in the Communist Youth League years before they were even considered for the Politburo. They had ambition, and they were able to successfully develop a groundswell of support from like-minded Party members. They might not have had billions in the bank, but they had political influence, and in intra-party voting, that’s the main thing that matters. And what’s this about the Central Committee being comprised of mostly poor delegates? How does Li know they’re poor? Did Li do a survey of their personal net worths? The richest 70 members of China’s National People’s Congress are worth a combined US$90 billion, which is more than ten times the net worth of the entire US Congress. How much more untold riches are hidden by the other members of the NPC? And if the lower-ranked NPC can feature such billionaires, are you really that naïve to assume that the Central Committee is virtuous and untainted?

    Yes of course there is meritocracy and quantitative metrics at every rank in the Party. But how do you really go up the ranks without cultivating guanxi with senior members? More importantly, what is the net effect of this meritocracy? Is it really leading to a better system of governance? China has been sending technocrats to train abroad since the late 1970s, but look at the SARS crisis, the melamine-tainted milk scandals, the numerous land-grab cases, industrial chemical spillage into waterways, the collapse of shoddily-constucted buildings in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, the collapse of newly-built bridges, the Wenzhou train crash, just to name some of the better-known and regularly re-occuring catastrophes. In each instance, cases were brought against officials who colluded with unscrupulous individuals for personal gain. There was obviously malfeasance at the local government level, and attempts at cover-ups. This is the 21st century, where bad news travels at light speed, but obviously, those in power thought they could still get away with it. And they’re right. When public sentiment turns up against them, propaganda departments and “relevant authorities” are there to clamp down on public discontent, either through censorship or outright intimidation. Not much need for meritocracy there, I guess, when Big Brother has your back.

    Sure, Western democracy is broken. For several decades now, Washington has ceased to represent the interests of the common American man. Money talks in Washington DC. Big banks, Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, among others, hold sway in a lot of the decision-making at the national and even local levels. Watch how Boeing can make US Congressmen practically get down on their knees for the aircraft maker to put up a plant in their districts. The same can be said for many European capitals today. Some would say that aping US-style democracy is not completely suitable to China. I am one of those who believe so. Adapting popular elections at this stage in China’s development would only open the doors for more corruption, more vote-buying, more elitism working its way through the corridors of power. If you think lobbyists in America are bad, wait til they’re allowed to legally and openly walk the corridors of power in Beijing. No, China is not ready for full-blown democracy. But the current status quo is not sustainable either. To say that China’s government has complete legitimacy is to mock the increasing numbers of Chinese protesters that rile against unresolved land grabs, forced abortions, cover-ups and other forms of official wrongdoing. To say that newer generations of Chinese technocrats educated abroad will infuse a new mode of flexibility and reform to the government is the height of naivete, if not stupidity. If you’ve ever watched committee meetings at the local level, you will know that it is not unlike classrooms: the teacher speaks, everyone nods their head in obedience, US diploma be damned. The Confucian mindset hardwired into the Chinese consciousness almost certainly guarantees that a pre-established hierarchy will continue to exist, and because of that, no few people in government will realize that to really ascend the ranks, they have to butter up those minding the Party machinery one way or another. Therein lies the seed and fertilizer of official corruption and backslapping.

    Surely there has to be a middle way, a compromise between both systems, a hybrid model of governance that minimizes the negatives from both the demoratic and autocratic models of governance, a system that ideally should incorporate the best of what democratic societies have to offer with none of the rancorous debates that have paralyzed the US, Britain, Greece, Spain, Italy and other Western nations that are currently experiencing economic malaise. But Li’s article is light on specifics. He offers not a shred of the alternative idea/s implied in his article’s title. What does this “third way” look like? Is it a pure technocracy that will stress ideology and political affiliation less and less and focus more on a system that simply gets the job done, much like the People’s Action Party of Singapore? Is it going to infuse Confucianism as its guiding ideology while slowly trying to erode Communism or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”? Will there even be a need for a guiding ideology for China in the future? Eric Li does not say at all. All he did was effusively sing the praises of China’s supposedly efficient meritocracy while glossing over its many inadequacies and weaknesses. Spoken like a true Communist shill, as usual.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    January 13th, 2013 at 14:12 | #2

    That was a long commentary saying very little. I would like to make following rebuttals:
    1, Mao wants Hua Guafeng to succeed him. Precisely, the politburo is not like the old empire where the old emperor designate a crowd prince for succession. It does has some democratic features. Deng got the majority behind him for economic reform which propelled China into modernity.
    2. Some rich people and businessmen got into communist party. The times are changing. It was always a historical quirk that class struggle got into center stage and proletariat supposely became the vanguard. After all Marx and Engels were quintessential bourgeoises intellectuals, Marx may be somewhat poor. But look at Mao and Chou and other founding CCP party member all came from students and better family circumstances. The fact that some rich people get in Chinese People’s Congress doesn’t mean they have any control unlike in Washington.
    3. China is much more transparent and recently published biographical information on new Politburo members. If you bother to read them you’ll find thay have worked each more than 30 years from bottom to top. It is meritocracy in action, unlike U.S. where incompetents like W. Bush or opportunists like Obama got airplaned into the top.
    4. You have admitted that so called democracy doesn’t work well, yet you insist that China adopt a hybrid syatem to get what? weaknesses from both systems?
    5. Eric Li did list specifics. Meritocracy, term limitation, yes, one party system dedicated for the welfare of China and Chinese people. Transparency and rule of law will follow, but certainly not in one single step as those liberals insist. As for guiding ideology why don’t you read the communist manifesto.

  3. January 13th, 2013 at 16:53 | #3

    Indeed, a lot of commentary saying very little. Some of 54Reptilian’s arguments are pretty stupid.

    China was able to move into a market economy and modernity only after the death of Mao Zedong, and only after the post-Mao power struggle ended with Deng Xiaoping as victor.

    Well, China’s modernity started with Mao, period! The life expectancy of the Chinese were probably around 30s during the Opium Wars under the invasion of the British and persisted through the next century of pillaging by Western powers. That of course capped by the Japanese invasion.

    Under the CCP and Mao, China finally had sovereignty and life expectancy dramatically returned to norm. Check out Hans Rosling and his visualization.

    That’s when modernity for China began.

    When the Soviets put up Sputnik, there was tremendous fear within the West it was behind. It was not until much later that the world generally come to realize capitalism and market economy out-produced communism.

    So, yeah, today, in retrospect, we can say that the GLF was a disastrous policy.

    The CCP certainly adapted as Li argued. To avoid the mistakes of the GLF, one of which is too much power vesting in any leader, the CCP under the leadership of Deng set term limits on new leaders as well giving the power to the NPC to elect.

    54Reptilian also said the reason the CCP included the business class is due to fear. You can make the same argument that a good Samaritan acts only out of desire to be famous. The truth is that the Samaritan has helped someone. The truth is that the CCP adapted and diversified in accordance with changing society.

    Seems like 54Reptilian at least agrees with Li’s argument that China should pursue her own course and that there is no universality to democracy. Why then label him a ‘shill?’ How moronic.

  4. January 13th, 2013 at 19:17 | #4


    Second N. M. Cheung on your saying very little. Your piece lacks clarity — you really need to first fully understand what have been said. For instance,

    1. Eric Li’s line, “[b]efore this, political leaders had been able to use their positions to accumulate power and perpetuate their rules”. Basically his main theme is now there are term limits — Jiang has retired and Hu is retiring. You then went on and on without disputing his main theme.


    And what’s this about the Central Committee being comprised of mostly poor delegates? How does Li know they’re poor? Did Li do a survey of their personal net worths? The richest 70 members of China’s National People’s Congress are worth a combined US$90 billion, which is more than ten times the net worth of the entire US Congress.

    Li’s exact words: “[i]n the CCP’s larger Central Committee, which was made up of more than 300 people, the percentage of people born into wealth and power was even smaller.” First, it’s about what they were born into, not what they currently are — in terms of wealth and power. The wealth part is easy — when a typical Central Committee member was born, practically nobody in China was rich. The power part — all you need to do is figuring out if they have powerful parents.

    Obviously, the National People’s Congress isn’t the CCP Central Committee. Sure there are quite some very wealthy people in the NPC — but did they get rich because of their NPC background, or did they get to NPC because they were rich (and met some other conditions)?

    BTW, “Guanxi” is important in East or West, or even in a monkey society. Don’t be stupid.

  5. January 13th, 2013 at 22:44 | #5


    I think the others have adequately addressed your other points, but I want to point out a misconception that most westerners AND Chinese accept as dogma – the notion that China started to progress ONLY after Mao’s death.

    There is no doubt that Deng’s Four Modernizations unleashed the entrepreneurial energy of society, which subsequently led to China’s rapid developmental takeoff, but that energy only existed in the first place because of the social progress made during the Mao era. Literacy rates more than quadrupled and life expectancy increased by 50% even after factoring in the twin disasters of the GLF & the Cultural Revolution. Had the Communist Party not built such a solid foundation during Mao’s tenure, it is unlikely that post-Mao reforms would have had the significant impact that it did.

  6. January 17th, 2013 at 04:06 | #6

    @Mister Unknown

    YES! I strongly echo this point. Too many people tend to compare apple and oranges, ignoring the changing of time and circumstances. China cannot be where it is today without Mao and his era. That’s a plain fact that gets ignored because of the mistakes he made.

    China’s internal and external circumstances has changed dramatically in the past century. She has been fortunate enough to change accordingly. China was extremely lucky to have Mao during his days, and change the way she has after him.

  7. Sleeper
    January 19th, 2013 at 07:34 | #7

    Well, one of the key factor in 54Reptilian’s post is the infuence of Guanxi in Chinese politics. It seems he would like to indicate that China’s high-ranking officials are bunches of idoits with no capability, and their only capabilities are to drag lots of efficient people together to do the job for them, by using money or some other benefits.

    Wait a second. Was he talking about presidents of US?

    OK, just kidding. However, interpersonal relationships (or Guanxi in Chinese) is the key of politics (and even more) in every country. Without the support of strong interest groups, nobody can develop their official careers, even a talent. Either in Japan or US, power is held in hands of trusts and leading families, and they’re indeed true leaders of the country. Every official is no more than a spokesman to them.

    Therefore, it’s stupid to use the influence of interpersonal relationships (or Guanxi in Chinese) to criticize the efficiency of Chinese government.

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