Eric X. Li vs Minxin Pei on China and Democracy

The Aspen Institute has posted the full video of a debate from its Ideas Festival, which ran from June 27th and July 3rd. The discussion pitched venture capitalist Eric X. Li against professor of government Minxin Pei on the subject of “China and Democracy”, moderated by James Fallows. Fallows advised readers of his Atlantic blog to look out for the debate shortly after it took place:

The formal topic of discussion was “China and Democracy”; in effect, it was a debate about whether China was nearing the limits of its current authoritarian single-party guided-growth model, or whether it was still gathering steam and had plenty of success still ahead. I am biased, because the subject is of great interest to me and because I was on stage as moderator / referee. But I thought this was an unusually clear, informed, and vigorous airing of contrary views on China’s present and future. They pretty much agreed about its past.

Seriously, if you would like the most concise introduction to the case for concern about China’s development, you can listen to Minxin Pei’s side of the argument in this 80-minute (including audience Q&A) discussion. If you would like an unusually forthright statement of the “China knows best, and don’t lecture us when you have such troubles of your own” perspective, listen to Eric Li — and watch the way they parry each other’s arguments. “Debates” at high-toned conferences are often something more like polite seminars. This was an actual contest of views, perfectly civil but with no softening of the hard edges of disagreement. Check it out.

A show of hands suggested that few in the audience had been swayed from their initial positions by the end, but that more had swung towards Li than away from him. Asked by an audience member whether a similar conversation could take place in Beijing, he insisted that it could, though many others could not. But, he said, he wanted to “break the spell of so-called freedom of speech”: “speech is act”, he said, it “has harmed since time immemorial”, and should be managed and regulated accordingly. Pei also said that the conference could take place in Beijing, but that the US government would have to rescue him immediately afterwards.

J J Gould summarised the arguments at The Atlantic, and the complete video is embedded below. See also past articles by Minxin Pei and Eric X. Li, via CDT.