Eric X. Li: A Tale of Two Political Systems

In a newly published talk from last month’s TEDGlobal 2013 conference, venture capitalist Eric X. Li reprises his defense of China’s one-party system, arguing that contrary to Western assumptions, it is characterized by adaptability, meritocracy and legitimacy. He concludes:

We live in the dusk of an era. Meta-narratives that make universal claims failed us in the 20th Century, and are failing us in the 21st. Meta-narrative is the cancer that is killing democracy from the inside. I want to clarify something: I’m not here to make an indictment of democracy. On the contrary, I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It’s the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance.

China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. Let us draw to a close this era of meta-narratives. Democracy and communism may both be laudable ideals, but the era of their dogmatic universalism is over. Let us stop telling people and out children that there is only one way to govern ourselves and a singular future towards which all societies must evolve. It is wrong, it is irresponsible and worst of all, it is boring. Let universality make way for plurality. Perhaps a more interesting age is upon us. Are we brave enough to welcome it? [Source]

Li’s argument was summarized in a TED Blog post last month. The site also features a response from MIT’s Yasheng Huang, who previously tangled with Li in an exchange at Foreign Affairs. Huang writes:

Li has not provided a coherent and logical argument for his positions on democracy. I suspect, although I do not have any direct evidence, that there is a simple modus operandi — endorsing reforms the CCP has endorsed and opposing reforms that CCP has opposed. This is fine as far as posturing goes but it is not a principled argument of anything.

[…] Contrary to what he was apparently told when he was a Berkeley hippie, the idea of democracy is not that it leads to a nirvana but that it can help prevent a living hell. Democracy has many, many problems. This insurance function of democracy — of mitigating against disasters — is often forgotten or taken for granted, but it is the single most important reason why democracy is superior to every other political system so far invented by human beings. Maybe one day there will be a better system than democracy, but the Chinese political system, in Li’s rendition, is not one of them. [Source]

Huang mounted a separate argument for Chinese democracy at Foreign Policy last year. See also more from and about Li and coverage of recent debates over meritocracy in China at CDT, and a third TED Blog post highlighting eight China-related talks.