Eric X. Li: “Democracy is Not the Answer”

With his frequent opinion pieces and public lectures, venture capitalist Eric X. Li has established himself a rising Chinese public intellectual for the English-speaking world. Since 2011, a number of his writings have appeared in the mainstream English press, where he is known to extol the virtues of Chinese politics and economics. He has “debunked” criticism from leading China scholars, lauded the superiority of China’s political model, claimed that ideological diversity, and not simple corruption, was the real threat revealed by the Bo Xilai scandal, and defended China’s controversial regime of Internet control. Israeli journalist Rachel Beitarie recently conducted a lengthy interview with Li, grilling him on the points of his advocacy that many readers may find hard to accept. Published on his Huffington Post blog, Li explains why “democracy is not the answer” to successfully balancing and representing the demands of the people and the goals of the nation:

Beitarie: […I]n the absence of judicial oversight, popular vote or free press, what is the mechanism the Chinese model suggests to alert the rulers of being wrong about what they regard as national interests?

Li: […]Many would agree that the Chinese government seems to have developed the ability to “feel the pulse” of the nation and adjust its politics in response to it while keeping it largely in alignment with the country’s long-term interests.

[…]On the other hand, the records of electoral regimes around the world indicate that party rotation through elections may not provide the needed flexibility or self-correction. In the United States, elections may have produced new presidents and Congressional majorities, but do not seem to have done much to tackle America’s long-term challenges. In Europe, governments regularly get voted in and out, but no elections have produced even the minimal corrections required to address their monumental distress. In the one-prime-minster-per-year Japan, elections and party rotations have failed to lift the country out of its 20-year stagnation. […]

Beitarie: […O]ne feature you have described of the Chinese model was that of allowing fairly wide personal freedoms, but not participation in governing. To what extent can the two really be distinguished? When people have demands from their government regarding their basic living conditions[…], does this fall under personal freedoms or political organization? In many cases in China (events in Wukan village of Guangdong being a recent and much cited example) people find that coming together and making their demands heard as a group is an effective way to get what they want. Does the Chinese model as you see it object to that?[…]

Li: Far from objecting to people’s demands related to their living conditions the Chinese government has proved deftly competent in responding to and co-opting such demands, considering the scale of the challenge brought about by Chinese society’s rapid change. This actually further enhances the moral authority of the central government. One interesting thing to observe was the highest banner held by the Wukan protestors read: Long Live the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed the leader of the protest movement whom later was elected village chief is a long serving member of the Party.

Li chose to exclude parts of the interview in his HuffPo post, but Rachel Beitarie has posted the missing pieces on Google+.
While out of focus in the excerpt above, Li repeatedly employs “culture” and Confucianism to reinforce an idea of Chinese exceptionalism, emphasizing China’s superiority and rendering certain political ideals incompatible to the middle kingdom. On his Useless Tree blog, scholar of Chinese politics and philosophy Sam Crane uses his expertise to retaliate:

Li, who describes himself as a Shanghai venture capitalist (which carries a bit of irony, as I will attempt to demonstrate), is a well known apologist of authoritarianism[…]. In the most recent interview he engages in a bit of facile Confucius-citing, so I figured that brought his arguments into the general ambit of this blog.  As you might guess, I disagree with him fundamentally.

Li’s general project is to construct a kind of Chinese exceptionalism, to show that, whether in the political or economic or cultural realms, China is sui generis and, as the second title above suggests, superior to others.  As an American I am quite familiar with exceptionalist type arguments and, anticipating the Chinese nationalist critique that this post is likely to inspire, I state here that I also reject claims of American exceptionalism.  Whether American or Chinese or French or whatever, exceptionalist arguments are generally historically flawed, deeply flawed, and, bascially, intellectually uninteresting.


To be clear: Confucianism is a valuable philosophy.  We all can learn from it; we all should learn from it.  I teach it to my students. I think about ways it applies to my own life.  But it is precisely because I take it seriously that I reject its association with the Chinese Communist Party.  Were Confucius alive today he would reject much of what occurs in Chinese politics and economics.



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