The Chinese State: More Legitimate Than America?

With both China and United States set to decide their top leadership this week, albeit in very different ways, NPR’s Louisa Lim moderated a debate in Hong Kong over the differences between the Chinese and American systems of government. The prompt? “China Picks Better Leaders Than the West:”

The U.S. political system came in for a beating from those arguing for the motion, “China Picks Better Leaders Than the West.”

Hong Kong’s former solicitor-general, Daniel Fung, pointed out that in the U.S., “it is possible — indeed it has been the case — that an individual who has never governed, or even run a large corporation, could end up in his very first job of government, running the most powerful government in the entire world.”

His debating partner, Daniel A. Bell, who lectures in political ethics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, contrasted that with the Chinese system, which he believes is meritocratic. Those who make it to the very highest levels of government are tried and tested administrators, having mostly served as governor or party secretary of a province the size of most countries.

“You can’t have a Sarah Palin, or a [Silvio] Berlusconi, or even a George W. Bush succeed in the Chinese system because they lack the basic competence,” Bell argued. “Instead of wasting time campaigning for votes and wasting money, [Chinese] political leaders spend much of their time improving their political performance and knowledge.”

Lim notes that the opposing team held its ground, arguing that the insecurity that comes with being selected – rather than elected – oftentimes produces a defensive and repressive leader:

The Communist Party’s legitimacy crisis also worried his debating partner, Kenneth Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution.

“You look at any mature democracy, and no one worries about the stability of the system,” Lieberthal argued. “They worry about individual leaders, they worry about particular policies, but the system is stable. … In China, they worry about the stability of the system every single day.”

Lieberthal cited one of the fundamental philosophical differences between the two systems. He believes the American political system is premised on the notion that anyone exposed to power could be tempted to stray, therefore checks and balances — in the form of term limits and a transparent legal system — are in place to constrain them. In contrast, China assumes its leaders are virtuous, and so has a system that maximizes their power, assuming they’ll shape a good society.

The idea that an authoritarian system can claim superiority over a democracy might seem counterintuitive, especially in light of China’s human rights’ record and the recent black marks of corruption to emerge within its ranks. But economist and author Martin Jacques challenges the argument that “the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.” From BBC News:

As China’s dramatic ascent continues – which it surely will – then China’s strengths will become a growing subject of interest in the West. We will realise that our relationship with them can no longer consist of telling them how they should be like us. A little humility is in order.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of this will be the state. We think of it as their greatest weakness but we will come to realise that it is one of their greatest strengths.

Beyond a point it would be quite impossible for a Western state to be like China’s. It is the product of a different history and a different relationship between state and society. You could never transplant their state into a Western country, and vice versa. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from the Chinese state, just as they have learnt much from us.

China’s rise will have a profound effect on Western debate.

ChinaGeeks’ Charlie Custer calls some of Jacques’ claims “shockingly insane,” and raises a number of issues with a series of surveys Jacques cites that found “between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government:”

All of those issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Jacques’ approach here: the reliability of strangers doing opinion polls in a country where a sarcastic tweet can get you sent to a labor camp. I am sure that Jacques, being a China expert, is familiar with the phrase 家丑不可外扬 (‘never air your dirty laundry in public’). I have yet to see a convincing explanation anywhere of how opinion polling conducted in China accounts for the fact that (a) people don’t tend to share their true feelings with random strangers and (b) that is doubly true when people perceive expressing critical sentiment to be dangerous, which we all know it can be.

Why would anyone choose to go out on a limb and tell a stranger they disapprove of the central government? They gain nothing whatsoever from such an action, and the risks, while minimal, are not nonexistent. Moreover, many Chinese are used to censoring themselves when it comes to discussions of politics in public or with strangers. Even if you are dissatisfied, being forthcoming about that has no upside.

Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right.

Sam Crane at The Useless Tree also found a number of problems with Jacques’ piece, “perhaps the least of which is its main thesis,” and attacks his assertion that the Chinese state “enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state:”

This was less shocking than simply inane. What does it mean to say that the PRC state is more legitimate than any in the “West”? He gives us no definition or basis for understanding what he means by “legitimacy.” Serious considerations of the topic, remind us that legitimacy is not simply popularity. And it’s obvious that Jacques has not really done any sort of systematic analysis to back up his claim. He’s just throwing rather empty rhetoric out there to demonstrate his admiration for the CCP.

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