The Post-Democratic Future Begins in China

At Foreign Affairs, Eric X. Li argues that China’s future lies with continued one-party rule, and that the Party’s adaptability, meritocracy and non-democratic legitimacy will carry it forward while the West flounders. This, he suggests, will give other developing countries courage to seek out their own alternative systems.

[…] There is no doubt that daunting challenges await Xi. But those who suggest that the CCP will not be able to deal with them fundamentally misread China’s politics and the resilience of its governing institutions. Beijing will be able to meet the country’s ills with dynamism and resilience, thanks to the CCP’s adaptability, system of meritocracy, and legitimacy with the Chinese people. In the next decade, China will continue to rise, not fade. The country’s leaders will consolidate the one party model and, in the process, challenge the West’s conventional wisdom about political development and the inevitable march toward electoral democracy. In the capital of the Middle Kingdom, the world might witness the birth of a post-democratic future.

[…] 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. To be sure, China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy because, unlike the latter, it does not pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But its success does show that many systems of political governance can work when they are congruent with a country’s culture and history. The significance of China’s success, then, is not that China provides the world with an alternative but that it demonstrates that successful alternatives exist. Twenty-four years ago, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that all countries would eventually adopt liberal democracy and lamented that the world would become a boring place because of that. Relief is on the way. A more interesting age may be upon us.

Also at Foreign Affairs, Yasheng Huang responds. The Party, he argues, has not so much adapted as muddled through, while Yunnan’s innovative Party vice-secretary Qiu He is no more representative of Chinese meritocracy than the corrupt torturer Bo Xilai. He praises as “sensible” Li’s suggestions for the near future but, citing the example of Taiwan, frames them as steps onto a benignly slippery slope towards democracy.

In 2011, standing in front of the Royal Society (the British academy of sciences), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared, “Tomorrow’s China will be a country that fully achieves democracy, the rule of law, fairness, and justice. Without freedom, there is no real democracy. Without guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom.” Eric Li’s article in these pages, “The Life of the Party,” pays no such lip service to democracy. Instead, Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, declares that the debate over Chinese democratization is dead: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not only stay in power; its success in the coming years will “consolidate the one-party model and, in the process, challenge the West’s conventional wisdom about political development.” Li might have called the race too soon.

[…] There are calls for more democracy in China. It is true that the party’s antireform bloc has had the upper hand since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But recently, voices for reform within the CCP have been gaining strength, aided in large part by calls for honesty, transparency, and accountability from hundreds of millions of Internet-using Chinese citizens. China’s new leaders seem at least somewhat willing to adopt a more moderate tone than their predecessors, who issued strident warnings against “westernization” of the Chinese political system. So far, what has held China back from democracy is not a lack of demand for it but a lack of supply. It is possible that the gap will start to close over the next ten years.

See more on political reform, democracy and meritocracy, via CDT.