“Why China’s Political Model Is Superior”

This Op-Ed just published at the NYT from venture capitalist, Eric X Li, “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior” is a must read. Especially to the Western audience bought into democracy as a “faith” will find this opinion unsettling. And it is particularly unsettling because the West is full of doubts these days.

Why China’s Political Model Is Superior
By ERIC X. LI
Published: February 16, 2012

Shanghai

THIS week the Obama administration is playing host to Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and heir apparent. The world’s most powerful electoral democracy and its largest one-party state are meeting at a time of political transition for both.

Many have characterized the competition between these two giants as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. But this is false. America and China view their political systems in fundamentally different ways: whereas America sees democratic government as an end in itself, China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends.

In the history of human governance, spanning thousands of years, there have been two major experiments in democracy. The first was Athens, which lasted a century and a half; the second is the modern West. If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world. Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

The political franchise expanded, resulting in a greater number of people participating in more and more decisions. As they say in America, “California is the future.” And the future means endless referendums, paralysis and insolvency.

In Athens, ever-increasing popular participation in politics led to rule by demagogy. And in today’s America, money is now the great enabler of demagogy. As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

The West’s current competition with China is therefore not a face-off between democracy and authoritarianism, but rather the clash of two fundamentally different political outlooks. The modern West sees democracy and human rights as the pinnacle of human development. It is a belief premised on an absolute faith.

China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.

The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.

The fundamental difference between Washington’s view and Beijing’s is whether political rights are considered God-given and therefore absolute or whether they should be seen as privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.

The West seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift. In this sense, America today is similar to the old Soviet Union, which also viewed its political system as the ultimate end.

History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.

Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist.

[Update]
Allen has a thoughtful reaction to Eric X. Li’s Op-Ed below, and with a sizable amount of disagreement, I might add. I want to highlight it here:

This is not my favorite writing from Eric. Foremost, the article doesn’t really discuss the subject of the title – why China’s political model is superior. Instead it focuses mainly on the problem of the West. It doesn’t address the top the concerns many in the West have of China – a perception that China is ruthless and afraid of its people and outside ideas…

This is a longer comment than I like, but here are my thoughts reading the op-ed.

If one defines democracy as one citizen one vote, American democracy is only 92 years old. In practice it is only 47 years old, if one begins counting after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties.

Why, then, do so many boldly claim they have discovered the ideal political system for all mankind and that its success is forever assured?

This is very true. The founders of the U.S. – as well as the political philosophers of the enlightenment – understood that democracy was a grand experiment. You don’t want rule by mob – hence you have lots of controls – constitutions, laws, checks and balances, etc. – and still you hope for the best. You hope people have the society’s interest in mind – that people can rise beyond petty self-interest to become citizens.

Unlike a free market, where the pursuit of self interest are expected to in the end also produce the most good for society through the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market – there is no such notion of invisible hand about democracy. In fact, if people only pursue self interest, then democracy won’t work – as philosophers, sociologists, and legal theorists have discovered through the study of social choice theory.

So people should be humble – even if proud – when talking about the merits of democracy. It is but an experiment. It is an idea to be discussed and tried – not lectured and imposed.

The answer lies in the source of the current democratic experiment. It began with the European Enlightenment. Two fundamental ideas were at its core: the individual is rational, and the individual is endowed with inalienable rights. These two beliefs formed the basis of a secular faith in modernity, of which the ultimate political manifestation is democracy.

I am not sure if this is correct. The fact that individual is endowed with inalienable rights is an expression for rule of law – due process. It has nothing per se to do with Democracy. The idea that individual is rational is also not how I understand to be what enlightenment is about.

Enlightenment was a reaction against the rigid grip the Church had on all phases of life throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. While it does involve the freedom of individuals to use intelligence and tools to objectively question established thought (mostly religious thoughts), it was less about individual rationality than the use of science, empirical observations, scientific methods, and objective reductionism to gain new knowledge – and to dispose of the old. It is about relying on the studied man with expertise, not having faith in the of collective wisdom of untrained masses.

In its early days, democratic ideas in political governance facilitated the industrial revolution and ushered in a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and military power in the Western world.

I don’t think this is true either. Industrial revolution was able to bring about unprecedented economic prosperity by enabling colonialism – which is hardly “democratic: – unless one has a very narrow sense of what is “democratic” again. Democracy may have brought about the political compromises that brought about the necessary balance of power between the monarch, the aristocrats, the church, and the increasingly disgruntled workers to avert continual war as the West industrialized, but the prosperity laid on the oppression of the rest of the world, not some kind of democracy wisdom per se.

Yet at the very beginning, some of those who led this drive were aware of the fatal flaw embedded in this experiment and sought to contain it.

The American Federalists made it clear they were establishing a republic, not a democracy, and designed myriad means to constrain the popular will. But as in any religion, faith would prove stronger than rules.

This is a good point. America began and subsequently succeeded as a republic, not a democracy per se. America’s biggest transformation throughout its history is the abolishment of slavery and the subsequent civil rights movement. Yet neither came about because of democracy. (Democracy would have perpetuated, not abolished slavery) The end of slavery came about as result of a war to preserve the union – not to free the slaves. Until the very last stage when the hard work has been done (when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of f1964), civil rights was achieved in large part through courageous Supreme Court decisions (i.e. in the the least democratic of ways in a so-called democracy).

Even today, for the most important social and political decisions – Americans look to the Court – not Congress – from abortion to campaign financing rules to the winner of presidential elections. Most of regulations are also promulgated by bureaucrats through administrative rules/laws – environmental protection, tax rules, FDA rules, trade rules, etc. The issues are technical and complex that the average citizen really cannot comprehend. Because of the complexity involved in modern governance, a large part of governance is inherently undemocratic.

As the Nobel-winning economist A. Michael Spence has put it, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” By any measure, the United States is a constitutional republic in name only. Elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election; special interests manipulate the people into voting for ever-lower taxes and higher government spending, sometimes even supporting self-destructive wars.

There is obviously some grain of truth in there, but I think it’s too cynical. Yes, money may corrupt democratic discourse and decision making, but it is not dispositive. That is, the most money spent does not always guarantee victory. The people still have a voice…

Also spineless politicians per se may be a good thing in one sense. I mean, at least they are doing the biding of the people. The real issue here is that politicians that bend too quickly to the will and whims of the people weakens the Republic – it now becomes a direct democracy – a sort of mob rule. The result is the dysfunctional California governance mentioned in the op-ed. Democracy works when it is highly constrained, but that protection is weakened with spineless politicians.

China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.

However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.

Here Eric makes some critical mistakes. What are the national interests? A cynical reader would say, it is to make China a strong nation, the people be damned. This sounds like Hitler – or Wartime Japan – to many…

Another problem is that it makes China seem more monolithic than it is. In reality, there are many interests for China. There are a lot of opinions on many subjects in China – within and without the government. The West already fears a China, Inc. – a faceless monolithic powerful empire that is the antithesis of the humaneness embodied in democracy. This caricature of China intent on building national power is not only inaccurate but won’t help alleviate tensions.

The rest of the article justifying TAM is neither insightful or helpful. Is TAM a necessary evil or a terrible tragedy?

Now I don’t think what happened was necessarily a travesty (if TAM avoided a bloody civil war, I think – from a humanist perspective – it must be considered a good thing).

But my take is that it was probably more a terrible tragedy than a necessary evil. If something like it happen again today, I think the gov’t can resolve the issues without going full force. It would probably be more sophisticated at crowd control, etc.

In any case, whether I am wrong or not – to simply say economic progress is worth mowing down a few hundred people – even if sincerely felt – doesn’t project the kind of value that I think China ought to stand for. China is already seen as this ruthless super efficient machine that may threaten the Western way of life (whatever that is). This conclusion to an already controversial op-ed doesn’t help.

 

 

 

Eric X. Li,  Hidden Harmonies China Blog

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