(This is the second part of a series of posts on political reform in China. You can read part 1 here)
I’m currently looking at four articles that one way or another discuss the political system in China. The first one is a blog entry from the Economist entitled “What China challenges,” describing how China might succeed creating an affluent society under a one-party system, and the “risk” this supposedly poses to democratic systems. The next two are articles from the New York Times written by David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei, respectively, that take a glum view of the Chinese Communist Party on its 90-year celebrations. They are followed by an answer from Eric Li, challenging what he sees as too negative viewpoints on the subject matter. I will briefly discuss these in turn.
Let’s begin with “What China challenges.” The tone of the article is a worried one. Democracy isn’t the beacon that other nations are sailing towards. The China model is gaining traction and it is very probable that China might indeed one day be a fully developed state with very much the same system as it has today. It reads almost like existential worry from a person who feels his own country is failing the ideological race. But let’s just focus on his ideas about China for the moment: are they right?
Before reading on, I encourage everybody reading this entry to at least skim the mentioned articles, since I will mostly focus on the points I’m contending with in the individual pieces. Going on with the Economist blog entry: what sets China (and Vietnam) apart, according to the author, is the stable succession of their leaders. The economic principles are market-based, so the government policies are working far better than the Soviet Union ever did. The author then makes a comparison to Singapore, a successful country with an authoritarian system, and while he admits it might not be feasible to scale its example up to a country of China’s size, he looks at it the other way: at that size, Singapore should be democratic according to the best research we have. If they aren’t democratic, why would China be?
It seems the author’s arguments stop at the fact that China has a market economy and a stable succession scheme. I wouldn’t deny that the succession scheme is much more stable now than it was 30 years ago, but let’s not forget that the turmoil in 1989 was to a large extent caused by political infighting in the top leadership, and that was only about two decades ago. Hu Jintao made his transition after Jiang Zemin peacefully, but not without glitches; Jiang’s refusal to immediately step down as chairman of the Military Commission was one such thing that set a negative precedent. It might be that the infighting is now on a controllable level and while I’m sure the government has learned its lessons from more than 20 years ago, I’m not so sure there’s anything inherently peaceful about the structure itself.
Comparisons with Singapore are problematic on another level, as I allude to in a previous entry. Its system, while authoritarian, has the rule of law and is fundamentally built on a multi-party base. The PAP didn’t come to power through a revolution. It’s also worth noting that its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is still alive and very much active. Singapore will most likely change considerably after he leaves the scene. Still, it is no surprise that the CCP is studying the PAP closely and I think they’re right to do so; in his book about the China model, Zheng Yongnian points to PAP as an authoritarian yet much more open and transparent party than the CCP. If China’s future is indeed Singapore, like the author suggests, then it will still be very different from the China we know today.
David Shambaugh’s article on the CCP 90-year’s celebrations is slightly pessimistic, striking a different tone than his book published in 2008, “China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation.” He mentions the celebrations and contemporary history writing in China and draws the conclusion that the party is insecure. In the book, Shambaugh seemed to be more confident that the CCP would continue to adapt, but lately he seems to have changed his mind and believes it has closed itself and is in for a bumpy ride. I’m personally not sure that the CCP is in for a bumpier ride than before; I believe the leadership transition next year is causing infighting to be more severe, and this combined with the 90-year celebrations, which in themselves might create tension, make it look rougher than it really is. Perhaps it’s really been atrophying more than adapting the last couple of years and I respect Shambaugh’s expertise in the area, but I will suspend my judgement on it for the time being.
Minxin Pei mostly goes along the same lines and describes insecurity and social forces that will make it more difficult for the CCP in the future. He describes the party as no longer having any public purpose once it shook off its communist ideology. I’m not so sure about that point; the CCP has always been part of a tradition to “rejuvenate China” (振兴中华) and it can still develop and use this part as its main ideology. Of course it’s not as clear as the Marxist ideals of its youth, but it’s still viable as an ideological force in Chinese society and I believe it will be for at least a decade ahead.
Eric Li challenges the points of Shambaugh and Pei, bringing up five misconceptions by the West as he sees it. I think Li’s piece is an interesting counterweight to the previous two authors and good for an international audience in that it shows a different perspective. Going through his five points, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing. Let’s go through them in turn:
I agree that any government needs consent by the ruled to rule effectively, and I also agree that elections are not necessarily the best or only way to guarantee that. He’s also right that the CCP attracts a lot of talent from various parts of the country (though he only mentions university students). I do not, however, agree with his points on creativity. It would take a whole entry in itself to describe why, but numbers on companies and art auction revenues say very little about how innovative a country is as a whole. There isn’t something even remotely resembling Silicon Valley in China, for example, and it would be hard to find companies like Apple or Google that churn out a number of creative products each year. I don’t attribute this so much to the political system as the fact that China is still developing from a much lower level, but influences from the political system cannot be ruled out.
Li’s point about corruption is a fair one. Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries in the world but it’s dominated by one party. China is slightly ahead of India, which is a democracy. As I’ve said in my earlier post, I don’t believe governance in either China or India has much to do with its political system at this point. However, examples like Hong Kong and Singapore as China’s future ignore one important factor: these places both have independent watchdog organizations taking care of corruption. In China, there’s no organization outside the party or government that checks corruption. If China is to become like one of these areas, it has to change its system dramatically.
Finally, I agree that China’s success to date is due to more than just instituting market reforms. But the numbers used by Li do not take into account how the reforms in other countries were carried out and what level China started from. This is a complex state of affairs and also one that would require its own entry.
One thing I’m happy to note is that none of the articles mention the opinions of China’s “middle class” as proof of China being a different model than the rest of the world. I’ve seen this in many other places and my main answer to that is that China does not yet have a middle class in the sense that developed countries have; if 800 million are still living in the countryside with a corresponding standard of living, how could there be a sizable middle class (relative to the size of the population) that would influence its political development?
China’s future development is fraught with uncertainty (more so, I would say, than many other countries) and I believe many get their main premises wrong. In a coming post, I’m going to describe my own opinions on China’s political future.