Is Chinese Communist Rule More Effective than Western-Style Democracy?

TED Conference
Is Chinese Communist Rule More Effective than Western-Style Democracy? - Richard Upchurch

An interesting TED Talk has recently been circulating the web and provoking strong reactions. In the video, Chinese investor and political scientist Eric Li argues that Chinese communism is both sui generis and equally as valid a political system as, or perhaps better than, Western-style democracy. He contends that the success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is proof that democracy is not the inevitable apogee of political development that most Western theorists would have us believe. Initially his argument seems compelling and substantive, but ultimately it is specious and beside the point. In the final analysis, he is right about everything but the conclusion.

Here is the video:


Li provides three pieces of evidence to support his claim that the Chinese one-party system is equally effective and valid when compared with Western-style democracy. First, he claims that the CCP is adaptable, as opposed to operationally rigid. He cites the wide spectrum of political reforms enacted since 1950 as evidence of the party’s ability to readjust to differing political and historical exigencies. Here he is right, although arguably the party’s pragmatism did not become evident until the “reform and opening up” period began in the early 1980s. From Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 decision to initiate market reforms to the decision to join the WTO in 2001, it is evident that the Chinese government is willing to fudge ideology if it means more money and prestige for the country and greater legitimacy for the party. Such a result is not surprising after the country was ravaged internally by the CCP’s own misguided policies of the pre-reform era, namely the Great Leap Forward. The party has learned a lesson; that in and of itself demonstrates adaptability.

Secondly, Li claims that the Chinese political system functions as a meritocracy, as opposed to the common assumption that it is politically closed. Once again, he is right. While it cannot be claimed, due to the still influential role of guanxi (关系), or personal relationships, that China’s Communist Party functions as a wholly meritocratic system, the internal advancement process is characterized to a large degree by the promotion of individuals with ability and talent rather than wealth or social status. As Li states, this process is presided over by the gargantuan and highly selective Organization Department, which funnels only the most qualified individuals to top officialdom.

Third, Li contends that, despite the absence of an electoral process, the CCP is in fact a legitimate political institution. In his estimation this legitimacy is derived from the meritocratic nature of the party and its resulting competency as a whole, evident in the economic prosperity it has facilitated for its people. As surveys have shown, the public is satisfied with the government and optimistic about the future of the country. Once again, Li is correct in his appraisal of the current situation. It is clear that the party’s legitimacy is rooted in the country’s economic performance.

Now that we know what Li got right, what does he get wrong? He fails to take into account a key determinant of long-term political stability, namely civil and political rights. The party is unquestionably willing and able to reform itself and adapt to changing circumstances, but only to the extent that it preserves its own sovereignty. When party sovereignty is challenged directly, as it was most memorably in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, it is contrastingly rigid in its reaction. Apart from reactions to singular events, this rigidity is also manifest in routine policies such as Internet censorship and suppression of traditional conduits for civil unrest, such as grassroots protests. Public concern over these policies is not proportionate to public gratification with the ongoing economic transformation.

However, it is inevitable that China’s economic growth will slow and the people will no longer enjoy such remarkable leaps in living standards. When this slowdown occurs and the glitter of economic virtuosity fades away, the party will have lost its mandate and, with it, the legitimacy implicitly conferred upon it by the people. At this point, cracks in the social structure that were hidden by the preceding economic luster will begin to widen, and the peoples’ attention will shift from the future to the present. Material prosperity will no longer be an excuse for the party’s authoritarian behavior, and calls for deeper political reforms of the kind that directly challenge party control will multiply. The dual influences of deepening capitalist reforms plus entrenched globalization render a situation in which the growing middle-class does not call for more freedom and a greater voice virtually unimaginable. Ultimately, the single-party system will not survive, and if it does it will be in an iteration that is necessarily far more democratic than today’s. Li’s contention that the significance of China’s political system “is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist”, is relevant only in the short term, not the long term.

Li’s argument would be stronger were it not evident that the rumblings of discontent and civil unrest do in fact exist in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a constant struggle with its own people to retain primacy, and eventually this struggle will intensify and compromise the relationship between governor and governed. As to the outcome, it will not be immediate, and it may not be dramatic, but it will be consequential.