Fear of China runs deep in the American psyche, as particularly evident during the recent 19th Party Congress. The New York Times declared with typical American hubris, ‘Seven Men Now Run China’ and ‘China Enshrines ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ Elevating Leader to Mao-like status.’ These sensationalist headlines obscure a worrying truth: China now functions better politically than America.
But let’s first take a step back. After 1945, it was assumed that all nations were gravitating towards liberal democracy and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy seemed to reign supreme. America was the great champion of this global democratic order. And of course the freedom that liberal democracy provides is particularly powerful given that human history can most frequently be told as a litany of bondage and servitude. More specifically, democracy’s great claim to fame is in providing representative, effective and accountable government.
Yet, in recent years, American liberal democracy has proved decreasingly representative, effective and accountable. There are two major elements to this decline. Firstly, ‘America’s ‘checks and balances’ system of government, which was initially created to prevent the development of tyrannous rule has in recent years become what Francis Fukuyama terms a ‘vetocracy’: there are so many potential means of stalling legislation that American governance is now plagued by endless gridlock. This ‘vetocracy’ has become coupled with America’s recently rising political polarization to create an ineffective government which struggles to push any legislation through.
Secondly, highly resourced interest groups have essentially hijacked American democracy in the past few decades. Small, well-funded groups such as AIPAC have shaped American politics while representing a small fraction of the electorate. This means that political outcomes seldom correspond with popular preferences. This is deeply undemocratic. In 2009 alone, there were 13,700 lobbyists spending more than $3.5 billion annually. As well as undermining democratic representativeness, interest groups have also forced incoherent legislation. Obamacare is a prime example of this; although a streamlined piece of legislation at its first reading in Congress, Obamacare ultimately became unintelligible due to interference and lobbying from various interest groups. This has caused confidence in Congress to drop to new lows. Interest groups have made American democracy less effective, representative and popular. Perhaps Trump was onto something when he cried that we must ‘drain the swamp.’
Regardless of these flaws, most Americans would scoff at the very notion of China, that commie totalitarian dictatorship, functioning as well as that greatest Land of Freedom and Opportunity. Nonetheless, the China model has achieved extraordinary results and its governance model has been highly successful.
In the past few decades, China’s government has proved more meaningfully representative, effective and popular than America’s. In his recent article The Life of the Party, Eric Li argues that the Chinese government has proved unusually responsive and proficient. He argues that, ‘during its 63 years in power, the CCP has shown extraordinary adaptability.’ Above all, the CCP has presided over the most stunning economic transformation of the modern era. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization in the late 1970s, China’s economy was just 5% of the size of America’s. China is now the world’s second largest economy, and is forecasted to surpass America in 2018 according to Forbes. This is a remarkable achievement.
Further, ‘the CCP is heavily meritocratic and promotes those with proven experience and capabilities.’ President Xi, for instance, had to rise from being a fu ke level deputy county chief through several successive promotions before ultimately reaching the politburo. Prior to his leadership, Xi had managed regions with populations of over 150 million. So much for Trump’s business ‘expertise.’
Most importantly the Chinese experience questions the Western assumption that elections are the only true source of political legitimacy. 87 percent of respondents noted satisfaction with the direction of the country in a poll of Chinese attitudes published by the Pew Research Center in 2011. The Current Congressional approval rate is 13%.But we should not see the legitimacy and popularity of Chinese rule solely in terms of this economic transformation. As Li argues, ‘the CCP’s role in saving and modernizing China (post-civil war) is a far more durable source of its legitimacy than the country’s economic performance.’
But the modern Chinese state has a yet deeper source of legitimacy. As Lucian Pye famously pronounced, China is a ‘civilization pretending to be a state.’ China has a vast, continuous history as a polity dating to unification under Qin rule from 221, albeit disrupted infrequently by the typical rebellions and foreign intrusion that fill the annals of history. China’s modern identity is imbued with this civilizational heritage, which is a profound source of legitimacy. 241 year old America is but an insignificant pin-prick on China’s historical horizons.
China has confounded all expectations. Although non-democratic, its government has proved more effective, accountable and representative than America’s in recent decades. China should be perhaps considered an ‘unfree democracy’; its government represents the will of the people whilst not enshrining the typical institutions of liberal democracy.
China not only challenges the political ‘supremacy’ of American liberal democracy, but the dominance of liberal democracy itself. Indeed, liberal democracy cannot be said to reign supreme anymore. First, only 20 of the nearly 100 countries that were considered transitioning to democracies from autocracies in recent years are on track to becoming successful democracies. But more profoundly, as China demonstrates, non-democratic governance can potentially perform better than liberal democracy.
China’s challenge to liberal democracy threatens to rupture the foundations of the current world order. At a moment in history when it is abundantly clear that not all nations are moving towards democracy, the typical assumptions that liberal democracy is the most accountable, effective and representative form of government face deep challenges. Most importantly, we are currently seeing the resurgence of democracy’s greatest nightmare: the right-wing populist wave across Europe and America that is so eerily and traumatically reminiscent of the 1930s. Indeed, if liberal democracy precipitates W. H. Auden’s infamous ‘low dishonest decade’ every eighty years through the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ is China’s ‘unfree democracy’ perhaps preferable?
Ravi Veriah Jacques
Photograph: 18th National Congress of the Community Party of China, 11th November 2012. Credit: Dong Fang