Mr. Eric Li’s recent editorial, “Why China’s Political Model is Superior,” (link here) deserves a place in the New York Times. His is an important opinion, as it is not only Mr. Li who feels this way: many of those Americans he claims suffer from a “faith-based ideological hubris” in democracy have recently come down with a contagious crisis of confidence In their political system. Implicit in much of the Western coverage of China’s economic rise is an awe (or fear?) that China’s economic successes may reveal a political system that will inexorably prove more efficient than ours, and in this efficiency, superior.
I, too, agree with Mr. Li that we should get away from trite, absolutist, language and the pitfalls of hubris. The question I would pose to Mr. Li, then, is “Superior for whom? And, superior for what?” These questions are important, for right now, I worry that the most probable answer to those questions is this: superior for venture capitalists and venture capitalism.
A critical flaw in Mr. Li’s editorial is his conflation of the delivery of public goods with the determination of public goods. Most of his anecdotes contrast the efficiency with which China achieve policy ends (even to the point of “crushing rebellions”) with the apparent paralysis of how Western democracies determine policy (legally regulated recalls and referenda). But the endless referenda in California, gridlock in Congress, or recalls in Wisconsin have less to do with the delivery of public goods than with the determining of how and what we as a people determine what is just and right to deliver.
China’s delivery of a limited number of public goods over the past 30 years has been breathtaking. It has, as is often recorded, moved hundreds of millions out of poverty and improved their material well-being. But it hasn’t improved it that much. Mr. Li notes with pride that China is now the number two economy in the world, but neglects to mention that per capita GDP is still, at minimum, ninetieth in the world, or that its GDP numbers say nothing of environmental degradation, He does not talk about GINI index number over .5 or the gap between the rich and the poor, the city and the country-side, politically-connected and not; and that theseare not just gaps, but chasms. Many of the poor who have moved out of poverty hang precariously close to it, often times a simple statistical manipulation away…
Mr. Li has the advantage of profiting from the market, without suffering from its externalities, which have been grave here. Were he writing his editorial from Wukan or Panhe or Foxconn or with children in rural schools or countless other places in the center and west of this vast, magnificent place (or simply next to those living in the shadows of his office in Shanghai) it would indeed take hubris to state that China’s political system is superior. It has done some good things for its people. It is certainly superior for those who agree with its policy goals, especially those who have profited from them (perhaps us?), and we must assume that Mr. Li is one of those. But is it capable of handling the myriad demands a sophisticated polity places on its government? Is it capable of providing just resolutions to social discord and disagreement?
If we can leave aside provocation for a bit, the reality is that we all—East and West—are now firmly anchored to the international economy, and face a crisis in global governance, both domestically and internationally. An unfortunate subtext to this year’s election primaries (or the financial crisis, or the Euro crisis, or the…) is the impotence of any one government to address domestic problems that are now inextricably linked to international markets, something that should have been made clear to all of us during the financial crisis.
While conventional wisdom was that China avoided many of the most serious repercussions of the financial crisis, the psychological impact of the financial crisis may have been far worse than documented, but in a way few of us may have expected. Far more devastating than any transitory economic losses was the creeping angst that has bloomed as China’s blueprint to prosperity for the past thirty years was tarnished. China had, in many ways, treated Western industrialized history as a how-to guide for development, and one of the next things on the docket was reform of its financial system in the West’s own image. Then came 2008, and a collective disillusionment the likes of which Holden Caulfield could scarcely dream about.
Just like individuals react to psychological trauma in different ways, so too have Chinese responded in different ways to this “loss of innocence” in their belief in a scientific development that modeled itself after Western history and institutions. Some, the reformers, have become dismayed, for what is the hope for China’s own reform if the West itself is so flawed? Some others (perhaps more) have become emboldened, apparently assuming that this “fall” of the West doubtless heralds the ascension of China. Mr. Li’s editorial exhibits many of the features of this mentality. But what is ironic about this type of braggadocio is that it comes at a time that China is least sure about the direction it needs to take, politically and otherwise.
Beijing, like Washington, now finds itself teeming with “lobbyists,” with uncounted moneyed interests pressing Zhongnanhai from within, and countless un-moneyed interests without, taking to the streets in as petitioners (and protestors), who bring every manner of grievance to Beijing from all corners of the Middle Kingdom. Superior system or not, China’s administrative and legal systems currently lack institutional capacity (or will) to remedy the ills so many of its citizens suffer.
But what is more obvious is that China’s system also lacks basic institutions for policy debate and determination. Beijng has made laudable attempts to seek public input: expanding the size of the “selectorate” that consults on legislative drafting and offering draft laws up for public comment with increasing regularity, but there is still little transparency about whose opinion matters and why—an exceedingly important issue to the growing numbers of Chinese citizens who realize that interest groups haunt their corridors of power just as much as they do America’s. Mr. Li believes the US government is paralyzed by an overrepresented, overwrought, and irrational population. His country is not so different: it’s facing domestic paralysis from an underrepresented, overwrought, and irascible population.
I do not believe Mr. Li’s portrait of American democracy is accurate or complete. Our system of governance (democracy and its complement, rule of law) is far more flexible and sophisticated than he lets on, and has provided means for efficient, effective administration in times of crisis. More impressively, for many centuries, it has prevented any of those crises from devolving into tyranny, a track record few countries can match.
The simple answer to Mr. Li’s op-ed is that China is in far too early a stage of development, with far too many challenges yet to face, to proclaim its system superior in any meaningful sense. The flip answer is to ask him how many “naked officials” agree with him. The sensible answer is to call for less rhetoric, less provocation, and more engagement. These issues are too critical to dismiss through intellectual saber rattling.