"Western liberal democracy would be wrong for China" was a motion debate in London on 9 November 2012 sponsored by Intelligence Squared, a premier forum for debate and intelligent discussion.Click here
The debate was timely. A slowing and increasingly protest-prone China stood at the cusp of impending transformation under a new leadership. However, the world has witnessed impressive economic rise of China in three and a half decades with over 400 million people lifted out of poverty. The majority of the Chinese people are more satisfied with the way the country is progressing than ever before. Few demand regime change. This contrasts with sputtering economies in the West with political gridlock, widening income inequalities, and new elites manipulating the voting system to feather their own nests, liberal democracy notwithstanding.
The debate managed to thrash out most of the issues at stake, that freedom and democracy are universal values, that much of China’s growth is inequitable, and behind the façade of impressive growth lies a host of ugly repression, corruption, widening inequalities, vested interests, and ecological degradation.
The outcome of the debate was not unexpected, considering how informed the audience really was about the pros and cons of China’s development model. Useful as the debate was, it could have promoted even better understanding of the issues at stake if it had adequately addressed the following aspects –
(a) Would western liberal democracies, with multi-party rivalry if not outright confrontation, have delivered for China anything approaching similar outcomes in terms of economic and social development, lifting so many people out of poverty in so short a time? The example of India comes to mind.
(b) Would elections succeed in delivering national unity? Witness recent cases of Egypt, Thailand, and yes, even the United States. The Economist (The United States of Ameoba, 7 December, 2013) graphically shows here how America's politics have become morbidly polarised Increasingly, there seem to be signs of fatigue, if not failure, of western multi-party democracy.
(c) No matter how many political parties there are, there can only be one government. The proof of the government must be in its competence to deliver the goods for most of the people. That is what government is all about, multi-party or single party. History over the past three and a half decades seems to suggest that a one-party state, provided it continues to renew itself as China has been doing, does not necessarily do worse compared with multi-party democracies. Indeed, to maintain good governance, an enlightened one-party state would be in a better position to deliver both immediate and longer-term public goods for the country as it doesn't have to worry about the next election.
(d) Would western liberal democracies necessarily select the best leaders for the job? This contrasts with the current Chinese party selection system based on meritocratic competence, tried and proven on the basis of track record of an entire career, political infighting notwithstanding. See here how the Communist Party works nowadays
(e) The debate at times seems to be fixated at Tiananmen Square 1989. A lot of water has past under the bridge. In order to maintain stability, the Party must continually earn the trust and support of most of the people. China is churning out some seven million university graduates a year. By 2020, China would have 195 million of them, more than the entire workforce of the United States. Additonally, people's aspirations are becoming more diverse and liberal with a rapdily rising middle-class. This means that the Party must keep breast with the times to stay relevant. Witness the package of transformational reforms unveiled at the Party’s Third Plenum. This aims to embrace, if only gradually, some of the norms of human dignity, rule of law, judiciary independence, and civil society. Click here All these improvements, however, do not seem to predicate on multi-party politics.
(f) What the debate missed out completely was a thorough discussion of some of the public goods that underpin the legitamcy of a One-Party system. It took for granted that a One-Party system must be universally bad. China, however, believes that there is no one-size-fits-all model that fits all countries at all times. Each model must be judged on its efficacy at a specific stage of each country’s own development. What worked during Mao’s Revolution no longer works now. What works in the West may not work for China.What works in China may not work in other countries, including the West. Indeed, what works now may no longer work tomorrow. There is no convincing case that China has been and remains ill-suited to an enlightened One-Party state, which seeks contiual adaptation and transformation. Yes, it can be argued that China is now trying to embrace some norms of western liberal democracy. However, these norms need not be the perogative of a multi-party system. Provided the Party continues to reform and transform, as it has vowed to do, it seems that China needs not abandon One-Party rule any time soon.