This article is a part of The Perspective’s Open Mind Theme week. The aim of this week is to broaden perspectives and reveal new angles of subjects you may have thought were crystal clear. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of The Perspective or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund.
In 2014, my Beijing-born Chinese teacher told me that “within five years we will see that Chinese democracy is the world’s best democracy”. At the time, this statement seemed ridiculous: Hongkongers were protesting against Chinese interference, and dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo were being imprisoned. Today her words seem to have some value. Western democracy has brought us Trump and Brexit, and democratic institutions are under attack. Meanwhile, China’s political system has brought about the largest poverty alleviation ever seen in human history. Was my teacher right: is ‘Chinese democracy’ superior?
For most Western readers, the first question that comes to mind is ‘what Chinese democracy?’ Obviously, Chinese democracy does not involve rule by the people, in which citizens choose representatives that govern for fixed terms. Instead, Chinese democracy focuses on rule for the people by highly capable professionals. In other words: authoritarian meritocracy by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Still, this kind of authoritarianism is not as bad as it sounds. The Party is able to deliver talented leaders, has a strong feeling for the will of the people, and benefits society through its long-term outlook.
One of the characteristics of Chinese democracy is that there is little space for people like Trump, who have no experience in government whatsoever. On the contrary, Chinese leaders are highly capable and experienced. Premier Li Keqiang, for example, started as a local official, slowly rising through the local bureaucracy before he began to work in Beijing. Li was not the only one who rose through the ranks before reaching the top: all current members of the Standing Committee had positions at the local level, including President Xi Jinping.
This system of meritocracy functions as the foundation of Chinese democracy. At the local level, residents can choose their leaders in a surprisingly democratic way. If successful, those leaders can be promoted to positions at the provincial level, where they will be monitored for their leadership skills and ability to create economic growth and social stability. Then, the best will be allowed to take up a role in Beijing, creating a system of “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top”.
Through consultation with local citizens, local officials quickly sense the spirit of the people, and are able to spread this to higher levels of government. In recent years the party swiftly responded to worries about the environment by quickly implementing environmental laws. Moreover, as most central leaders once served at the local level, they know many of the problems the people face. Having worked in rural Shaanxi, Xi Jinping knows what poverty means, and can closely relate to all layers of Chinese society.
Chinese bureaucrats working in the Great Hall of the People often have years of working experience and are highly capable. Source: Thomas.fanghaenel, Wikimedia Commons.
When Trump became president, he promised to ‘drain the swamp’. In this swamp, lobbyists and politicians worked together, not thinking about representing the people. Obviously, China has a swamp too, but those inside it have at least worked together with the people they rule. Besides, the role of interest groups is much smaller. In a Western democracy, politicians can only survive through re-election and need large donations for their campaigns. In China’s meritocracy on the other hand, only by achieving high levels of economic growth and by maintaining social stability can a local official hope to be promoted to the central government, and getting captured by interest groups does not fit within this picture.
The CCP has been ruling China since 1949, and is likely to do so for many more years. Historically, the Party took legitimacy from unifying China and from reversing the Century of Humiliation (1839-1949). Yet, since Mao’s death, and especially since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, this legitimacy has become much weaker. Being revolutionary can only provide limited legitimacy, and instead it is derived from implementing successful policies. Until recently, the Party was hugely successful in this effort: since 1978, 800 million people have been lifted from poverty. However, with the economy slowing down and social and environmental issues rising, this has become much more of a challenge.
Luckily, the Party is able to have a long-term outlook, as it does not depend on elections. This long-term outlook, combined with the meritocratic selection of officials, enables the Party to design policies that can secure its legitimacy in the future.
A long-term outlook might not only benefit today’s citizens, but also future generations. In Western democracies, only the interests of current voters are considered: a politician does not care about children, foreigners and those who still have to be born. This explains why Donald Trump disregards the environment or the US’ long-term economic outlook. In China on the other hand, the Party is likely to be in power for the next generation as well, and consequently its policies must be sustainable. China now assumes a leading position in the fight against global warming and environmental pollution for a reason: it wants to stay in power in the future.
So, whereas Western democracy resulted in Donald J. Trump and Brexit, Chinese democracy has been able to deliver talented leaders who have strong grassroots experience. As a result, the system is popular: an overwhelming majority supports it, and Chinese citizens trust their political institutions more than people do in democratic societies such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Xi Jinping with South Korea’s ex-president Park. Chinese citizens have more trust in their political institutions than Koreans have in theirs. Source: Republic of Korea, Flickr.
Still, Chinese democracy through meritocracy is not perfect. Dissidents such as Chen Guangchen, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo are silenced, environmental degradation continues, corruption thrives, and repression and internet censorship is harsh. Yet, automatically considering it as bad or evil is a mistake, and those supporting the system should be taken seriously. With Western democracy going through a hard time, Chinese democracy might indeed have some superior aspects.
It has been three years since my teacher prophesied the superiority of Chinese democracy, and a lot has happened since. According to my teacher, Chinese democracy will prove itself to be superior within two years. We will see what happens, but the system is not without a chance.