On the “Superior” Political Model

For several days, I have pondered writing about this New York Times op-ed by Eric Li. In fact, I accepted and then spiked a guest post on it, then wrote and spiked a post of my own. It’s not that Li’s piece doesn’t deserve the criticism — his suggestion that the Tiananmen protests were a “vast rebellion” is ridiculous, as is his assertion that rights in China are decided in “negotiation” between the Party and its subjects — but the specifics, erroneous as they are, are really beside the point. So, in fact, is whether I’m talking about Mr. Li or one of the many Americans who might make a similar argument but come to the opposite conclusion.

Writers on both sides of the debate engage in the same sort of comparative analysis on a regular basis, cherry-picking facts to support the assertion that their system — American democracy, Chinese authoritarianism, whatever — is superior. Like Li, they measure a system’s superiority or inferiority based primarily on how it compares to the performance of a different system in a different place governing different people. This makes no sense.

What I’ve just argued is echoed in a familiar Chinese government refrain: China is unique and not suited to Western-style democracy ((“Western-style democracy,” of course, is a made-up term that fails to account for the very significant differences between the political systems in place in developed Western countries.)). There is a hint of truth to this. China, like all countries, is unique. Certainly, it is different enough from the United States that directly comparing the two as though we might just pick up one system of government and transplant it in the other country is utterly absurd.

Attempting to determine the “superior” political model comparatively is pointless because there is no way to compare anything. American democracy has been overrun by special interest money, yes. Can we quantitatively compare this with the endemic corruption within the Chinese government? Can we somehow pick a winner, and even if we could, would that really be meaningful?

Actually, I suspect these sorts of arguments are especially prevalent now because people in both countries feel in need of some reassurance. Certainly, America’s economic woes are no secret; China’s problems with corruption, unrest, and human rights are equally concerning to anyone who is paying attention. Everyone would like a pat on the back and the assurance that while, sure, there are some things going badly at home, at least we can be safe in the knowledge that we’re superior to those guys.

Of course, this accomplishes nothing. A nation’s political system should be judged based on whether it accomplishes the goals of any political system. Opinions may vary here, but I would submit that at their most basic level, governments exist to ensure that individuals can pursue their lives without fear. A good political system, then, protects us from foreign invaders and domestic criminals, but it also protects us from itself; from tyranny and terror.

By necessity, this involves compromises of freedom. A truly free society would likely be an abjectly terrifying one. But the compromises must be limited; a truly safe society would be just as horrifying ((See: Brave New World, The Giver, lots of other dystopian fiction)). Our systems, then, must compromise, and these compromises vary by situation, location, culture, and most especially people. Perhaps there are alternatives to voting, but the people of any country should be able to play an active role in deciding what rights their society is willing to forfeit in the name of increased safety or stability. They should also have the recourse to reassess these judgements as the world changes and society changes along with it.

Looking at China on its own merits, then, the question is not whether China’s current system is superior to America’s. That question is meaningless. Rather, we must ask how well China’s system serves its people according to our criteria of what a political system should do. Could China’s system be modified to improve its performance? Could it be replaced entirely, or melded with some other system?

What the perfect political system for China might look like is beyond the scope of this article (not to mention the capabilities of its author). But there is little evidence to suggest that China has constructed the best possible system for itself. Even by economic performance, while the system has performed incredibly well, deep concerns remain. Per capita GDP is growing but remains dismally low. More than a hundred million Chinese live in poverty ((To the government’s credit, an upward adjustment is the reason this figure has jumped despite continued economic growth; however, at $238/year the poverty line is still shockingly low by the standards of developed countries)). Moreover, as the economy grows, so too does the income gap, and the growth in wealth does not seem to have affected the human rights situation, which by all accounts ((Well, except the account of the Chinese government, but they seem to define the term purely based on economics, so that as long as China’s economy grows, the human rights situation is improving automatically.))appears to be deteriorating.

There are responses to those concerns, yes. I find them personally unconvincing, but my point here is simply that in a discussion of political systems, these are the things we should be discussing. Pointing out America’s flaws may make some people feel better about China’s government, but it doesn’t answer any of these questions ((Obviously, there are hundreds of questions that could be listed here; these are just a few random ones)):

  • Why can’t China have a free press?
  • Why can’t China have an independent justice system and the rule of law?
  • Why can’t Chinese citizens have greater freedom of speech?
  • Why can’t Chinese citizens have some say in their own governance?
  • Why does China’s cultural output need to be censored and sterilized?

As I mentioned earlier, any political system requires compromising some individual and collective freedoms in return for safety. The question, then, is what compromises are necessary, and this is a question that needs to be reassessed with increasing frequency as developing technology changes the way societies function.

Take, for example, the first question: why can’t China have a free press? The traditional argument against a free press is that it would destabilize China by reporting too much negative news ((The implication, though it’s rarely expressed explicitly by those defending this view, is that they’d be reporting too much negative news about the current regime, in other words, that access to the truth might incite the people to pursue “regime change.”)). But the rise of microblogging seems to have proved this point moot.

Microblogging really rose to prominence in China a couple of years ago, after Twitter was blocked and domestic leaders in the field emerged. These services were censored — of course — but they allowed anonymous registration and virtually instant data transmission. Automatic censorship systems are imperfect — keyword blocks fail catch typos, let alone metaphors — and manual censorship systems are slow. This means that for the moment, censorship on microblogs is more of a nuisance than anything; anyone truly dedicated to getting a message out could pull it off, provided they had a sufficient network to broadcast to.

And have they ever broadcast! In fact, in the absence of a real free press, microblogs became a de facto free press, an uncensored ((There are a few negative stories that were effectively suppressed on Chinese microblogs, but the “reporting” and commentary on them is still far freer than most of what’s allowed in the Chinese media))source of news with all the negative reporting of a real free press and none of the fact checking. Although this era is coming to an end — microblogs will require real-name registration for all users by this March — China has enjoyed a freer flow of information over the past two years than ever before in its history. Moreover, this information was full of rumors, misinformation, and paranoia (unlike the fact-checked, sourced stories in a professional newspaper). It was also decidedly down on the government ((So much so, in fact, that several Chinese state media outlets ran pieces about how pro-government supporters had become an oppressed minority on microblogs and other discussion sites)), as any user of Sina Weibo could tell you. (If you’re ever in doubt of this, you need only to check Global Times editor Hu Xijin’s weibo page and scan through the thousands of insulting, negative comments that follow nearly every single one of his posts).

Yet despite this free flow of negative (and sometimes totally made up) information about the government, Chinese society failed to collapse. Microblogs have certainly ruined the careers of a few officials ((I’m sure Wang Yongping is having a blast in Poland, though)), but the government remains intact. No one has rebelled. The sky has failed to fall.

A free press would, from the government’s perspective, presumably be better than microblogs; at least with a free press, you get the chance to comment and set the story straight before the paper gets printed, and you know that some editor has double-checked to make sure the story isn’t made up ((Yes, of course, this isn’t always the case, but compared to microblog rumors, fake stories in the mainstream free media are quite rare.)). Why, then, couldn’t China’s political system include an independent and free press, or at the very least, a press that is less tightly controlled? And if it could, why doesn’t it, and how can that be rectified systemically?

We might sort through all of the questions listed above in this fashion, or pick other questions and sort through them as well. My intent here is not so much to do this as to suggest that this is the way we ought to evaluate our political systems. The comparative polemic makes nationalists feel warm inside, and it’s probably great for pageviews too, but we ought to aspire to something more meaningful and more useful.

This is, I suspect, true of all nations, but I think it is especially true of the United States and China, both of which face serious problems that are not likely to be solved by smugly superior editorials, bombastic grandstanding, or any of the other rhetorical approaches to the infantile whose-is-bigger argument that serves to do nothing but distract us from what is actually important.