Today I came across this interesting summary of a recent debate between Minxin Pei and Eric X. Li about Chinese democracy, moderated by James Fallows (thanks to @thats_mandarin for the heads-up). With the important caveat that I didn’t see the debate firsthand and thus am relying on the summary of Li’s position in this article, let’s take a look at some of his statements.
[Li conceded that] China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? “I’m a venture capitalist,” Li said, “so I look at track records.” In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.
OK, so let’s look at track records. Taiwan is a great comparison here ((Not a perfect one since the country is far smaller, but there are no perfect comparisons here)), since its government was in a very similar situation in 1949, having also just been weakened by decades of war and (in its case) an eventual defeat and forced retreat. My guess is that in 1949, Taiwan’s GDP, literacy rate, and life expectancy were quite similar to China’s. (Though I could be wrong. I couldn’t find much available data on Taiwan in 1949, although it appears the GDP was indeed very low, if perhaps not quite as low as the PRC’s).
So who has the better track record now? Taiwan — undeniably a far more democratic state than China — on every single count. Its per capita GDP is way higher than the PRC’s ($37,000 vs. $8,400). Its life expectancy rate is also higher than China’s (79.35 vs. 73.47), and it even has an advantage in literacy, albeit a very slight one (96.1% ((This number is from 2003, though; it may be higher now)) vs. 95.9%). ((Note that most of these numbers are from the CIA World Factbook, and I chose PPP GDP for this article, but the numbers from other sources are in all instances I saw very similar.))
But to see why this matters, let’s continue with Li’s argument:
Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn’t specify what these were), but they’ve been dwarfed by China’s achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I’m at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that’s engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company’s top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn’t make sense. “The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. … I think the answer is clear.”
Li is not wrong that China’s one-party government has made some monumental achievements along with its monumental mistakes, although which dwarfs which depends very much on whether you’re (for example) a successful venture capitalist or a farmer whose land has been confiscated. Regardless, if we’re looking at track records, it sure looks like Taiwan’s government has a better one. And what’s more, Taiwan’s current government is the result of a successful stable transition from a one-party dictatorship to a more-or-less functional multiparty democracy (albeit one with the occasional legislative fist fight). As far as track records go, isn’t Taiwan’s comparative success in every category Li named, along with its successful transition to a multiparty system, evidence that such a transition could work, and might even be beneficial to China?
I think it’s quite telling that Li chose to use a boardroom metaphor, though. I think he’s right about the decision one would make when running a company, but China is a nation, not a corporation. When a corporation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, its stock price plummets and investors become angry and poor. Workers get laid off and have to find new jobs. When a nation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, there are deaths (sometimes millions of them).
Moreover, a nation’s goals should be entirely different from a corporation’s. Companies are out to make money, period. Nations should be out to make money only insofar as that improves the quality of life for their own people. Nations also have to consider an extremely complex variety of other factors; it’s not all just about the GDP bottom line, which is why running a country the way you would run a company is insane. ((I should note that I don’t think China’s leaders really are running China like a company; what I’m saying here is that Li’s comparison is pretty problematic.))
I’m not sure why Fallows or Pei accepted this metaphor as legitimate, but they apparently did at least for the sake of continued discussion, and thus, discussion continued:
It wasn’t that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the “one person, one vote” definition seriously.
Li makes a fair point here, and one that he has made before, so I’ll counter with a point that I’ve made before: China’s system is even younger if we operate by the same strict definitions. Since the current system (which is responsible for most of China’s growth) is quite obviously not communist or socialist in practice, if we want to talk about this system’s track record we might generously say it dates back to the late 1970s. If Western democracy is unproven system, Chinese-style authoritarianism is even moreso.
Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they’re charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? “It’s like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”
Ignoring the nonsensical smilie at the end ((but I’m happy to discuss why this is stupid in the comments if need be…)), one could easily make the same vague, unsupported argument about China, and in fact we see such arguments all the time. History will prove one (or both) of these arguments right, I imagine, but both systems are currently facing “monumental challenges” and whether or not they’re capable of dealing with them is very much yet to be determined.
As for the opinion polling, is that really an effective measure of the national mood in a country where dissidents and critics are detained and tortured? Or, for that matter, in a country where the prevailing cultural attitude is to keep one’s true beliefs to oneself and trusted family and friends, not to shout them at anyone with a microphone who will listen (as seems to be popular in the US)? I certainly know plenty of Chinese who are very frustrated with the government but would never ever tell that to a pollster cold－calling them over the phone.
Li does concede that corruption is a problem, but cites Transparency International’s global rankings as evidence that corruption is a developing-nation problem and not an authoritarian problem, per se. He may be right, but again it’s worth noting that Taiwan, whose government was starting from more or less the same place, ranks as significantly more clean than China on that scale. ((Although I’ll grant that Taiwan had the benefit of US aid to a greater extent than China had help from the Soviets.))
Lest anyone be confused, Li is most certainly not arguing that authoritarianism is the best system for China now; he’s in this thing for the long haul:
Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.
“I am saying the former.”
The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world’s advance [sic] democracies.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Li there. China has certainly changed a lot, but its one-party system hasn’t survived a civil war (America’s multiparty system did), and most of the reason China now would be unrecognizable to Chinese from 63 years ago is that things started out so terribly. I’m not sure that the fact that most democracies didn’t begin with millions of people starving to death should really be considered a selling point for the relative strength of authoritarianism.
And, as Minxin Pei pointed out, the political system itself has barely changed at all and would be quite recognizable to Chinese from the early communist period. Policies have changed drastically, but the men with their hands on the wheel still get there the same way. Li counters:
It’s a fallacy to say the system hasn’t changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People’s Conference — most conspicuously, it’s [sic] members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren’t interested in this kind of story; they’re interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.
With regards to the NPC changes, I think he’s missed the point; as that body continues to be a relatively meaningless rubber-stamp legislature anyway; changes to it aren’t particularly relevant. With regards to local changes, I love ((sarcasm)) the cheap dig at reporters he throws in, but apparently he’s not interested enough in the story to mention any specifics, either, which rather undermines his positon.
Anyway, Li’s overall point was made quite clear during the question period:
In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. “If they’re from men, they’re not absolute; they can be negotiated.” It was only too bad there wasn’t time to discuss what “negotiated” means here.
“I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech,” he added later. “Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial.”
I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has been poor or powerless (or both) why individual rights are sacrosanct even if one doesn’t believe they come from god. It’s not hard to understand why Eric Li doesn’t give a shit about internet censorship in China, for example: after all he has a column in the Huffington Post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to understand why free speech (or due process, or the rule of law, or the right to elected representation, etc. etc.) are important to a farmer who has lost his land and is trying to contact the central government to resolve the problem.
Rights certainly are a “negotiation,” Li isn’t wrong about that. Even in the land of the free, I don’t have the right to make libelous comments or murder people (among other things). I don’t think anyone would argue that how far any right goes isn’t a negotiation, part of the social contract for any society, and different groups choose differently. But without freedom of speech or the right to elected representation, who has what rights in China is not a negotiated dialogue between the rulers and the ruled, it is a one-sided lecture. Without representation or the right to represent oneself through freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, any real “negotiation” on rights is utterly impossible.