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Global Viewpoint

China's political system is more flexible than US democracy

Many people believe the Western democracy is superior to a one-party system because the rotation of political power gives government the flexibility to make needed policy changes. But China’s one-party system has proven over time to be remarkably adaptable to changing times.

By Eric X. Li / October 17, 2011


Change is in the air. By revolutions, elections, and other methods, governments are changing hands across a wide swath of the world. Two of the most notable peaceful successions are occurring in none other than the most important pair of countries in the world, the United States and China. In the next 13 months, America’s two-party electoral democracy will elect a president and a new Congress, and China’s one-party state will also produce new leadership.

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With the myriad of seemingly intractable problems facing human societies everywhere, people are again hotly debating: What is the “best” system of governance?

Intellectual giants no less than Francis Fukuyama are entering the fray. In his new tome, “The Origins of Political Order” and in related writings, Mr. Fukuyama points out that the obvious success of China’s one-party system does not solve the “bad emperor” problem: How do you make the emperor go away if and when he turns “bad”?

A newspaper commentator has gone so far as to pronounce that despite the wide popular support (as measured by opinion surveys) enjoyed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the fatal flaw in the system is that there is no way to “induce” the party to give up power if and when it loses the people’s support.

But this is a faux proposition. There is an old Chinese saying: “The people are like water, the ruler is a ship on that water. Water can carry the ship; water can overturn the ship.” Today, nation-states have replaced empires and kingdoms. In this analogy, water is still the people. The ship, however, is no longer just an emperor and his dynasty, but the larger and far more sophisticated political system that constitutes the modern nation-state.

China’s one-party rule is enshrined in its constitution, just as America’s electoral democracy is in its. The Chinese people’s overwhelming and sustained support for the Communist Party’s leadership, as consistently reflected in independent public opinion surveys, is within the context of the nation’s one-party political constitution, and therefore can only be interpreted as support for this fundamental system of government.

Americans’ support for either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party ebbs and flows, but it is not necessarily linked to popular support for its fundamental system of electoral democracy. At the moment, both nations’ peoples support their respective political constitutions.

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