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.
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.
Some say that in the hypothetical situation in which the CCP lost popular support, it should step down from power, and only when this is ensured could the support of the people the party currently carries be rendered legitimate. Such an argument, if pushed to its logical conclusion, would mean that if, in a hypothetical situation, the current electoral regime in America lost the people’s support, the US must do away with elections, cancel the Bill of Rights, and install an authoritarian or some other system of governance.
This, of course, is absurd. Rulers may be succeeded or rotated peacefully within established systems of governance. Political systems themselves cannot be changed on a dime. With few exceptions, political systems change quickly only through revolutions. In America’s short history, it took two violent wars on its soil to establish and consolidate its current governing system.
Many argue that Western democratic regimes are superior because the rotation of political parties by voting allows the flexibility required for the government to make policy changes that meet the demands of changing times and thereby better reflect the will of the people. In contrast, China’s one-party system is rigid, and the CCP’s monopoly on power disconnects it from the people.
The simplest exercise in intellectual diligence would show such argument to be preposterous. Since the party established the People’s Republic in 1949, under the leadership of a single political party, changes in China’s government policies and political environment have covered the widest possible spectrum. From the so-called “New Democratic” coalition at the beginning to the dramatic land reforms of the early 1950s, from the Great Leap Forward to the quasi-privatization of farmland in the early 1960s, from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaopin’s market reform and Jiang Zemin’s redefinition of the Party through his “Theory of Three Represents,” China’s domestic politics are almost unrecognizable from one period to another.
In foreign policy, China moved from a close alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1950s to a virtual alliance with the United States in the 1970s and ’80s to contain the former. Today, its pursuit of an independent course in an increasingly multi-polar world is distinctive among the nations of the world. No one could deny that its leaders, from Mao to Deng, from Jiang to Hu and to Xi next year, differ as widely in political outlooks and policy priorities as those who move in and out of power under any other political systems.
Through six decades, there have been many blunders and corresponding course corrections. The Cultural Revolution – a disaster – was outright condemned. And the country went from its shattered state to the China we know today. The facts demonstrate the extraordinary capability of a one-party system for change and self-correction.
On the other hand, the records of electoral regimes around the world indicate that party rotation through elections may not provide the needed flexibility or self-correction. In the United States, elections may have produced new presidents and congressional majorities, but they do not seem to have done much to tackle America’s long-term challenges.
In Europe, governments regularly get voted in and out, but no elections have produced even the minimal corrections required to address their monumental distress. In the one-prime-minster-per-year Japan, elections and party rotations have failed to lift the country out of its 20-year stagnation. Perhaps this could explain why governments produced by elections routinely fall substantially below 50 percent approval rating in their countries, and China’s one-party government has retained approval rates above 80 percent for decades.
In this season of political change around the globe, in China, in the West, in Japan, and the Arab world, is water carrying the ship? Is water overturning the ship? What kind of ship does the water truly want to carry? A little less ideological bias and a little more intellectual honesty might tell us some simple truths: Electoral rotations do not necessarily produce flexibility or legitimacy; one-party rule does not mean rigidity or lack of popular support.
Perhaps, and just perhaps, if those who are convinced of the moral superiority of their political system would spare the energy from lecturing, verbally and militarily, and spend it on some self-reflection, it might even help their own countries. Who is really having “bad emperor” problems?
Eric X. Li, chairman of Chengwei Capital, is a Shanghai scholar and entrepreneur. He is also affiliated with the Fudan University School of International Relations and Public Affairs. Eric Li’s Chunqiu Institute recently hosted a dialogue between Francis Fukuyama (“The Origins of Political Order”) and Zhang Weiwei (“The China Wave”) on the "China model."