Chinese Democracy: Will It Ever Be More Than a Guns n' Roses Album?

Minxin Pei, Eric Li, and James Fallows debate the legitimacy and resilience of the People's Repbublic


2009 Poster criticizing Hong Kong's then-chief executive, Donald Tsang (Edwin Lee/Flickr)

In time of wide-ranging political change initiated by new pro-democracy movements, across North Africa and the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world -- change that's taking place against a centuries-in-the-making historical backdrop where the language of democracy has become increasingly the language of political legitimacy itself -- there may be no non-democratic political model with a stronger claim to sustainable legitimacy than China's.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

So how sustainable is it? At the Aspen Ideas Festival today, Minxin Pei, professor of government and the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, debated the question with Eric X. Li, founder and managing director of Chengwei Capital, a Chinese venture capital company. The exchange was moderated by Atlantic national correspondent, and author of China Airborne, James Fallows.

Pei's argument, one he's been developing for years, is that there are contradictions in the Chinese system that are straining that system and starting to manifest themselves more and more. Pei sees these contradictions on two levels: economic and political. In the economy, he says, we're seeing a slow-down that's become cyclical: The economy has been driven primarily by investments at home and exports to developed countries, which isn't sustainable. In the political sphere, we're seeing manifestations of a fundamental vulnerability of one-party systems globally: a tendency to drift into benefiting a relatively small, and ultimately predatory, elite at the expense of society generally, and the associated phenomena of high-level corruption and inequality.

Together, Pei claimed, these two domains of contradiction tend to impede the growth of China's economy and undermine the legitimacy of its government. You can see the last two decades as a story of the rise of the Chinese system, Pei said; but the next 10 to 15 years (no less than 10, no more than 15) will be one of the system's unraveling. And this is what the United States and the West generally need to worry about -- not China's strength but its weakness, because when the transition to a more democratic system comes, it will be very difficult to manage, particularly given the country's deep ethnic divisions, its disputed borders, and its complex integration with the global economy.

Li responded by conceding -- despite the populist idiom of the Chinese Communist Party and the "People's Republic" itself -- that if you understand democracy specifically around the idea of one person having one vote in a competitive multiparty system, 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.
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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."

Track records may not contain all the information you need to place a good bet, Fallows pointed out: "The Wang computer company had a very strong track record -- until it didn't."

China's is in any case a complicated track record, Pei argued -- and one "with a lot of cliff-hanging moments." From the Great Leap Forward, through a period of mass famine, and all the initial stages of the Communist system's consolidation, the cost of that system's development is measurable in tens of millions of lives. "This was one of most violent episodes in Chinese history," Pei said. "The Mao regime outdid all other emperors" in bloodshed -- "and China's history is full of bloody emperors."

When you look at the future of this system, Pei said, the issue is: How does it compare with similar "companies"? And is it in a "sector" that shows future growth? To answer this, the most important issue is the ultimate collapse of similar one-party systems around the world. The longest-surviving among them ever was the Soviet Union, which didn't make it past 70 years. Chinese Communism has been in power for 63. So if you consider the Soviet lifespan, and the nature of what ultimately limited it, would you "invest" in the Chinese system's political future today?

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.

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."

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J.J. Gould is the editor of More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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