Managed Democracy

[Reihan] When you read China's Secret Files, you get a very clear picture of how carefully and methodically, and successfully, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party reproduces itself.  Planning for the transition to the so-called Fourth Generation began literally decades ago.  Young cadres were singled out for managerial prowess, and they were advanced ahead of more senior colleagues.  Favoritism and cronyism played a role in the subsequent jockeying for power, to be sure, and there were many petty rivalries.  And yet there's no denying that those who eventually made it to the top are, without exception, shrewd, smart, and impressive.  The contrast with our own executive branch is not encouraging.  So when the Chinese leadership starts talking about "democracy," you can rest assured that they've given the subject a lot of careful consideration.

China's Secret Files describes in vivid detail how Li Ruihuan, a member of the Third Generation and a prominent liberal, was outmaneuvered in his effort to remain remain in power.  Of course, Li was a "liberal" only by the standards of the CCP.  He believed in the supremacy of the CCP, and in a broadly authoritarian political system.  But because he was concerned first and foremost with Party corruption, he advocated "external checks" on Party members, including competitive elections up to the provincial level. Lu Dingyi argued in a similar vein, and now it seems his once-outré notions are getting a respectful hearing.

He adds that the party cannot continue to act as both “player and referee” when it comes to corruption. The referee role belongs to the public, he said, and is “a basic function of democracy.”

There you have it: a perfectly pragmatic, anodyne case for a radical break with the past.    In my view, some kind of "managed democracy" is the likely result.  (This is one of the scenarios described in Bruce Gilley's brilliant China's Democratic Future, a book I can't recommend enough.)

For those of you who believe Russia's "managed democracy" has been an unmitigated disaster, it's worth contemplating some of the uglier alternatives.  (Check out this article in BusinessWeek on "Russia's New Deal.")  Perry Anderson, no fan of Putin, offered a balanced interpretation in the LRB in late January.  I found this particularly interesting

A sense of the sheer desolation of the demographic scene is given by the plight of women – more protected from the catastrophe than men – in contemporary Russia. Virtually half of them are single. In the latest survey, out of every 1000 Russian women, 175 have never been married, 180 are widows and 110 are divorcees, living on their own. Such is the solitude of those who, relatively speaking, are the survivors. There are now 15 per cent more women alive in this society than men.

When you consider that China has the opposite problem, of a large population of surplus males or "bare branches," consider that the Chinese future could be darker, more violent, more revanchist than Russia's quite smooth post-communist transition.     I think we can agree that a basically peaceful managed Chinese democracy would be far preferable to an aggressive and xenophobic unmanaged Chinese democracy.

Is this a false choice?  Well, I certainly hope so.

PS- For a more breathless and provocative interpretation of China's future, try Joshua Cooper Ramo's The Beijing Consensus.  I don't agree with this product or service, but I do endorse it as worth your time.