Meet Eric X. Li, a believer in the Chinese model of governance who is pitching it to Western audiences.
Li speaking at a food security conference in Paris / CEIBS.edu
In a provocative op-ed in The New York Times on February 16, writer Eric X. Li argued that China's authoritarian, hybrid capitalist system is superior to America's liberal democratic system. As if that weren't enough, Li's column even went so far as to declare that the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown was justified:
However, China's leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country's politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.
That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.
Many of Li's critics found his logic
here disquieting and distasteful, and rightly so. Yet such a perspective is not
uncommon among certain Chinese elites. In fact, what Li articulated here
isn't substantially different from the commonly perceived message of Zhang
Yimou's hit film Hero -- that a ruthless emperor is justified, that it took extreme measures to achieve national unification. Beyond the simple Machiavellian view, Li's
piece contains numerous problems, chief among them the fundamental assumption
that there exists a distinct Chinese model with which to compare the U.S.
What are the defining traits of the Chinese model? Li doesn't explain, but that wasn't the point. What's interesting to me is what Li could represent in contemporary China and what that may mean for the U.S.-China discourse.
I have followed Li with some interest for a while now. Ever since his first op-ed in the Times in July 2011, in which he responded to David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei on China's resilience, I wondered how this Shanghai venture capitalist ended up in such prime journalistic real estate. I soon discovered that Li was also a fellow at the Aspen Institute. Here he is debating Anand Giridharadas on a distinct Chinese modernity:
The video is long, but Li reaches two major conclusions. First, that there is Chinese exceptionalism just as there is American exceptionalism. And, second that the American idea is fundamentally borne from Judeo-Christian theological roots, concepts that are entirely alien to the development of China. Ergo, American notions of democracy -- as an end in and of itself -- will not work for a country like China. Without wading into whether these conclusions have merit, I've noticed they are at the core of Li's writings. For example, in this Huffington Post dispatch, he equates America's moral certitude on liberal democracy with the utopian idealism of hardcore Marxists.