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.

A 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.

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.

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."

Corruption in China is a big problem, Li concedes, but that needs to be understood in a proper context: In Transparency International's ranking, for example, all of the top-20 least-corrupt countries in the world, except four, are Western, and among that four, only Japan is democratic; the rest of the TI's top-20 that are not from the West are autocracies. The question, Li said, is whether corruption is inherent to the political system, or whether it's a byproduct of rapid development—noting the portrayals of earlier times in the development of the United States portrayed in films like Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood. "China should have at least as good a shot of correcting for corruption as any other system."

On the greater reported levels of support for government and public institutions reported among Chinese relative to Americans, Pei said, "popular opinion surveys are highly variable”—and one of the factors that really tends to affect it is past experience. I.e., the Maoist era was terrible. But in any event, if you really want to test whether people accept the current system, rather than using popular-opinion polling as an indicator of legitimacy, "give them the real test—give them the vote." In the United States, Pei said, citizens get angry, but they don't question the legitimacy of the system in a way that people do in power systems maintained by lies, cheating, and violence. The world today has 120 democracies; 80 have made transitions to electoral democracy in last ten 10 years. Yes, corruption exists everywhere, but the main thing to take away from the TI list is that the world's least-corrupt countries are almost all democracies. The exceptions are the autocracies. Democracies cannot, to be sure, eliminate corruption altogether; but autocracies have no hope combating it effectively. The three conditions any political system needs to check corruption, Pei said, are free media, the rule of law, and nongovernmental-organization / civil-society monitoring. None of these things are available in autocracies.

Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.

"I am saying the former."

The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world's advance democracies.

Much has changed, Pei agreed, but the one thing that has not is the political system. If you look at footage of the National People's Congress, for example, there you see stasis. People have changed, society has changed, the economy has changed—but one thing that has not changed is political system. There must, Pei emphasized, be meaningful compatibility among society, the economy, and the political system. But the political system doesn't want to change. More than that, it wants society to change slower than it's changing. "At some point, either the political system gives, or social system slows down."

Pei copped to regularly fantasizing about how China could become democratic. "Economic performance is the key," he said. If it stays as strong as it's been, that would mean one kind of transition; but if it falls off, the Communist party will face rising social discontent. The party will ultimately split, and one of the splinter groups will end up trying to tap into that social discontent to gain legitimacy. No democratic transition has ever occurred without support from elements of the ruling elite, Pei said, and China won't be an exception.

It's a fallacy to say the system hasn't changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People's Conference—most conspicuously, its members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren't interested in this kind of story; they're interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.

Fallows then asked Li about expatriation among the families of Chinese elites, noting the degree to which they've come to move their assets, or send their children to school, outside China. Li had little to say on this point, admitting that it was an issue, though insisting that it's highly overplayed. (Pei pointed out that the data on these matters are difficult to come by, but there are at least hundreds of cases of Chinese officials looking for American passports—and you don't ever see American officials looking for Chinese passports.)

Li wanted to go instead to what he clearly sees as the bigger picture and the real comparative context for assessing the legitimacy and durability of the Chinese system: the weakness of American democracy, both in its ability to live up to its ideals and in its ultimate ability to justify them.

By the standards of democracy that he, Pei, and Fallows agreed to at the outset of the conversation, Li insisted, some of the greatest political leaders in American history were illegitimate. Washington was illegitimate; Lincoln was illegitimate; and if you take the 1965 Civil Rights Act as the beginning point for anything that could really be considered democracy by our own parameters for the idea—as Li clearly would—even Roosevelt was illegitimate.

In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. "If they're from men, they're not absolute; they can be negotiated." It was only too bad there wasn't time to discuss what "negotiated" means here.

"I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech," he added later. "Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial."

Asked about the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet, and its potential for exacerbating social disaffection and economic deceleration, Li asserted that these would be negligible. Pei disagreed: Internet censorship, he said, is a massively futile and regressive thing: It's targeted toward very few people, but it inconveniences millions. Pei said that he didn't know if this practice has played any real part in slowing down the economy, but he's sure that it's had a social cost. Ask Chinese people which they'd rather have, faster internet connection or access to social media, Pei said, and they'd say the latter.

Earlier this week, here in Aspen, when The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about technology and democracy, the conversation turned to a similar question: