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.