If the China model has such promise, what explains the government’s need to resort to political repression? The more immediate reason is Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the longest and most systematic in Chinese history. Whatever the abuses and political biases of the campaign, it is necessary to cleanse the system. But those leading the initiative have made real enemies, which in turn has led those leaders to curb civil and political rights more aggressively.
The other explanation is longer term. The government is fully aware that the kind of economic modernization it has embraced was followed in South Korea and Taiwan by electoral democracy, and recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong only exacerbated worries in official circles that mainland China will be next.
I think these fears are exaggerated. Political meritocracy has deep roots in China, and surveys consistently show majorities in support of “guardianship discourse,” or empowering capable politicians who will assume responsibility for the good of society, over liberal democratic discourse that privileges procedural arrangements to secure people’s rights to participate in politics and choose their leaders. One might respond that such political preferences will change with education, but my own students at Tsinghua University—one of China’s most selective universities—usually come out in favor of meritocracy following extensive deliberation about the pros and cons of elections for top leaders versus mechanisms such as examinations and assessments of past performance.
That said, there is an equally strong demand in China for “Western” values such as freedom of speech, government transparency, and rule of law, and these demands will only grow stronger as China modernizes. At some point in the future, the government will have to choose between a more open society and Tiananmen Square-style repression to preserve stability. How can the government open up without establishing the kind of electoral democracy that would threaten to wreck its carefully constructed meritocratic system?
One solution is for the government to call a referendum and ask the people to vote “yes” in favor of the China model with more freedoms of speech and association but without the right to vote for top leaders and the freedom to form political parties that explicitly challenge one-party rule. The referendum would have to be carried out freely and fairly to be seen as legitimate, and it could specify a time period—say, 50 years—for the outcome of the vote to be in effect. Should the China model win out, that would be long enough to provide stability for the recruitment and training of meritocratically selected leaders without binding the people to perpetual meritocratic rule.
A victory for the China model would help provide democratic legitimacy to the system. Critics inside and outside the country who allege that the Chinese regime is fundamentally unstable or illegitimate because it lacks popular support would be silenced by the people, not the government. And the government could do what it’s supposed to do: serve the people rather than repress them. Of course, the Communist Party would be taking a major risk by organizing such a referendum; after all, it could lose. The people could vote for electoral democracy and the Communist Party could be transformed into a regular political party, albeit with superior organizational strength. This might not be a disaster for the Party, but it would be bad for political meritocracy. Party members would have to campaign for victory every few years instead of training leaders for the long term.