China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one anointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.
This week will witness an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. On Tuesday the next American president will be elected. Two days later, the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party will select the new Chinese president and prime minister.
The contrast could hardly be greater.
Americans in their tens of millions will turn out to vote. In China the process of selection will take place behind closed doors and involve only a relative handful of people.
You are probably thinking, “Ah, America at its best, China at its worst – the absence of democracy. China’s Achilles heel is its governance. This will be China’s downfall.”
I want to argue quite the contrary.
You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.
But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.
Think of Italy. It is always voting, but the enduring problem of Italian governance is that its state lacks legitimacy. Half the population don’t really believe in it.
Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. How come?
In China’s case the source of the state’s legitimacy lies entirely outside the history or experience of Western societies.
In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.
Given the sheer size and diversity of the country, this is hugely problematic. Between the 1840s and 1949, China was occupied by the colonial powers, divided and fragmented. The Chinese refer to it as their century of humiliation.
They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility – bar none – is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.
There have been many examples in history. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies, above all, in its relationship with Chinese civilisation.
But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?
Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.
Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government’s handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).
Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.
On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year – generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.
But these actions do not imply any fundamental dissatisfaction with central government.
If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.
Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?
Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese have a quite different attitude towards government to that universal in the West.
True, our attitude depends in part on where we stand on the political spectrum. If you are on the right, you are likely to believe in less government and more market. If you are on the left, you are likely to be more favourably disposed to the state.
But both left and right share certain basic assumptions. The role of the state should be codified in law, there should be clear limits to its powers, and there are many areas in which the state should not be involved. We believe the state is necessary – but only up to a point.
The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different.
The Chinese see the state as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact
They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.
They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What’s more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.
The fact that the Chinese state enjoys such an exalted position in society lends it enormous authority, a remarkable ubiquity and great competence.
Take the economy. China’s economic rise – an annual growth rate of 10% for more than 30 years – has been masterminded by the Chinese state.
It is the most remarkable economic transformation the world has seen since the modern era began with Britain’s industrial revolution in the late 18th Century.
Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.
Take infrastructure – the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world’s largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world’s put together.
And the state’s ubiquity – a large majority of China’s most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.
The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.
Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China’s startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.
As China’s dramatic ascent continues – which it surely will – then China’s strengths will become a growing subject of interest in the West. We will realise that our relationship with them can no longer consist of telling them how they should be like us. A little humility is in order.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of this will be the state. We think of it as their greatest weakness but we will come to realise that it is one of their greatest strengths.
Beyond a point it would be quite impossible for a Western state to be like China’s. It is the product of a different history and a different relationship between state and society. You could never transplant their state into a Western country, and vice versa. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from the Chinese state, just as they have learnt much from us.
China’s rise will have a profound effect on Western debate.
In about six years hence, the Chinese economy will overtake the US economy in size. By 2030 it will be very much larger.
The world is increasingly being shaped by China, and if it has looked west for the last two centuries, in future it will look east.
Welcome, then, to the new Chinese paradigm – one that combines a highly competitive, indeed often ferocious market, with a ubiquitous and competent state.
For us in the West this is an entirely new phenomenon. And it will shape our future.