December 28, 2022
The West could learn a great deal from China’s system of governance. It is highly unlikely this will happen, at least anytime soon. On the contrary, the West believes that its governance system is the best in the world, cannot be improved upon, and is incomparably superior to that of China. Why then is the West in rampant decline? And why has China, in contrast, enjoyed a dramatic rise over the last four decades.
Have these contrasting fortunes got nothing to do with their respective governing systems? Are national success and the system of governance utterly disconnected from each other? Is the system of governance little more than an ornament of decoration, with little bearing on the performance of a nation?
This is obviously nonsense. The quality of governance is fundamental to the success or failure of a country. If a country is doing well, then the system of governance is clearly working. If a country is failing, then its system of governance is patently wanting. Shocking as this might sound to most Western ears, the West has much to learn from Chinese governance. This is not to suggest that Western governance could or should be like the Chinese – on the contrary, systems of governance are necessarily and inevitably highly indigenous to each country. But they can and should learn from each other. So what can Western governance learn from China’s whole-process people’s democracy system? There are five key points.
First, consensus. A society cannot be successful without a fundamental and overarching consensus. In China the embodiment and expression of this is the Chinese Communist Party. All classes, occupations, every part of the country, all ethnicities, and various political trends are represented within its ranks. The Chinese Communist Party reflects China. The task of the Communist Party is to achieve a consensus amongst the people on the way forward for the country. It has been remarkably successful in this endeavor. The West has also been able to achieve a consensus when the major political parties have been agreed on fundamental questions. But this is becoming less and less true. In the US, UK, France, and Italy, for example, there is growing political polarization. In a period of decline, centrifugal forces grow stronger, tearing at the social fabric. In contrast, China is patently of a consensual mind, as demonstrated by its extraordinary progress and social stability. During the present era of dramatic global change, a one-party state has proved far better at achieving consensus than the Western multi-party systems.
Second, participation. Democracy is supposed to be about giving voice and power to the people. That means involving them in governance. The Western system of democracy is threadbare when it comes to involving the people. The key mode of Western democracy is elections. They only take place periodically and in between there is virtually no involvement of the people. For the great majority of the time, politics is the exclusive preserve of professional politicians. Democracy should be a continuous process, not something that happens every four or five years. Compare that with China. Democracy takes many different forms: elections, a continuous process of consultation, self-government, popular involvement in the law-making process, and the drawing up of five-year plans. Whole-process people’s democracy seeks to involve the people in a host of different ways. The whole point of democracy is the people not the politicians. If people are not continuously involved in the political process, they have no real stake in it. Ultimately, the energy, strength, and capacity of a democracy depends on the extent to which the people are involved in it. The reason why China has been so successful has been its ability to enthuse, involve, and mobilize the people in the political process and thereby contribute to the country’s future.
Third, the long-term. Western democracies demonstrate little capacity to think long-term. Horizons are almost invariably defined by the next election. Alternation in government conspires against continuity and, as a consequence, the pursuit of longer-term objectives. The party system emphasizes party loyalty and the winning of the next election, while paying little attention to the next ten years, which helps to explain why the Western political world is largely bereft of long-term thinking. It also explains why Western societies are so poor at infrastructure, which requires a much longer time-frame than is the norm for government. Compare that with China. It is constantly thinking long-term; the short-term is always informed, and framed, by a long-term perspective, be it a five-year plan, 2035, or 2049. This produces a very dynamic and creative relationship between different time-scales, short-term, medium-term, long-term, or very long-term. This is the only way to achieve profound change in a modern society. China’s penchant for the long term lies deep in the country’s DNA, as symbolized by the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. Ever since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated a huge commitment to achieving a very different future for the country. China’s embrace of the future contrasts with the almost complete absence of the future in Western political discourse. In Chinese governance, the present and the future are joined at the hip: in the West, they are in entirely separate boxes.
Fourth, expertise. Western politics attaches little importance to expertise. Professional politicians in the main have few qualifications or skills other than that of being politicians. With honorable exceptions, they have rarely run or administered anything of great importance or size; as a result, they have little idea how large institutions work. This greatly detracts from what they can offer and diminishes their authority in the eyes of the people. The contrast with China could not be greater. The only way a party official can rise up the political hierarchy is by virtue of their performance and success in running and administering party and government bodies, and enterprises, at lower levels. By the time they arrive at the top they have accumulated enormous knowledge about how to run the country. The Chinese model is the consummate professional; the Western model is, to use an old English term, the gentleman amateur. The primary skill of Western politicians is talking, that of their Chinese equivalents is doing.
Fifth, delivery. Too many Western politicians seem to think the point of democracy is democracy. It is not. The point of democracy is to “serve the people,” to deliver a better life for them and to improve the economy and society. On this measure, Western democracy is failing miserably. Their economies are stagnating, their societies are increasingly divided, their relative importance in the world is rapidly declining, and they have no view of the future. Their political systems are not the only cause, but they are one of the most important. In contrast, China has achieved an extraordinary transformation. Its economy has grown enormously since 1978 and is now the largest in the world. It has taken 800 million people out of poverty. Living standards have been transformed. China hugely out-performed the West on Covid-19. It has a clear view of the future. One can only conclude that Chinese democracy has excelled in its tasks.
Can the West demonstrate the intelligence and humility to learn from its own failures and China’s success in governance?
The challenge is not to adopt the Chinese system: that would be both an impossible and forlorn enterprise, their histories and cultures are profoundly different. The challenge is to understand the strengths of the Chinese political system and find ways of applying them to a Western democracy.
Martin Jacques is a visiting professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and a senior fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. Follow him on twitter @martjacques.
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