On these pages on July 1, two prominent China watchers — David Shambaugh (China’s Communist Party at 90) ad Minxin Pei (Great party, but where’s the Communism?) — analyzed the failures and challenges of the party as it faces a major leadership transition in 2012. Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist in Shanghai and a doctoral candidate at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs, joins the debate.
The Chinese Communist Party has been running the largest country in the world for 62 years. How has it done?
We all know the facts: In 1949 when the Communist Party took over, China had been mired in civil wars and dismembered by foreign aggressions; its people had suffered widespread famine; average life-expectancy was a mere 41 years. Today, it is the second largest economy in the world, a great power with global influence, and its people live in increasing prosperity; average life expectancy has reached 74 years.
But the assessment has to go deeper than that, for reasons none other than the apparent discomfort, if not outright disapproval, Western political and intellectual elites feel toward the Communist Party’s leadership. Five misconceptions dominate the Western media’s discourse on China. These misunderstandings need to be debunked by realities.
China does not hold elections, therefore its rulers do not have the consent of the ruled. According to the Pew Research Center, the Chinese government enjoys popular support that is among the highest in the world. The Chinese people’s satisfaction with the direction of their country was at 87 percent in 2010 and has been consistently above 80 percent in recent years. Sixty-six percent perceive progress in their lives in the last five years. A whopping 74 percent are optimistic about the next five years.
We need to ask: How do most governments produced by elections compare with these numbers? Are elections the only viable way to validate consent and the legitimacy it brings?
China is an authoritarian state in which the party’s political power is concentrated and self-perpetuating. The Communist Party’s Politburo, the highest ruling body, consists of 25 members. Currently, only seven of them come from any background of wealth or power, the so-called princelings. The rest of them, including the president and the prime minister, come from ordinary backgrounds with no special advantages. They worked and competed all the way to the top. In the larger Central Committee, those with privileged backgrounds are even scarcer.
A visit to any top university campus in China would make it obvious to anyone that the Communist Party continues to attract the best and the brightest of the country’s youth. In fact, China’s Communist Party may be one of the most meritocratic and upwardly mobile major political organizations in the world — far more meritocratic than the ruling elites of most Western countries and the vast majority of developing countries. What is wrong with self-perpetuation through merits?
• China’s restriction on freedom of expression stifles innovation. China no doubt restricts freedom of expression, especially political speech. But does that impede innovation in Chinese society?
Some of the most successful IPO’s of Internet companies on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq have been Chinese startups. Chinese businesses are well on their way to dominating the global alternative-energy industries. Breakthroughs in public policy have taken private home ownership from near zero in 1990 to at least 80 percent today — among the world’s highest, in this relatively still poor country.
The Royal Society in London reports that China’s share of scientific research papers published in recognized international journals went from 4.4 percent in the period between 1999-2003 to 10.2 percent in the period between 2004-2008, now just behind the United States. In 2008, China overtook France as the world’s number three in contemporary art auction revenues. Fifteen out of 35 living artists worldwide who command seven-digit sales for their work are Chinese. If these facts do not demonstrate innovation, what does?
• The Communist Party’s authoritarian rule leads to widespread corruption. No one, not least the party itself, disputes that corruption is a significant problem in China. But does authoritarian rule have anything to do with it?
According to Transparency International, the top 20 cleanest (least corrupt) places worldwide include only four non-Western governments: Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar and Japan — three of the four are authoritarian regimes; the same three are the only ones that belong to the developing world. By Transparency International’s account, China (78) ranks higher than India (87), Philippines (134), Indonesia (110), Argentina (105) and many more, and tied with Greece (78), barely below Italy (67) — all electoral democracies. Apparently, China’s one-party system is less corrupt than many democratic countries.
China’s success to date is all due to the party’s embrace of capitalism and a market economy. According to the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal annual ranking of free economies, China ranks 135. Developing countries that rank above China (showing a stronger embrace of capitalism and a market economy) include Haiti, Algeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Rwanda — the list goes on. If market economic reform was the only magic China performed, how come many other countries that have implemented a market economy much earlier and deeper than China have not achieved much economic success? What else has China done?
Hypotheses that do not stand up to facts and yet still dominate people’s consciousness are specious and harmful. It is especially dangerous in this case because one cannot imagine a peaceful world order when the political and intellectual establishment of today’s world powers holds views that are built on falsehoods.
Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist in Shanghai and a doctoral candidate at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs.