Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chinese Exceptionalism 

Zhang Wei Wei is a Chinese academic who writes about the development of Chinese exceptionalism. I am not sure how seriously he believes this, or if he is just trying to sell books, but his book really is a best seller. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I choose to accept that whatever may be the issue with China's future as a world leader, Mr. Zhang is at least a sincere believer in the particular points he makes. So let's take a look at a couple of them:

The video opens with Zhang Wei Wei's statement that if China implemented electoral democracy, there would probably be a war with Taiwan or Japan. I am not sure that either of those would take place, but I basically agree with this point. I do not believe that American style democracy would be good for China. Zhang Wei Wei elaborates on this point in an article he wrote for the International Herald Tribune:
The American model is largely ideology driven, with a focus on mass democratization. With little regard to local conditions, it treats sub-Saharan Africa or other less developed countries as mature societies in which Western institutions will automatically take root. It imposed liberalization before safety nets were set up; privatization before regulatory frameworks were put in place, and democratization before a culture of political tolerance and rule of law was established. The end result has often been discouraging or even devastating.
His point is well taken. Imposing American style democracy on China would be a disaster. China is not a Christian country. For something as bold as democracy to work, there must be a very well developed underlying belief system. Without that, democracy becomes cruel and opportunistic, as the Americans are slowly finding out.

His second point regards accountability. He refutes the notion that the Chinese system does not have accountability just because it does not have democracy. Fair enough. But in trying to defend the kind of "accountability" China does have, his argument falls apart completely. He says that in order to be accepted as a member of the Politburo (the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee), one must have been the leader of a province twice. He then goes on to say that if America had such a standard, George W. Bush would never have become president. I was confused by this. First of all, I am not sure whether he meant to refer to Bush or to Obama, because, by his definition, George W. Bush, as a two-term governor of Texas, would qualify, while Obama would not. But beyond that, there is a serious problem with his argument that is not immediately apparent to someone who does not know how the system works in China. He is not talking about actual administrative experience. He uses the word "governor," but I think he is actually talking about tenure as the party secretary for those areas. To be sure, there are party leaders (such as Zhu Rongji) who do have administrative talent, and actually show some measure of leadership. But in many cases, the party boss is merely there to represent the party, and really would not be capable of running the organization. One American told me that he asked a party chairman of a company once what his role was, and the party person said, "I'm like a chaplain." As amusing as this sounds, it is actually an apt description of the function of a party rep. in most companies. In my experience, the party chairperson is usually a very nice person, but not someone you would think of as being able to run the company. In cases when the party rep. is not aware of his or her limitations, a conflict sets up. It can be really frustrating, because technically, the party boss is in charge, since, in China, the party is over the state. And if the party boss is corrupt, it's especially bad. But getting back to Zhang Wei-wei's point--I am not sure how much actual administrative talent or experience any of those Politburo members have. And the main reason I am not sure is because no one knows them, because they are not accountable to anyone except the party.

Dr. Zhang's attempt to say that leaders in China have accountability because they are accountable to the party doesn't quite get there. Accountability to the party is one thing. But accountability to the people who have to suffer the deficiencies of your incompetence is quite another. Several years ago, during the troubles in Xinjiang, I noticed this headline in the China Daily: "Government Policies Not to Blame." Mind you, this was not an editorial. It was a "news" item. The headline was both amusing and pathetic. Amusing, because everyone knew that, in fact, it was precisely the government's heavy handed approach to minorities that had caused the problem. Pathetic, because it underscored the number one problem with governance in China: it is more efficient than a democracy. But because it is not accountable, it is highly susceptible to corruption.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?