Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. It’s interesting that China today is actually quietly touting to the rest of the world its own evolving system. Of course we recoil from the terrible catastrophes of Chinese regimes over most of the past century. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been concerned with principles of good governance going back some three thousand years, including Confucian principles of the responsibility of “cultivated” or educated people to govern wisely; that was probably as good as it got in that era. More important, the state bureaucracy was selected through massive nation-wide examination systems to choose the most qualified. The system had its good periods and bad, almost on a 300 year cyclical basis—breakdown and restoration.
Today China is creeping back again, this time from the disasters of Chairman Mao towards a semblance of order and rationality in governance. It has implemented a series of often unusually effective policies that are slowly bringing an ever rising percent of the rural and urban poor into the middle class and a slightly freer life.
Now, I don’t want to live in China particularly. But consider the daunting challenges of running this country: one that was left behind in the last century or so, invaded by English and Japanese imperialists, massively misruled under fanatic communists (not all were fanatic) for fifty years, and now presides over a population approaching 1.4 billion people. China’s leaders operate on the razor’s edge: meeting pent-up demand after decades of deprivation, managing the transition of millions of peasants who want to come to the cities, feeding and housing everyone, maintaining industrial production while trying to reverse the terrible environmental damage wrought in earlier decades, to maintain stability, law and order while managing discontent that could turn violent, and to maintain the present ruling party in power to which there is no reasonable alternative as yet. That’s quite a high-wire act.
So if you were running China today, what would you advocate as the best policies and system to adopt? Chances are few of us would simply urge huge new infusions of democracy and rampant capitalism. The delicate balance of this frail recovering system needs to be guided with care. But it is basically working—as opposed to looming alternatives of chaos and poverty.
China today suggests to developing countries that China’s own model of controlled cautious light authoritarian leadership—where leaders are groomed over decades up through the ranks of the party— may be a more reliable system than, say, the bread and circuses of the US. That’s their view.
No one system has all the answers. But it’s worth observing that by now the US probably lies at one extreme of a political spectrum of bread-and-circus “democracy.” Can the system be reformed? Ever more serious questions arise about the present system’s ability to meet the challenge of this century—along multiple lines of measurements.
And, as world gets more complex, there is less room for radical individualism, whistle blowing, and dissent. Vital and complex infrastructural networks grow ever more vulnerable that can bring a state down. The state moves to protect itself. The strengthening of the state against the individual has already shifted heavily since the Global War on Terror and even more so under Obama.
I’m not suggesting that China is the model to be emulated. But we better note how it represents one rational vision of functioning governance of the future—under difficult circumstances—at one end of the spectrum. The US lies at the other. Is there anything that might lie somewhere between these two highly diverse systems of governance?In the spirit of disclosure, this is a view that I have espoused previously so I am biased in its favor. I am happy to see someone "on the other side of the fence" putting it forward for consideration in the policy establishment.
Democracy, the “Great Debates,” and China
Graham E. Fuller, former senior CIA official