“The first decade of the 21-century has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune in the relative prestige of different political and economic models,” writes Francis Fukuyama (left).
Democracy has lost much of its luster and moral capital, and China’s developmental authoritarianism is widely seen as the model to emulate.
But while state-owned enterprises are back in fashion, China’s system is so unique that it is hard to describe, let alone copy or export, says the Stanford University professor.
The regime’s strongpoint is its ability to effect large, complex decisions without the constraints and delays found in India’s messy democracy.
The quality of governance is markedly superior to other authoritarian regimes, because China’s rulers feel a degree of accountability towards citizens, even if it is not the procedural accountability that democracies institutionalize through rule of law or elections.
China continues to defy the conventional wisdom that economic growth generates demand for democratization because the emerging middle class fears that political pluralism in a starkly unequal society will lead to a populist backlash.
But Fukuyama has a caution of his own.
“Effective accountability can only come about through a bottom-up process, or what we know as democracy,” he notes (or, as he has previously put it, “You simply can’t get good governance without democratic accountability.”)
China’s system remains brittle and vulnerable to breakdown in the absence of the institutionalized accountability and flexibility that democracy provides.
But while adversity highlights the democratic advantage, he concludes, the “polarized and ideologically rigid” politics prevailing in the US fails to inspire:
Democracy in America may have an inherent legitimacy that the Chinese system lacks, but it will not be much of a model to anyone if the government is divided against itself and cannot govern.
Fukuyama observes that the Communist authorities often overreact to public opinion because it cannot be reliably gauged through elections or independent media.
This has potentially disastrous consequences given the combustibility of nationalist sentiment – often stoked by the ruling party. As other analysts have noted, Japan and Germany similarly emerged in the early 20th century without the rule of law and transparent governance that constrain arbitrary or irrational state behavior, resulting in rivalry and war.
The absence of genuine rule of law also enhances the risk of social upheaval, says Dr. Yu Jianrong (right), the chairman of the Social Issues Research Center in the China Academy of Social Sciences.
The Constitution should provide a baseline of social stability, but the authority of the ruling Communist party enjoys a de facto superiority over the law, he suggests, in an influential paper translated by China Digital Times.
Ironically, it is China’s barefoot lawyers who are in the forefront of defending the constitutional governance and rule of law that provide the best safeguard against violent social upheaval.
Similarly,while China’s affluent middle class may fear the upheaval that precipitate liberalization would bring, it is dissidents like Liu Xiaobo and his fellow signatories of the Charter 08 manifesto who have emerged as the most persuasive advocates of gradual democratization, underpinned by the rule of law, that provides the most likely formula for marrying the country’s economic dynamism with social equity and political stability.
As he is feted at a formal state dinner at the White House today, President Hu Jintao may feel entitled to a sense of accomplishment that his generation has engineered an economic miracle that helped drag China from the deprivations of Maoist rule to something approaching global eminence.
“But while Hu and his political allies have secured stability at the level of high politics, Chinese society has begun to shake,” writes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst.
A strange blend of innovation and regimentation governs what it still a very imperfect political system:
Cadres are allowed to speculate and test novel local approaches, but the scenarios and the experiments are confined and heavily controlled by Beijing. A Party run by technocrats now resembles a detailed blueprint, with just a little space for annotation and redrafting.
“Old-style, top-down crisis management trumps nearly every major effort at new governance,” he writes.