Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist from Shanghai, wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times last week (NYT, reg. req.) In it he claims that the Chinese political model is superior to the American political model, and specifically attacks democracy (as in the consent of the governed) as the major weakness of American, and by extension Western, politics.
The editorial is quite poorly written and not persuasive in the least. Besides some outright howlers -
China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.
it's clear that he doesn't understand what establishes the success or failure of a political system. It is, quite simply, results. Not only the results as seen by the citizens of a country, but the results as they are seen by all countries. One thing that many Americans have seem to have forgotten is that the Cold War was more about setting an example than about military strength. Starting with Reagan, conservatives seem to have assumed that the American model was superior as a self evident truth, and spoke and acted as if military strength was a substitute for setting an example. This has been a shortsighted and dangerous assumption. We've managed to coast on our reputation for quite a while now, but the events of the past few years - specifically our response to the financial crisis and increasing political gridlock - are lessening our influence in the world at large. Even after years of ignoring this simple truth, we still have enough good will and success in reserve that the Chinese have a long way to go to catch up to us. But there's no guarantee that things will stay that way forever.
I'm sure Mr. Li, as a very wealthy man, has little to nothing to fear from the Chinese government as long as he doesn't question the foundations of the Chinese autocracy. He claims that the belief in democracy is a matter of faith but he couldn't be more wrong about that. It is clear that the idea of self governance coupled with individual freedom has produced the best results as long as the system remains functional, allows multiple paths to goals, and allows compromise in determining the most optimal solutions. Any individual issue can be looked at and in retrospect a "benign dictator" could have accomplished the same results with a more efficient usage of resources. But looking forward no such assurance can be assumed. Mr. Li throws up a grab bag of criticisms, none of which make much sense if examined. But not many people will take the time to examine them if the promises of growth and prosperity are front and center.
Mr. Li does get one thing right. The Soviet Union was too blinded by ideology to use the tools of capitalism to develop a sustainable system. The Chinese are far more adaptable and their autocracy is open to all kinds of changes that will work in the real world, with the single exception of challenging the primacy of the Party. The US and the West do face a large danger here, identified clearly by Marx over a century ago - if we can't tame the excesses of our system and provide continued prosperity for all (yes, even the poor), we will be seen as the failed system and the Chinese model will be adopted by more and more countries. That would be a very unpleasant future, and it would be entirely self inflicted. It's far more important than atavistic arguments about centuries old religious positions or capitalistic fundamentalism. I don't want the American epitaph to be "they lost by arguing about inconsequential bulls*&t".