A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?

Civil servants with China's flag

China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one anointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.

This week will witness an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. On Tuesday the next American president will be elected. Two days later, the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party will select the new Chinese president and prime minister.

The contrast could hardly be greater.

Americans in their tens of millions will turn out to vote. In China the process of selection will take place behind closed doors and involve only a relative handful of people.

You are probably thinking, "Ah, America at its best, China at its worst - the absence of democracy. China's Achilles heel is its governance. This will be China's downfall."

I want to argue quite the contrary.

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.

But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.

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Martin Jacques
  • Martin Jacques is an economist and author of When China Rules the World
  • A Point of View broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT

Think of Italy. It is always voting, but the enduring problem of Italian governance is that its state lacks legitimacy. Half the population don't really believe in it.

Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. How come?

In China's case the source of the state's legitimacy lies entirely outside the history or experience of Western societies.

In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.

Given the sheer size and diversity of the country, this is hugely problematic. Between the 1840s and 1949, China was occupied by the colonial powers, divided and fragmented. The Chinese refer to it as their century of humiliation.

They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.

There have been many examples in history. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies, above all, in its relationship with Chinese civilisation.

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

supermarkets Chinese people say they are happy with their government's economic record

Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).

Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.

On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year - generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.

New Chinese leadership

Xi Jinping
  • Chinese Communist Party congress meets on 8 November
  • Five-yearly meeting of party leaders announces details of policy and party leadership
  • This year's congress seen as significant because seven of nine-strong Politburo Standing Committee will stand down
  • Xi Jinping (pictured) is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as party general secretary and head of state
  • Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, a close ally of Mr Hu, is tipped to replace Wen Jiabao as premier

But these actions do not imply any fundamental dissatisfaction with central government.

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.

Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?

Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese have a quite different attitude towards government to that universal in the West.

True, our attitude depends in part on where we stand on the political spectrum. If you are on the right, you are likely to believe in less government and more market. If you are on the left, you are likely to be more favourably disposed to the state.

But both left and right share certain basic assumptions. The role of the state should be codified in law, there should be clear limits to its powers, and there are many areas in which the state should not be involved. We believe the state is necessary - but only up to a point.

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different.

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The Chinese see the state as a member of the family - the head of the family, in fact ”

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They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.

They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family - the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What's more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

The fact that the Chinese state enjoys such an exalted position in society lends it enormous authority, a remarkable ubiquity and great competence.

Take the economy. China's economic rise - an annual growth rate of 10% for more than 30 years - has been masterminded by the Chinese state.

It is the most remarkable economic transformation the world has seen since the modern era began with Britain's industrial revolution in the late 18th Century.

Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.

Take infrastructure - the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world's largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world's put together.

And the state's ubiquity - a large majority of China's most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

China's high speed railway

chinese train
  • World's longest high speed train network with 4,200 miles of routes, rising to 11,000 by 2015
  • Described by one expert as "biggest rail expansion the world has ever seen"
  • Pace of development slowed after July 2011 bullet train accident near city of Wenzhou
  • 40 people killed and 200 injured - later investigation blamed accident on "design flaws and sloppy management"

Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.

Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China's startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

As China's dramatic ascent continues - which it surely will - then China's strengths will become a growing subject of interest in the West. We will realise that our relationship with them can no longer consist of telling them how they should be like us. A little humility is in order.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of this will be the state. We think of it as their greatest weakness but we will come to realise that it is one of their greatest strengths.

Beyond a point it would be quite impossible for a Western state to be like China's. It is the product of a different history and a different relationship between state and society. You could never transplant their state into a Western country, and vice versa. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from the Chinese state, just as they have learnt much from us.

China's rise will have a profound effect on Western debate.

Shanghai skyline The Chinese economy is set to overtake the US in 2018

In about six years hence, the Chinese economy will overtake the US economy in size. By 2030 it will be very much larger.

The world is increasingly being shaped by China, and if it has looked west for the last two centuries, in future it will look east.

Welcome, then, to the new Chinese paradigm - one that combines a highly competitive, indeed often ferocious market, with a ubiquitous and competent state.

For us in the West this is an entirely new phenomenon. And it will shape our future.

Here is a selection of your comments

How would you describe the tensions in Tibet and Western China? It would appear that the indigenous populations there don't seem to want to be part of the Chinese State?

Sean Halliday, Duqm Oman

The time-frame may be lengthy, but history tell us that all totalitarian states eventually fail. Additionally, extensive gaps between rich and poor create social unrest which, in China may be on an epic scale. The Chinese state may implode on itself.

Michael, Kendal UK

Martin's viewpoint is absolutely spot on. Essdentially, the West is a fragmented units with different lifestyles (nation)held together by representatives of the units to form an entity (the state) legitimated by election of its representatives. Whereas China is a one unit with one lifestyle (a civilisation) held together by an entity (the state) legitimated by selection of its deemed solial leaders accross the civilisation. Legitimacy of the state is not only the Western form but any form that represents the people. I believe that calls for re-assessment of the concept of democracy itself.

Jesse Ofirikyi, London

You cannot really compare the Western & Chinese approaches to modern goverment without looking at how they have evolved hostorically. In most Western countries the autocratic approach to rule (one all-powerful ruler) evolved over several centuries to a democratic approach, although not without a few bumps on the way. As a consequence of this Western citizens are conditioned to the democratic approach, and tend to reject anything that smacks of dictatorship. China however has several thousand years of autocratic rule via the Emperors which was eventually overthrown and replaced by the autocratic and self-sustaining rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Hence Chinese citizens have never had any taste of true democracy; at best what democracy they have been allowed to experience has been carefully cleansed of any possible threat to the ruling hegamony.

Alan Hughes, Alton, Hampshire

Your premise has one great unstated assumption -- that the Chinese central government will always get it right (given some of their past mistakes, can you trust this assumption?). It is relatively obvious how to develop an underdeveloped economy as so much infrastructure is required. The real challenge will come when the economy becomes highly sophisticated. Then governments have a much harder time making the right decisions to allocate resources and capital. I would hold out Japan as an example -- in the 1970s and up to the 1980s everybody was in awe its industrial policy. And then it stopped working. The smooth assent of China is not guaranteed.

R Piller, Geneva, Switzerland

It is interesting to hear you conceptualise China as a civilisation rather than a nation. Chinese are rightly proud of their state and its rise as a global power but for me it is a country of contradictions. Literacy, opportunity, the hegemony of the Han Chinese, the widening gap between rich and poor (also an issue in western countries) will all be significant issues in the future and the difference between haves and have-nots seems like it may be a problem in a society that is supposed to be communist. I think of China as a teenager struggling to come to grips with its own identity.and its future may not be as clear as some people may think.

Tom, Shanghai, China

I hear that North Korea's government also enjoys wide support and therefore legitimacy. This article is missing a distinction between "legitimacy" and support from a society that is relatively disenfranchised from the global pool of knowledge.

Victor Duncan, Beijing, China

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