From Brexit to the Five Stars Movement in Italy, Marie le Pen in France, Alternative für Deuscthland or Donald Trump in the US, western politics in in turmoil. This time, it seems more than a protest vote.
Are we witnessing a crisis of democratic legitimacy? On the two sides of the Atlantic, citizens have long lost trust in their political authorities, the divide between the elites and ordinary people is growing and voters are venting their anger and frustration against the system.
Whilst electoral democracies have become the universal calling card of the west, the underlying political philosophy is built on two daring assumptions: that individuals make rational decisions and that voters are able to choose the best candidate for a post. Neither of which are true. In an ideal world, citizens would take into account all available information, analyse benefits and costs implied in any course of action and ultimately cast their vote. Alas, reality is different.
In the wake of the much debated Brexit vote, David Van Reybrouck from The Guardian wrote that elections are bad for democracy. Democracies need informed voters, and how can they thrive while the vast majority are made up of poorly-informed, disenchanted citizens? This paradox is inherent in the nature of electoral democracies; yet, the era of digital media and ubiquitous communication has made this logic chasm particularly acute.
On the one side, elections have become a battle fought out in the media by teams of professional experts in the techniques of persuasion. Expert influencers create alternative narratives and feed them to the disenchanted, passive mass of digital citizens. On the other hand, when they are unable to interpret and understand the growing complexity of the world, citizens withdraw in their comfort zones. “The mass of citizens plays only a passive, quiescent role, responding to those signals given to them”, writes the British sociologist Colin Crouch. Ultimately, the advent of post-truth politics is possible because of the volatility of public opinions and on the powerful story-telling of professional influencers. Emotions, instead of rationality, reign in the political arena.
The myth of the digital era is the equivalence of all individuals. The collective intelligence of the internet shall replace all experts. When the Five Stars Movement claims that everyone is equal, it is laying the basis for the disruption of the meritocratic selection of political elites.
The source of legitimacy in the Chinese political system, on the contrary, is competency. In his long Ted speech Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist challenges many of the traditional taboos of the west. Is electoral democracy not more than an ideology with the pretension of universalism? Like communism, is the western political system irremediably doomed to fail under the blows of poor performance and a loss of perceived legitimacy?
True, says Li, China is a one-party state, it is not democratic system and elections are not held except for at a local level.
In the west, people tend to make three fundamental assumptions about China’s political system: it is operationally rigid, politically closed and morally illegitimate. The assumptions are wrong. In fact the opposite is true, claims Li based on the long track record of success of the People’s Republic of China. Adaptability, meritocracy and legitimacy are the three defining characteristics of China’s one-party system.
Many political scientists will tell us that one-party systems are inherently incapable of self-correction. The general understanding is that they can’t last because they can’t adapt. This point is also challenged by Li who maintains, quite to the contrary, The Chinese Communist Party is the most reformist political entity in history.
Li describes how the Party has embraced policies as diverse as radical land collectivisation and Deng Xiao Ping’s market reforms that started the new era of Chinese history. In the 90’s, Li reminds us of how Jiang Zeming took the giant step of opening the party membership to private business people, something unimaginable during Mao Zedong’s rule.
The economic and social results of the rule of the Communist Party are undeniable. In just 30 years “China went from one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world to the second largest economy. 650 million people were lifted out of poverty, 80% of the entire world’s alleviation in that period happened in China. In other words all the old and new democracies put together amounted to one fraction of what a one-single party state delivered”.
The second assumption is that in a one-party state power is concentrated into the hands of an unaccountable and irresponsible few and that this leads to corruption. Of course corruption is a big problem in China, yet this is only half of the truth.
The party is one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world today. China’s highest ruling body, the Politburo has 25 members. In the previous one, only 5 of them came from a background of privilege, the so called the princelings. The others came from entirely ordinary backgrounds. In the largest Central Committee of 300 of more the percentage was even smaller. The vast majority of senior political leaders competed their way up to the top.
How could that be possible in a system run by one party? The answers lie in a place within this powerful political institution, little known to westerners: the party’s organisational department. The department functions like a giant human resource engine.
In Mr Li’s words, the department operates a rotating pyramid made up of three components: civil service, state-owned enterprises and social organisations such as universities or community programs. They form separate yet integrated career paths for Chinese officials.
They recruit college grads into entry level positions for all three tracks. From there, the keyuan can later get promoted into 4 increasing elite ranks: 1) fuke, 2) ke; 3) fuchu, 4) chu.
The range of positions is wide from running health care in a village, to foreign investment in a city district to manager in a company. Once a year the department reviews their performance. They interview their superiors, their peers their subordinates, they analyse their personal conduct, they carry out public opinion surveys and then they promote the winners.
These cadres can move through and out of all three tracks. Only a select number move beyond the four base levels to the fuju and ju level. Only there they enter high officialdom. By that point a typical assignment would be to manage a district with population in the millions or companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
The numbers show how selective and competitive the system is. In 2012 there were 900 000 fuke and ke levels, 600 000 fuchu and chu levels, and only 4000 fuju and ju levels.
After the ju levels only the best cadres will move further up and make it to the top of the pyramid, the central committee. Merit remains fundamental and the process takes two to three decades.
This is a modernised version of China’s centuries old mandarin system.
Xi Jinping, China’s current leader is a so called princeling. The son of a former leader – which is very unusual, he is the first of this kind to make it to the top.
Even for him, with a career of thirty years, he started as a village manager and by the time he made to the Politburo he had managed areas with total population of 150 million people and a combined GDP of 1,5 trillion dollars.
The source of legitimacy is competency.
Democracy is creating a perpetual cycle of elect and regret. Most electoral democracies are suffering from dismal performance and disaffection of their people. It is democracy, not the China one-party system which is in danger of having its legitimacy questioned.
On the same line, Daniel A. Bell, director of the Berggruen Institute of Philosophy and Culture in Los Angeles, argues that Chinese democracy isn’t inevitable, in a long article published by The Atlantic in May 2015.
Dr. Bell, knows China well as he’s a chair professor of the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the alma mater of some of China’s most important leaders, including the current and former Presidents, Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao.
Certainly food for thought.