Political Future of China

Interesting article by John L. Thorton on the future of politics in China (see note bottom for his bio). 

He writes in Foreign Affairs.

JLT on possible liberalization of the Chinese order:

As with earlier leaders, what the present generation has in mind differs from the definition used in the West. Top officials stress that the CCP’s leadership must be preserved. Although they see a role for elections, particularly at the local level, they assert that a “deliberative” form of politics that allows individual citizens and groups to add their views to the decision-making process is more appropriate for China than open, multiparty competition for national power. They often mention meritocracy, including the use of examinations to test candidates’ competence for office, reflecting an age-old Chinese belief that the government should be made up of the country’s most talented. Chinese leaders do not welcome the latitude of freedom of speech, press, or assembly taken for granted in the West. They say they support the orderly expansion of these rights but focus more on the group and social harmony — what they consider the common good.

The notion of meritocracy strikes me as profoundly Confuncian.

The article focuses primarily on three realms (named by Wen Jiabao):  elections (in villages and townships as well as intra-party CCP), judicial independence/integrity, and supervision (of corruption within the Party appartus and the Party over the system).  Thorton highlights the positive steps in those regards and overall the piece is sunny, but he does not totally minimize the rife corruption, nepotism, brutality and stupidity of the legal system, and so forth. 

Tentative conclusions:

Clearly, some people at the center of the Chinese system are thinking actively about these fundamental questions. The issue is whether and how these ideas will be translated into practice. China must now complete the transition begun in recent years, from a system that relies on the authority and judgment of one or a few dominating figures to a government run by commonly accepted and binding rules. The institutionalization of power is shared by all countries that have successfully made the transition to democracy. China’s ongoing experiments with local elections, reform of the judicial system, and the strengthening of oversight are all part of the shift to a more rule-based system. So are the ways in which Chinese society continues to open and diversify, incrementally creating a civil society.

 And intriguingly, the primary mechanism/context for institutionalization?  Leadership transfer.  The current roster (Hu and Wen) are the first to gain a normalized peaceful transfer.  The next generation will be the first with extensive education and life experience (China’s Obamas) in the West and will be the ones to really accede in a 21st century China.   

(Thorton is Professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and its School of Public Policy and Management, in Beijing, and Director of the university’s Global Leadership Program. He is also Chair of the Board of the Brookings Institution)

Published in: on February 12, 2008 at 4:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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