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.
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.
But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.
Think of Italy. It is always voting, but the enduring problem of Italian governance is that its state lacks legitimacy.
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.
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.
r 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.
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.
The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.
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.
In about six years hence, the Chinese economy will overtake the US economy in size. By 2030 it will be very much larger.