Democracy has had a long history. The experiment first began in Athens, Greece during the Golden Age. The word “democracy” comes from two Greeks words: demos refers to the people, and Kratos means the rule. For a century and a half, all male citizens had equal political rights, enjoyed the freedom of speech and were active political citizens.
The second and current experiment is the story of the modern West. It first began with the European Enlightenment and has since morphed into America’s political franchise project. With the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s vision of representative democracy is only 54 years old. Despite the infancy of this liberal democratic model, America’s discovery of the ideal political system is continually championed as wholesale to other countries. According to America, the equation of democracy plus capitalism, which upholds economic liberalization, equates to a functioning, successful nation. The sum is greater than the individual parts. Together, democracy and capitalism go hand in hand to create a cohesive national entity. This model of democracy has become a Western political truism. As former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously proclaimed in 1947, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried”.
However, Churchill’s dictum was said in the immediate post-traumatic period of World War II, when Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship and totalitarian state model needed no public reminding. The cruel reality is that democracy is not always the correct answer to a country’s suffering. The fundamental element of democracy, both in the first and second experiments, is the citizen’s right to vote. This central tenet of democracy has largely been eroded with time. As the Nobel winning economist A. Michael Spence rightly claims, America has gone from “one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.” Nobel economics laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz presents a more pessimistic view. For him, the U.S. system is now “of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, and for the 1 percent”. For America, the answer is a democracy. The height of human evolution is the utter embrace of liberal democracies and market economies. In contrast, when looking at America’s top competitor, the People’s Republic of China is demonstrating and succeeding in an entirely different form of governance.
China’s competing model is a unique hybrid. The blend consists of China harnessing the best of the democratic model to synthesize with the solid foundation of authoritarian rule and the age-old Confucian political tradition of meritocracy. Following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping rose as the paramount leader of the Communist Party and of China. During his reign, Deng had introduced to the Chinese bureaucracy the democratic elements of accountability, competition, and limits to power. In particular, the democratic value of accountability has melded seamlessly with meritocracy. Leaders are selected on the basis of popular support and report cards. Report cards graph the performance of Chinese officials in job creation, local economic and social development as well as poverty eradication.
Western observers have publicly expressed their doubts. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 1998, “sooner or later this economy will slow. There will be pain. That’s when China will need a government that is legitimate”. However, the results of the Chinese experiment is evidently clear. More than 40 years later, from the depths of isolation and devastation, China has lifted 800 million citizens from poverty, has become the world’s second-largest economy, drastically improved living standards and, most importantly, China has proven political pundits wrong. China has successfully challenged the conventional marriage of democracy and capitalism. As stated by Merriden Varrall, the director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, “we’re deluded in our conviction that everybody is going to become a democracy like us”, least of all China.
The success of China’s hybrid model, argues Jessica Chen Weiss, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University, lies in the country’s “pragmatism and willingness to experiment”. As a country, China has found the strength to change their political structure without compromising political stability. For example, in 2018, shock reverberated around the world when the Communist Party announced the abolishment of constitutional limits on presidential terms. In essence, at the age of 65, President Xi Jinping has guaranteed his own tenure. Despite international condemnation, the Chinese people, while some reluctant and vocal in their alarm, have largely agreed.
The debate between the better form of governance can be tested with the current global issue of climate change. At the Climate Action Summit held in New York earlier this year, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on nations to boost their plans in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As the world’s largest emitter of carbon, the Chinese government has initiated its national action plan through the unique mixture of climate, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and economic policies. For instance, in 2017, China launched a national emissions trading system. This system created a market for buying and selling carbon dioxide emission allowances. It compasses more than 1,700 power companies and 3 billion tonnes in total greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, China has established vast wind and solar installations to its grid and introduced energy efficiency standards for power plants, motor vehicles, buildings, and equipment. Through the realization that China has a strong self-interest in addressing climate change, namely decreasing reliance on imported fossil fuels, China has taken a global leadership position on climate change policy. In comparison, despite President Barack Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change, with an election came a new President and a new administration that has either repealed or delayed President Obama’s policies.
The U.S. under the erratic leadership of President Donald Trump has relaxed restrictions on power plant emission and has formally announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. While the 2020 U.S. election is rather distant, the election win by a Democrat is not implausible. This, in turn, would lead to the re-commitment in fighting climate change after four years of inertia. The inconsistency of climate policies by the American government is evidence of an unreliable system at a time when confident actions and strong leadership is a crucial necessity.
What would the former British PM Churchill say today of the rapid upward trajectory of China under such a unique form of governance? China has proven to be better equipped in dealing with change with pragmatism and adaptability at the forefront. By contrast, the West has resorted to an all or nothing mentality. The survival of the Western model of democracy is contingent on tectonic change. Regrettably, the system is highly resistant to such changes. This debate goes to the heart that what is different should not be feared, but rather celebrated and finely analyzed.