Obama's victory last night has got me to thinking, again, about democracy and authoritarianism. This contrast is constantly in my mind, as a student of Chinese politics, and it is infused with greater prominence when ill-founded arguments, like those of Martin Jacques, speciously assert the superiority of the PRC's political system (by the way, for the definitive critique of Jacques see Perry Anderson's astute LRB piece). American democracy is certainly flawed, and I would not hold up the particulars of that form of democracy for any other country to emulate, but, when all is said and done, a key advantage of democracy over authoritarianism is that we can see and know more about public attitudes toward the government, and about the behavior and beliefs of leaders, and thus better guage the legitimacy of that government.
A thoughtful commenter on my last post suggested that, indeed, the PRC's government may well be more legitimate than the US's. But there is a fundamental problem with all such assertions: we really cannot measure regime legitimacy in the PRC because that regime does not allow for the full and free expression of popular opinion. The views of "the people" are heavily regulated and mediated by the state. In mentioning this, I do not mean to suggest that freedom of expression in the US is perfect. We all know that there are various obstacles to the full and free expression of popular opinion in the US. And, yes, we all know that our electoral system is far from ideal. Yet, even with those stipulations, I think it is irrefutable that the US affords wider latitude for the expression of popular will than is the case in the PRC.
And that matters. A lot.
There are polls and surveys in China these days. But systematic articulation and dissemination of critical political opinions is obviously obstructed, especially when any sort of collective action might be suggested. And, of course, there are no meaningful elections above the township level of administration. Thus, we do not know how Chinese people in general feel about their government, beyond relatively narrow and/or unscientific polls and Weibo comments. Given that reality, any assertions about the legitimacy of the regime are, essentially, baseless, at least in light of standard definitions of "political legitimacy" (something like: "..people's beliefs about political authority and, sometimes, political obligations."). It may be true that the PRC regime is legitimate. But we simply cannot rigorously test that proposition.
Moreover, given the lack of transparency of the PRC regime, we really do not know what goes into the selection of the top leadership. Why is Xi Jinping posed to become the next President of China? Is it because, after some sort of objective investigation by the highest levels of the Party leadership, he was found to be the most qualified and talented individual for the post? Or is it that he is a safe compromise candidate whom different factions find relatively unthreatening? We really can't know because the Party works exceptionally hard to keep us from knowing. (And it is not clear, on the face of it, that training in "...Marxist theory and ideological education" in necessarily a superior background for a leadership position.) The Bo Xilai affair revealed to the world just how seamy things can be at the top of the PRC power heirarchy. Was he simply a rogue outlier, or is his kind of behavior rather common? Again, due to the opacity of CCP secrecy, we have no basis, no systematic access to data, for knowing one way or another.
And if we can't know how leadership decisions are made, how can we know if those decisions or that leadership is legitimate?
The US, by contrast, is much more open. We can see, often in rather painful and embarrassing detail, how leaders are chosen and how decisions are taken. We can guage public opinion, most notably through the electoral process, fully recognizing that that process does not live up to the highest ideals of democracy. Obama was getting at this idea in his acceptance speech last night:
...Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.
Yes, some of the imperfections of our system are reflections of our freedom. No one is in ultimate control of the process; anyone can get organized and work to have an impact. It is "messy and complicated" but it is sufficiently transparent to allow for a serious discussion about legitimacy. Unlike the PRC, we are in a better position to know and argue about whether policies or leaders, or the very system itself, are legitimate or not.
In this regard, the US comes closer to a Confucian ideal than does the PRC regime. This passage from the Analects (19.21) suggests that Confucius assumed a certain level of transparency in elite-level decision-making:
Adept Kung said: "Mistakes of the noble-minded are like eclipses of sun and moon: they make a mistake, and it's there for everyone to see; they make it right, and everyone looks up in awe."
By contrast, the current PRC government shields itself from the people. Mistakes, when they are made, are not "there for everyone to see;" they are hidden away as much as possible. Remember Wang Lijun? Remember the initial reaction by the CCP leadership to his attempted defection at the US consulate in Chengdu? After they had arrested him they said he was receiving "vacation-style treatment." Not quite an eclipse of the sun and moon.
It is true, of course, that all states everywhere will try to impose as much secrecy as they can, to maximize the power of leaders. And that is why democracy is important: it may never attain complete transparency, but it provides tools to fight back against the implicit tendency of all politicians to resist transparency, and the more transparency, the better the capacity to judge legitimacy.
The significance of the passage above, for Confucian thought more generally, is demonstrated by the fact that it is repeated in Mencius (Hinton translation 4.9):
...But in ancient times, when the noble-minded made mistakes, they knew how to change. These days, when the noble-minded make mistakes, they persevere to the bitter end. In ancient times, mistakes of the noble-minded were like eclipses of sun and moon: there for all the people to see. And when a mistake was made right, the people all looked up in awe. But these days, the noble-minded just persevere to the bitter end, and then they invent all kinds of explanations.
We have a leadership change in Beijing coming up in the next few days. The decisions, however, have already been made. The people were not privy to the debates and arguments surrounding the real selection of the leaders, which has been done behind closed doors. Soon, the new Standing Committee will be revealed. But their grand entrance will be less like an eclipse of the sun and moon, and more like persevering to the bitter end.