"Real meaning of the rot at the top of China"
Comment of the Day

April 25 2012

Commentary by David Fuller

"Real meaning of the rot at the top of China"

This is an informative column (will require subscription registration, PDF also provided) on China despite a somewhat misleading title, in my opinion. Here is the opening:
The Communist party of China faces a colossal legitimacy crisis. The scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, once a party leadership contender, poses a threat to the regime. The CPC's leaders are throwing the book at Mr Bo and his family in an effort to save their own jobs. But this can barely conceal the panic in the top ranks.

Or so we are told. The collapse of the CPC has been repeatedly forecast ever since the suppression of the pro-democracy uprisings in 1989. But the system did not collapse then and it will not collapse now.

The reason such dire predictions are taken seriously is that non-democratic regimes are seen by the west to lack legitimacy. The theory is simple: a political regime that is morally justified in the eyes of the people must be chosen by the people. Rule by a self-selected elite is fragile, as the Arab spring has shown.

But this view assumes the people are dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, surveys suggest the Chinese political system's legitimacy is high. To the extent there is dissatisfaction, it is largely directed at lower levels of government. It may sound paradoxical to western ears but the CPC has succeeded by drawing upon sources of non-democratic legitimacy.

The first source is "performance legitimacy". This idea is rooted in Confucian and socialist values, and the CPC derives legitimacy from its ability to provide for the welfare of the people. The reform era has seen perhaps the most impressive poverty reduction in history.

The second source is political meritocracy: the view that leaders should have above-average ability to make morally informed judgments. It too has deep historical roots. In imperial China, scholar-officials proved their ability in a fair and open examination system, which granted them respect and legitimacy.

Surveys indicate that the Chinese care more about having high-quality politicians than about having procedural arrangements to choose their leaders. Over the past 30 years, the CPC has transformed itself into a more meritocratic organisation, with a renewed emphasis on examinations and education as leadership criteria.

David Fuller's view The bottom line is that it has worked, evidenced by China's meteoric growth in both GDP and an increasingly large middle class. While this continues, there will be little agitation to change the system.

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