China’s success in recent decades has been remarkable. Economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty, the greatest reduction in poverty ever. Beneath China’s spectacular economic progress, however, the Chinese Communist Party retains much of its authoritarian nature. But while the Party still relies on many of the classic tactics of authoritarianism to maintain its grip on power, supporters argue that the China Model has some critical advantages over the model of liberal democracy.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today maintains strict control over the press, the courts, and the civil service. It has centralised all political control and is diligent in ensuring that no organisations of scale, including trade unions, civil society organisations, and religious organisations, are allowed to develop that could threaten its monopoly on power. All jobs in government ministries and agencies are allocated by the Party, all Chinese media are under the control of the Party’s propaganda department, and all government employees undergo regular retraining in a network of Party schools to ensure allegiance to Party policies. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Party has ensured that every police force in the country, from the largest cities to the smallest village, has a domestic security department charged with silencing political dissent. As Chinese scholar Youwei highlights, anyone smart enough to avoid politics entirely will not even feel the presence of this security apparatus. Political dissidents brave enough to speak out, however, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei, are either imprisoned or disappeared.
Alongside this description of China’s authoritarian one party state, however, lies another, more progressive one. This so-called ‘China model’, sees China as a developmental state which has successfully pursued the most ambitious strategy for economic modernisation in modern times, which has contained corruption – at least to the point of preventing China from becoming a fully-fledged kleptocracy – and which commands the support of a wide section of Chinese society.
Photo credit: Today is a good day via photopin cc
According to China scholar Daniel Bell, the CCP’s stewardship of change over the past three decades has been informed by three principles: the acceptance of limited democracy at the lower levels of government; experimentation with new practices and institutions at the scale of cities and provinces before scaling them up nationwide; and the use of meritocracy for advancement at higher levels of government.
The third of these principles, in particular, advocates argue, makes the China model superior to liberal democracy. As Bell describes, the CCP today is largely characterized by political meritocracy—the idea that high-level officials should be selected and promoted on the basis of ability and virtue. This ideal stretches back to imperial China and the elaborate examination system that dates to the Sui dynasty in the sixth and seventh centuries. Aspiring government officials must pass stringent public-service examinations with thousands of applicants competing for each entry-level position. To progress upwards, officials must perform well at lower levels of government and undergo rigorous evaluations at every step. To reach top leadership positions, China’s leaders must accumulate decades of diverse administrative experience. For example, Xi Jinping’s four-decade-long ascent to the presidency involved sixteen major promotions through county, city, and province levels, the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the top position in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. As critics point out, however, in practice meritocracy is not the only criteria for advancement. “Princelings” dominate China’s current leadership: several leaders, including the president, are the descendants of prominent and influential Communist officials.
Nevertheless, China’s largely meritocratic one party system, it is argued, allows the Chinese government to make decisions with a much longer term horizon than democracies, which typically focus on the short term and the next election. In addition, the superior technical expertise of both the Chinese civil service and the political leadership, supporters argue, make China much better equipped to address the challenges of governing society than the expertise typically on display in electoral democracies.
Two major dangers with the China model, however, arise precisely because of the absence of the checks and balances provided by democratic government. These dangers are corruption and the possible return to personalised dictatorship, as happened under Mao.
In the absence of the checks and balances provided by democratic government, such as a free press and independent courts, local Party officials in China exercise enormous power over ordinary people’s lives. One of the most pervasive ways this has occurred has been through the illegal seizure of land for development. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, forty million peasants have had their land forcibly taken from them for development. Such land seizures are often used by Party officials to amass considerable personal wealth. The sheer scale of corruption by Party officials has been acknowledged by Xi Jinping, who called it an existential threat to China. On taking office in 2012, Xi warned that endemic corruption could lead to “the collapse of the Party and the downfall of the state” and has since conducted a far reaching campaign targeting corruption within the Party.
Xi, however, has also moved China in a more dictatorial direction. Of particular concern is the fact that he has reversed the reforms that Deng Xaioping introduced after Mao’s death to guard against the return of single leader dictatorship. To prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual, Deng introduced the principle of collective leadership of the CCP. Under collective leadership, power was distributed among the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Party, and controversial issues were settled by vote, with each Standing Committee member’s vote carrying equal weight. By effectively doing away with collective leadership, and by taking various measures to centralise power in his own hands, Xi has established himself as the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao.
 Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:xvii
 Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:19
 Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:xiv
 Youwei, The End of Reform in China, Foreign Affairs, Volume 94, Number 3, May/June 2015
 Daniel A. Bell, Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable: Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic? The Atlantic, May 29, 2015
 Daniel A. Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2015
 Quoted in Mark Leonard, What Does China Think?, Fourth Estate, 2008:73
 Lianjiang Li, ‘Driven to Protest: China’s rural unrest’, Current History, September 2006:250
 Willy Lam, a 21st Century Mao, Prospect Magazine, June 2015