The unintended consequence of the “China-as-meritocracy” debates

The estimable Kaiser Kuo, who needs no introduction here, put up a post on Facebook yesterday that caught my eye, and lots of other readers’ eyes as well. (It was perhaps written in a moment of pique, but that’s when all of my own best posts are written.) It discusses the unintended harm apologists like Daniel Bell and Jiang Qing (go here for background) do when their preposterous drum-beating for China’s allegedly “meritocratic system” drowns out a part of their message that may be valid, in particular their criticisms of the shortfalls of American democracy. And I don’t disagree with Kaiser. Their nonsense on a “Confucian Constitution” and the outspoken critical reaction to it as BS only serve to make readers view the differences between the systems as starkly black and white, with the American democratic system obviously being superior. In other words, the writings of the Daniel Bells and Jiang Qings of the world backfire and do the opposite of what they intend, making China’s system appear inferior to that of the US, and misrepresenting what democracy here is really like. But Kaiser makes this argument more clearly than I can. The Facebook post in full:

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By now many of us who follow news about China are familiar with the op-eds penned of late by the likes of the Canadian Tsinghua University professor Daniel Bell, Shanghai-based American-Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li, and Chunqiu Institute fellow Zhang Weiwei. Arguing that China’s one-party system is essentially a meritocratic form of enlightened authoritarianism that is somehow appropriate to China’s political culture and the realities of Chinese developmental stage and social conditions, these essays (appearing in the New York Times and in the Financial Times just in the last week or so) have had derision heaped on them. Many journalists and scholars have skewered them for their naïveté, citing numerous reasons why the Chinese system is far from meritocratic in practice: the disproportionate “merit” evidently to be found in scions of the CCP aristocracy and in the very wealthy, the apparent absence of this “merit” in women and so forth. I agree emphatically with all of these criticisms, and for the record, I’m convinced that these writers are badly deluded.

As an American, though, I’m troubled that these misplaced encomia for the CCP have completely obscured the few valid criticisms of failures in the American democratic system contained in their essays. As we pick apart their arguments in praise of China’s “meritocracy,” we should be careful not to dismiss out of hand–however vindicated we might feel about American democracy’s proper function after last week’s election–the shortcomings they point out. Taking their statements about the problems with American democracy out of their comparative context, I can only read them and nod in agreement. But the polemical approach they’ve chosen isn’t going to encourage any much-needed introspection. (For that, I’d highly recommend Christopher Hayes, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”)

The other thing that worries me that is in the eagerness by so many people who influence ideas about Chinese politics to repudiate this half-baked apologia, some nuance gets tossed out. I’m not ready to reject, for instance, the notion that what constitutes an appropriate form of government is culturally conditioned. Nor, to be sure, do I accept (as Eric Li and others seem to) that culture is immutable: what’s appropriate changes as culture does. My concern then is that in reading these take-downs of the largely execrable positions staked out by Bell, Li and Zhang people conclude that the alternative must be political pluralism along American lines.

These apologists, then, are doing a disservice at more than one level. While they purport to be rejecting a false dichotomy between diametrically opposed systems, they are I suspect only making it, in the minds of readers, more starkly binary.

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As a reminder, let me first give an example of how Bell-Jiang describe Western-style democracy:

The political future of China is far likelier to be determined by the longstanding Confucian tradition of “humane authority” than by Western-style multiparty elections. After all, democracy is flawed as an ideal. Political legitimacy is based solely on the sovereignty of the people — more specifically, a government that grants power to democratically elected representatives. But there is no compelling reason for a government to have only one source of legitimacy.

Democracy is also flawed in practice. Political choices come down to the desires and interests of the electorate. This leads to two problems. First, the will of the majority may not be moral: it may favor racism, imperialism or fascism. Second, when there is a clash between the short-term interests of the populace and the long-term interests of mankind, as is the case with global warming, the people’s short-term interests become the political priority. As a result, democratically elected governments in America and elsewhere are finding it nearly impossible to implement policies that curb energy usage in the interests of humanity and of future generations.

Like Kaiser (I suspect), I see a lot of truth in this. Our democratic system is deeply flawed, and these flaws have become uglier in the past few years, with more and more wedge issues blocking out serious debate, and some in the government brazenly using the power vested in them to subvert the democratic process (think “voter fraud” legislation), often with a good deal of success. What can be messier, sleazier and more dysfunctional than democracy (aside from any other form of government)? On the other hand, what Kaiser is saying can also be interpreted as the equivalency argument we see so often in the comments; critics denounce an aspect of China and the other side argues, “Yeah, but it’s bad in America, too.” But I’m a big believer in taking the flaws of the US government into account, and the issue is a legitimate one, if the argument is made correctly, as I believe Kaiser’s is.

So do those who repudiate the apologists’ arguments really drown out the nuance of these arguments and unintentionally influence the public to view the differences between the two systems in black and white, and to conclude that the best thing that could happen to China would be the imposition somehow of Western-style democracy? I believe they might. But on the other hand, I’m even more glad they speak out; as Kaiser notes, such high-brow journals as The New York Times and Financial Times are lavishing the Meritocracy Gang with precious space on their opinion pages. They have to be counteracted. But I agree, they should be counteracted with nuance. The argument needs to be made that democracy is not one-size-fits-all, and that it comes with a great many flaws and pitfalls. I have always made the case that those advocating Western-style democracy for China are barking up the wrong tree. China will have to find its own path to a more representative government, it cannot be imposed on them. My own hope is for continuing reforms that make China more democratic which in turn leads to greater rule of law and checks and balances. We keep seeing glimmers of hope, but these are frequently dashed as the CCP appears more determined than ever to hold on to what they’ve got. I see no significant changes happening anytime soon.

You can find a spirited Peking Duck thread on the meritocracy argument here.

Finally, today in the NY Times we find an excellent response to the Meritocracy vs. Democracy debates that pretty well smashes the myth of China’s being a meritocratic system, now or in the past. Its author has impeccable credentials.

The Discussion: 171 Comments

This is a great post, Richard (and Kaiser), and pretty much nails the core condition facing China and America.

A form a government is not a normative good, in and of itself–a form of government is merely a means to achieve what society holds as “good”.

Meritocracy/technocracy, democracy, autocracy, theocracy–all of these are morally neutral; it is how well they can achieve the legitimate aspirations of their constituents (no matter what they might be) that makes them good or bad.

This is why some Chinese officials I know get frustrated with Chinese dissidents–it is not because they seek to destabilize the Chinese state, but because they don’t offer methods of fulfilling the aspirations of the Chinese people around them. The disconnect between what the Chinese people want and what the Chinese people currently have will not magically go away if they can suddenly cast votes every four years or utilize a knockoff of the American judicial system. But the people I’ve spoken to also know that this disconnect can’t be bridged by a technocrat-Leninist hybrid Party, either.

One thing we’ve talked at length about is how the actual solution is a non-solution: for the government to finally say to the people “here’s what we can’t do.” Such a move, no doubt, would be the greatest risk any Chinese politician has ever taken, but in China’s current fiscal and social situation, it is by far the best move China can make on its domestic chessboard. Only by setting expectations in an honest manner, can the government seek to rebuild its legitimacy; this would be true no matter what form a potential Chinese government ends up taking.

November 15, 2012 @ 6:52 am | Comment

“One thing we’ve talked at length about is how the actual solution is a non-solution: for the government to finally say to the people “here’s what we can’t do.””

Is this related to the concept of the party “relinquishing power” (让权) as described in the Gongjian (攻坚) proposal? (Sorry for the name-dropping but I felt it was necessary here to get to the concepts discussed)

November 15, 2012 @ 8:55 am | Comment

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November 15, 2012 @ 9:21 am | Pingback

Kuo’s complaints sound logically peculiar to say the least (though not uncommon in the context of Sino-commentary), and once again they appear to nest themselves on one a side one can only regard as slightly favorable to the PRC. If the primary concern is that political comments promoted in the PRC, for Jiang and Bell have received ample media attention in China, in support of the PRC’s political apparatus (or a future governing arrangement more richly pervaded by traditional Chinese culture not opposed to PRC designs) only serve to make the differences “more starkly binary”, that is merely an unfortunate state of affairs. The political equivalence of shooting oneself in the foot. It is almost entirely irrelevant to everyone else. Is there a sudden rash of people who “in reading these take-downs of the largely execrable positions staked out by Bell, Li and Zhang people conclude that the alternative must be political pluralism along American lines”? Are there those who base their general support for democracy on the flaws inherent to Bell, Li, and Zhang’s work? Please. This comes across as an elaborate conceit.

Critiques of US-style democracy abound in publications throughout the world. It’s remarkably difficult to believe we’ll simply forget about such criticisms due to the mindless ramblings of a few political hacks. The idea that it should play a role in our assessment of China’s political system may be unavoidable, but it will always lack conviction, particularly when so many other democratic governments do not display features and results present in the US.

t_co

‘A form a government is not a normative good, in and of itself–a form of government is merely a means to achieve what society holds as “good”.’

This has perhaps too easily become a common refrain. I’m going to disagree for the sake of argument.

A form of government is a practice (discursive and somatic), with conventional restrictions in place which often appear akin to ritual. A practice can be a good in itself insofar as it is normative, but to understand this you must leave aside the unnecessary distinction between “being a good” and being “a means to achieve a good”. A practice is normative insofar as it provides stability non-coercive in origin and application, expressed in the framework of channels for the reconciliation of differences, the transmission of information, and the lawful redress of grievances. This is a good in itself and will contribute to further goods provided for its society.

November 15, 2012 @ 10:35 am | Comment

Just to be first: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli. Xi is chairman of military commission.

November 15, 2012 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

Thanks WKL.

At first glance, the big difference here is how many of them are slated for retirement in 2017. That’ll reduce their clout vis a vis Xi/Li. Not going to comment on how this will impact the reform project.

Also, now that the names are out, I’ll be finishing that guest post I promised Richard a while back. Sorry for the delay there.

November 15, 2012 @ 12:08 pm | Comment

The straw flew thick-and-fast in that Kaiser Kuo piece – a piece which was, put simply, far from excellent and more a very transparent attempt at triangulation. None of the counters to Bell/Jiang that I read were self-congratulatory, instead their target was Bell/Jiang’s hapless suggested model and febrile analysis of China’s current system.

Richard, what exactly is “Western style” democracy and how does it differ from the common-or-garden variety? Is Taiwan’s system of government a “Western style democracy”? Japan’s? Korea’s? India’s? If it is, are you really saying that China is incapable of achieving the same thing that these countries have achieved? This would be odd if it was the case, particularly given the fact that Taiwan’s present system of government is a heavily modified version of the system in place in mainland China pre-1949.

Triangulation (“Bell/Jiang are idiots but I can’t agree too much with their critics so let’s find a middle position that appeals to both sides”), equivocation, and message ‘tweaking’ are depressingly common in the Beijing commentariat, who seem incapable of calling a spade a spade.

In case you missed the news today: China is a dictatorship. If you believe this is a problem, then a process of democratic reform is the answer. No amount of ‘nuance’ will change this.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

In case you missed the news today: China is a dictatorship. If you believe this is a problem, then a process of democratic reform is the answer. No amount of ‘nuance’ will change this.

To quote Reagan… there you go again.

What, in your mind, constitutes democratic reform? Singing platitudes like this can win internet debates, FOARP, but it’s not helpful in terms of creating actionable policy. I know you’d like to avoid the details–who doesn’t–but the problem with a pure “democratic reform = panacea” position is that the details are especially deadly to it, far more so than to any position which allows a bit of flexibility and nuance.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:13 pm | Comment

The other thing, FOARP, is that no, Taiwan is not “western-style democracy”, nor is Japan, nor is India, nor is Korea. Nor is the United States, in fact; the United States is a Presidential/bicameral system as opposed to an English parliamentary system as opposed to Germany’s federal system as opposed to France’s…

Western-style democracy is a phantom, a figment of the punditocratic imagination, invoked by both sides of this sorry war of platitudes. What China really needs is a model unique to its own set of developmental challenges instead of a government that looks good to other people.

If you look at the examples, indeed, you cited of democracy, you’ll find that the only common denominator is that the people of each country were able to adapt the ideology to fit their country.

Japan, for example, turned what was supposed to be a very democratic post-war constitution into a construction-industrial-bureaucratic state with a single-party tenure matched only by Mexico’s PRI and the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties. And for the most part, it accomplished Japan’s mission of emerging from the ashes of World War 2 into becoming an economic superpower.

Korea did the same, and even massacred their own students to keep the export-oriented single-party chaebol-state going. In the end, they didn’t really loosen that system up until the entire country went bankrupt in 1997.

India, on the other hand, took a stupid approach to democracy, seeking to pursue a purity of means over a purity of ends, and winding up with a state that most Indians themselves admit is as dysfunctional as their brethren to the northeast.

Even the United States adapted what was originally a very loosely federalist, agriculture (and slavery) focused constitution into a strongly centralized government that encouraged industrial development with sky-high tariffs and mandatory non-slave labor (as well as state policy giving land away to industrial and railroad companies). The US paid out 620,000 lives in a Civil War to get from point A to B.

My point is, China will not get rich and powerful chasing the mirage of a “Western democratic model”. China will only maximize its national potential by adopting a model with that sole aim. Pursuing any other model because it “sounds nice” is an approach doomed to failure. Only by remaining focused on selecting the best model to win China’s place in the sun, can China really get where it needs to be.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:32 pm | Comment

Here’s an idea: criticize the American system, without ever mentioning the CCP; criticize the CCP system, without ever mentioning the words “American-style”. Both can be done, and rather easily. Why? Because the CCP and “American-style” could not be more different. And disgust for one does not require affinity for the other. This should be lesson number one for apologists like Bell and Li. What they offer is no more than an elaborate tu quoque, and no matter how much lipstick you put on that pig, it’s still a logical fallacy.

If we accept that government is a means to an end, at some point there still needs to be a judgment as to what would constitute a desirable end. And who makes that judgment? To me, the answer is clear. And once there is clarity as to who is best suited to determine the desirable ends, it becomes equally clear as to who should determine the means.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:37 pm | Comment

Put more bluntly, everything is a “means” to an end, and for China, the only end that matters is creating a unified bloc of 1.5 billion souls with a $20,000+ GDP per capita, ensconced in a safe, pliant Chinese sphere of influence, clearly ascendant over the rest of the world in technology and military prowess.

Every governance tool that can get China there is legitimate. Every tool that hinders China from getting there is to be discarded.

This, overwhelmingly, is the consensus within China’s elites today.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:39 pm | Comment

Ultimately, this is my argument with Mao, as well… Mao had it backwards: a nation is not a blank canvas for an ideology; an ideology is a lump of steel, to be shaped, forged, and hammered into the best of tools for a nation to utilize.

November 15, 2012 @ 3:55 pm | Comment

What, in your mind, constitutes democratic reform?

How about starting by making the courts independent and centrally funded?

November 15, 2012 @ 4:11 pm | Comment

To T-Co,
“the only end that matters is creating a unified bloc of 1.5 billion souls with a $20,000+ GDP per capita, ensconced in a safe, pliant Chinese sphere of influence, clearly ascendant over the rest of the world in technology and military prowess.”
—who says this is “the only end that matters”? This is precisely why I phrased it the way I did. Sure, this might be ONE of the ends that SOME people desire. But are you seriously trying to tell me that this is the ONLY end that EVERYONE IN CHINA desires? The point is that, in a country of 1.5 billion (or more to the point, precisely because there are 1.5 billion), there will be competing priorities. “democratic reform” is something that creates a landscape whereby those priorities actually get to compete, as opposed to the status quo where the CCP’s priorities carry the day, every day.

November 15, 2012 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

Cheung, that’s what nationalism is about – it’s greatness for the sake of greatness. Of course, most people aren’t nationalists (either not in the first place, or not at all). Most people want a good life, and have varying definitions of what that is. People who want to shape, forge, and hammer an ideology into the best of tools for a nation to utilize haven’t succeeded to date. I think the desire to do that kind of thing indicates a lot of existing misery, and has lots of potential to lead to further misery.

November 15, 2012 @ 5:51 pm | Comment

“the only end that matters is creating a unified bloc of 1.5 billion souls with a $20,000+ GDP per capita, ensconced in a safe, pliant Chinese sphere of influence, clearly ascendant over the rest of the world in technology and military prowess.”

Won’t happen. Sounds too much like 1930s Japan (just add “Co-prosperity”) for my taste…not to mention the preferences of the hundreds of millions of people who don’t want to be that “pliant sphere”.

November 15, 2012 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

On the OP, I’m with FOARP here. For any soul-searching the US/West needs right now (certainly plenty) there is simply no need to turn to the compromised hack scholars (Bell), pining Marxists (Jacques) and outright PRC shills (Eric X Li) for inspiration. This thread only exists because these guys failed at their mission and were widely called on it.

November 15, 2012 @ 9:59 pm | Comment

Going along with Foarp and slim. The idea that “we” (whoever that is) need to improve because there’s China, is stupid in itself, because China is the contrary of a model, and basically just an emotion driver.

When something is broken, it needs to be fixed. The “China dimension” in such a debate may create the hot air media articles fly on, and create short-term attention, but it has nothing to do with the actual business of repairing things.

Besides, you’ll unnecessarily scare people when linking reforms with arguments about a dictatorship.

November 15, 2012 @ 11:15 pm | Comment

I’m not sure about the few opinion pieces mentioned above but the last two decades, as long as I remember, a lot of pundits in Western countries have been of the opinion that democracy itself leads to better economy and performance. There’s very little evidence of that. There’s also no evidence that a Leninist state can perform very well over a certain threshold.

So, those who claimed that China has to change the political system to perform as well as Western countries now have a lot of explaining to do as to why the financial crisis happened in the US and Europe, and China is still doing fine in that area (albeit with a lot of structural issues and slowing growth). And it’s for this reason that many pro-CCP people are now talking about the superiority of the China modal. This doesn’t mean I agree with Eric X. Li or any of his ideological brethren, just that some people are now getting their own medicine.

I agree with most of the things t_co is saying, but I should add a few things. Traditionally, elites in any country did changes to existing political system because they weren’t performing well in a number of areas. Liberalization came about as a result of politicians being pushed by social forces outside of their control, not because of idealism on their own part. In the same way, China is slowly changing to a future where the level of control that was previously possible no longer exists. Political reform is not going to be the result of someone thinking “hmm, multi-party system sounds like a good idea” or “we really have to let the people decide” but by someone who thinks that the current system is inhibiting performance.

November 16, 2012 @ 1:55 am | Comment

I’m glad this generated a spirited discussion. I actually tend to agree with T_co and Wukailong here, but appreciate the other viewpoints. I think this thread shows that when it comes to the Chinese government some of us really do see it only in terms of black and white; I’ve been in that camp myself but now I always strive for balance. As I said, China has to find its own path.

November 16, 2012 @ 2:28 am | Comment

So, those who claimed that China has to change the political system to perform as well as Western countries now have a lot of explaining to do as to why the financial crisis happened in the US and Europe, and China is still doing fine in that area

I’m sorry, that’s a stupid comment.

The service industry is a lot more important in the US and Europe than it is in China, so it’s not surprising that a financial crisis would hit those areas harder than China.

There is also no link between democracy and bad economic policy. North Korea and Cuba are not democracies, but they have idiots running their countries into the ground.

Also, you should ask yourself why democratic (fully or partially) countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea and Canada are doing well at the moment.

November 16, 2012 @ 2:57 am | Comment

Maybe somebody can help me out with these about Elliot’s piece “The Real China Model” in NYT.

With “princelings” — sons of China’s revolutionary heroes — likely to make up a big part of the Communist Party’s new Standing Committee, the case for meritocracy in China’s current political system is tough to make, but I will leave this question to students of modern Chinese politics.

Out of the top 7 in PSC, other than Xi, who else is a princeling? Yu Zhengsheng? Sure, his revolutionary father who had an interesting life including being Jiang Qing’s boyfriend, but his father died 1958, many “purges”, revolutions, movements, and reforms ago. You may just well point at him also being the great great grandson of Zeng Guofan, or having family link to Chiang Ching-Kuo.

This is certainly a whole lot more comfortable as far as the narrative goes compared to say the 2000 US presidential election, i.e. the son of a former president against the son of a former Congressman. Actually there was nothing wrong with that… but you can see how fact-free this silly “princelings taking over China” narrative is.

We know that in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for instance, merchants’ sons were not allowed to take the examinations at all

Actually no. For the most part, merchants’ sons were allowed if the merchants acquired properties and settled their permanent residencies (huji).

Benjamin Elman, a scholar from Princeton University, has decisively shown, “the content of the civil service competition clearly excluded over 90 percent of China’s people from even the first step on the ladder to success.”

Elman wrote that in 1991, and quite frankly I am very unimpressed by how he came up with that conclusion. It probably deserves a long discussion… The problem with the narratives of 10% vs 90%, or 1% vs 99%, or 53% vs 47%, is that they don’t tell you how socially mobile between the advantageous groups, and the disadvantageous ones. For anything older than a few generations, it’s near impossible to conduct a scientifically sound research on the social mobility aspect, so you end up having historical researches to prove whatever viewpoints the researchers want to convey.

In China permanent urban families are fairly new — almost everybody has a rural hometown to go back to and find his/her root. Most families have their genealogical books that go back hundreds of years, and some even thousands of years. One remarkable thing is all of these genealogical books I know of record some former glories, some fairly recent and some going further back. My take is that despite all the “princeling party” talk, it’s far more deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche that if one does all the right things and teaches his/her children so, s/he and his/her progeny can rise to the top.

November 16, 2012 @ 3:01 am | Comment

just that some people are now getting their own medicine

That’s the hot air I was referring to. Raj pointed to the dictatorships which don’t do fine at all. Let me point to a democracy which is doing “fine”, for example – that would be Germany, my country. According to conventional wisdom, anyway, and in the light of what is being discussed here. Our position vis-a-vis southern Europe is not so different from China’s vis-a-vis America or the EU as a whole. I recommend this post by Michael Pettis from last year. It shows that the “strengths and weaknesses” aren’t as easy to attribute as some feuilletons like to suggest, and certainly not along the lines of democracy and dictatorship.

Some aspects in addition: China’s provincial investment companies reportedly went deeply into the red for the “stimulus programs” in 2008/09 (between 4 and 11 billion Yuan, probably), and the banks continue to misallocate funding to cover, rather than to address structural issues. That’s something that Germany didn’t need to do to avoid calamities. In a country with high individual savings and a generally high living standard, there’s room for adjustments without too much pain. But I attribute that comparatively bearable situation to strongly-organized collective bargaining partners, not to our democracy (and I cherish democracy for completely different reasons.) And our advantages won’t spare us further fitness programs: as we will need to do our share to rebuild southern Europe (as we also did our share in flattening them during the previous decade), we’ll have to live with still lower real incomes, probably with stimulus programs of our own, and to make sure that we succeed even more than now on markets outside Euroland (there won’t be growing export opportunities within).

With every twist and turn in this saga (and I’m sure it’s far from over), either Weltanschauung faction can applaud their champion, Gordon Chang, Eric Li, Shaun Rein, you name them. You may even have opportunities to switch from gloom to glee and vice versa within weeks. May those to whom it means so much enjoy the turns – there will be little else to enjoy.

But I prefer to address issues. That would be my advice to my own country, and to everyone’s.

November 16, 2012 @ 5:06 am | Comment

I agree with JXie that any accusation of nepotism needs to be supported by a more proximate link than a couple of generations or 50+ years removed.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with a competent person climbing the ladder who happens to have relatives in high places. Problems arise when a numb-nut climbs the ladder only by virtue of having relatives in high places.

The problem with CCP meritocracy isn’t borne out of who is being deemed of merit; it’s with how those determinations are made, and who makes them.

November 16, 2012 @ 5:22 am | Comment

“Most families have their genealogical books that go back hundreds of years, and some even thousands of years”.

Are you sure after the disasters of the 20th century?

Anyway, it is this sick obsession with reproducing the family line which has given rise to the male-female imbalance and the bare twig syndrome.

http://www.prolife.ie/prolife/163-million-missing-girls

Apol. Couldn’t find the exact link, but it is a lively debate.

A second Taiping Rebellion anyone?

November 16, 2012 @ 5:27 am | Comment

“Western-style democracy is a phantom, a figment of the punditocratic imagination…”
If you read these pundits, western style democracy means, in general, US style. The “West” is generally held to be America. Even “America” is the 50 states that form the US – Canada et al are America too but the US is America, if you get my drift. Ergo, according to pundits, in black and white terms, democracy is the US system and that is the mental visualisation of the concept. The fact that there are other forms is neither here nor there. There are other cuisines but ask someone for a western food (especially, it seems, in China) and it’s not coquilles St Jacques, Cornish pasties or goulasch with spatzle which get mentioned, is it? Heck, even pizza isn’t.

November 16, 2012 @ 5:43 am | Comment

@Raj: “Also, you should ask yourself why democratic (fully or partially) countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea and Canada are doing well at the moment.”

You have to separate what I think from what I mention as being a common argument (maybe I wasn’t making that clear?). I personally don’t believe the financial crisis was caused by democracy, but ultimately, each system is going to have a certain amount of “capital” and whatever the US does influences the capital of democracy as a system.

Personally, too, I don’t think the US system is in any way synonymous with democracy as such, but a lot of people do see it as the model. That’s why we’re seeing all these comparisons between China and the US.

November 16, 2012 @ 6:14 am | Comment

@justrecently: “Our position vis-a-vis southern Europe is not so different from China’s vis-a-vis America or the EU as a whole. I recommend this post by Michael Pettis from last year. It shows that the “strengths and weaknesses” aren’t as easy to attribute as some feuilletons like to suggest, and certainly not along the lines of democracy and dictatorship.”

Sounds similar to my country, Sweden, which is doing fine.

I agree about this not having much to do with democracy/dictatorship. Each country’s problems should be addressed “as is” rather than looking specifically at whether it’s a democracy or not. But that’s exactly what hasn’t been happening with China – I don’t know how many times I’ve heard (in the past, not now) that China’s economic and social problems are due to it not being a democracy.

The argument works both ways – you can find dysfunctional dictatorships just as you can find dysfunctional democracies. I usually would point to Burma and North Korea when people say that a one-party system in general is better.

November 16, 2012 @ 6:19 am | Comment

(maybe I wasn’t making that clear?)

No, you weren’t making that clear – in any respect.

November 16, 2012 @ 6:51 am | Comment

OK, looking over what I wrote, it looks indeed fairly hazy as to what is my own opinion. Sorry about that.

November 16, 2012 @ 7:42 am | Comment

@KT,

Are you sure after the disasters of the 20th century?

Yes. Typically a ZuPu is maintained by several leading families, which serves a sort of Disaster Recovery purpose. I have yet to run across a case that a Zupu is broken by the recent wars or the Cultural Revolution (simultaneously destroyed in all Zupu-maintaining families).

What made you think I wouldn’t be sure? Unlike say slim or Raj, at times you actually have interesting and intelligent though mostly quirky things to say. Your problem is that you don’t seem to understand we’re all limited by our previous experience and knowledge. Why wouldn’t your reaction be, “hmm that SOB is a Chinese so he probably knows better than I do on this since his name would probably show up 2 to even 4 ZuPu.”

Or, “why Chinese even invented paper if they didn’t have the urge to write a lot? Even I don’t know much about Chinese literary, the others should know better than I do…”

[163 million missing girls in the world]

If using the zeal of number inflation when discuss how many Chinese Mao was supposed to have killed, the number of missing girls should’ve been at quadrillions by now. But I digress.

For your reading pleasure: Hepatitis B and the Case of the Missing Women.

November 16, 2012 @ 8:04 am | Comment

@Handler “A form of government is a practice (discursive and somatic), with conventional restrictions in place which often appear akin to ritual. A practice can be a good in itself insofar as it is normative, but to understand this you must leave aside the unnecessary distinction between “being a good” and being “a means to achieve a good”. A practice is normative insofar as it provides stability non-coercive in origin and application, expressed in the framework of channels for the reconciliation of differences, the transmission of information, and the lawful redress of grievances. This is a good in itself and will contribute to further goods provided for its society.”

But isn’t this the same as saying that those practices that engender “goods” are good in themselves? Is there any “practice that is good in itself” but fails to contribute to further goods? If there is, doesn’t the real normative judgment become “What is more important”–the inherent aesthetic or philosophical appeal (I’m thinking Communist ideology in certain aspects) or its actual implementation (Leninist incarnations)? Also, as the practice of states, what government is “non-coercive” in application? Doesn’t the monopolization of coercion define state authority?

November 16, 2012 @ 10:09 am | Comment

@jxie. As I actually worked in the transmissible diseases area for many years I enjoyed the recommended read, but experienced a brain meltdown when I came to the covariant math-type thingies.

Now if a Chinese Family Book is similar to that maintained by South Korean families, there will be numerous instances of faked entries when calamitous events left a generational gap to be filled.

What if one belongs to the great unwashed or a non-leading family?

This is all about maintaining the rotten Confucian model of the family: a notion should be destroyed with prejudice.

Re: the term SOB. When I think of SOB individuals or races, Poland with its cloying catholicism always comes to mind rather than China.

November 16, 2012 @ 11:41 am | Comment

xsc

“But isn’t this the same as saying that those practices that engender “goods” are good in themselves? Is there any “practice that is good in itself” but fails to contribute to further goods?”

To answer your first question: clearly not. The genocide of an ethnic population may lead to lasting peace inside a nation, but that does not mean the practice is a good. Likewise, the violent overthrow of an elected official may lead to improved living conditions for the surviving populace, but that would not make the practice of violent revolution a good in itself. To answer your second question: no. Kaka can come from good people but not from good practices, which is a primary justification for the importance of ritual. It gets a little more complicated when we ask if a good practice done poorly can lead to bad practices, and I’d rather not wade into that depth.

“Also, as the practice of states, what government is “non-coercive” in application?”

I might glibly recommend the “large red banner test”, but of course we must acknowledge degrees and departments, delays and distractions. Generally speaking, if force or the threat of force is needed to keep statutes in place, that government may be said to be demonstrably coercive. If the repeal of a statute might be accomplished by civil means, even with a delay for the voting out of an official responsible for that policy, little coercion if any is practiced. Are you asking me to name a state government or simply a form of government?

Doesn’t the monopolization of coercion define state authority?

State authority? Largely. Government? No.

Richard

“I think this thread shows that when it comes to the Chinese government some of us really do see it only in terms of black and white; I’ve been in that camp myself but now I always strive for balance.”

Actually, I think this is another instance of the conceit I cited above in reference to Kuo, and like a conceit it amounts to little more than mannerism today. There is a long and rather tawdry lineage of bloggers who assume the mantle of being more balanced (simply an abused word) and treating China more “fairly” after claiming to have initially been reactionary. Perhaps the apex of this perversion was the now defunct “China/Divide”, where puerile glee in picking apart dull and ignorant journalists deftly accompanied convenient accusations of bias and its trailing twin racism, all in the service of balance. I believe you’ve always been far more honest than that, Richard, but that nebulous “balance” still somehow appeals.

To comment on how China unapologetically defines itself, through practice or officially acceptable ideals, does not mean to see China in black and white. If the PRC government allows for the promotion of certain political ideas while suppressing a multitude of others, it defines what is acceptable to its worldview. The difference between Charter 08 and Jiang et al. is that the party regards the latter set as a compatible peripheral to its current form, a buffer conceptualization of their rule. I fail to see what this has to do with America or democracy other than Jiang and friends’ use of them as a foil.

t_co’s argument is clearly inadequate for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is impossible to imagine a democracy that isn’t adapted to local conditions, given that it requires the participation of a specific populace, in all of its peculiarities and previous disposition. The adaptability of the concept has never been an indication that it is merely a tissue of that nation’s peculiarities and previous disposition. In each and every case, components of democratic empowerment are readily recognizable to those operating in other forms, i.e. the practice of democracy is translatable. Where are the translatable components in Chinese governance now? How are such components bolstered by state intervention in the media and courts?

Also, democracy doesn’t just “sound nice”. It is a form of governance which encourages participation in decision-making as a definition of responsibilities. It is the only form of governance currently in existence which has *built-in* as well as statutory protections for individuals, which offers through mere existence as a citizen a modicum of protection against the presumptions and abuses of one’s neighbors and superiors. It is also the only form of governance that can be legitimately said to encourage the establishment of statutes, and enjoin support for them, through rational persuasion, though unfortunately it has correctly been argued this is not a necessary component of democracy.

Where t_co says China should get where it needs to be, he of course means where he would like it to be, disregarding trade-offs the population will simply have to accept (though t_co won’t, apparently). Because ultimately with this perspective, people too are simply a means to an end. Somebody really should investigate the psychological creator effect, otherwise known as the Marvin Gaye Piece of Clay effect, the rise of China has had on certain overseas Chinese.

jxie

“Elman wrote that in 1991, and quite frankly I am very unimpressed by how he came up with that conclusion. It probably deserves a long discussion… The problem with the narratives of 10% vs 90%, or 1% vs 99%, or 53% vs 47%, is that they don’t tell you how socially mobile between the advantageous groups, and the disadvantageous ones”

I haven’t read Elman’s account, but it must take into account rates of literacy in Chinese dynasties. Most of those are still based on Evelyn Rawski’s work (on the Qing) dating all the way back to 1979, which has been criticized repeatedly for being too optimistic. In her account roughly 16-27% of the populace was “literate”. Of course literacy in China has always been excessively optimistic: even the capacity for an individual to write his name was not long ago taken as proof of literacy. So the question is how much of this “literate” set could read and write sufficiently well, and also have sufficient depth of reading in key texts, to give them any chance at passing the civil service exams. Elman’s number seems conservative to me.

November 16, 2012 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

FYI, if you read Xi’s recent remarks, you’ll see that it is refreshingly clear of ideology and focused on pursuing the same Chinese renaissance we spoke about earlier.

This is going to be the path of China for the next 10 years–a non-ideological, anything-goes hunt for the model that can propel China into assuming its logical place in the world, and giving the Chinese people the prosperity and stability they deserve.

November 16, 2012 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

@Handler, thanks.

I think I agree. Still, I can’t think of a single major world institution/government that was not brought about by a “not-so-good” practice or process.

BTW, what’s the psychological creator effect, if you feel like explaining? Cheers

November 16, 2012 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

@Handler. Re: your characterization of China/Divide. Don’t recall seeing your commenting presence there, and I inflicted a regular dose of my drivel in the comments section soon after it was launched. It was a far more off the wall site than this could ever hope to be.

Kai Pan, Custer and Stan ran a pretty interesting ship and a lot of folk had great commenting fun….fun rather than duty being the key word. CD was also far less US-China bipolar than this site. You’re probably bitter about CD because you got voted down whenever you had the (occasional) courage to offer an opinion.

November 16, 2012 @ 5:55 pm | Comment

Tubby

No, I stumbled onto the website after a hiatus from all things China. I recall being at least a few months removed from the final comment posted for every article I found noteworthy. Not that it would matter considering how terrified I was.

Interesting may very well be the death rattle of graduate programs, but I’ll admit that my sample size for C/D was restricted and those guys have apparently moved on to decent things. Still, the discussion I came across there seemed unduly colored by insinuations that XXX is a racist, fallacy hunting, and preset umbrage mechanisms kicking in. All in the name of balance, of course. Certainly more lively than the Duck if that’s your thing or you have many things.

November 16, 2012 @ 11:59 pm | Comment

A gang of thieves and their army are in your house.

Now we are going to trust those thieves (with supporting army) to make sure that none of their members steal any of your stuff.

Am I missing something?

Greed and abuse of power. They’re human nature. And, in this case, also entrenched political culture.

Of course the next logical step is that those same men are going to put into place effective checks and balances and an independent rule of law.

LMAO! Wave that flag baby!

It’s communism….Gangnam style!

November 17, 2012 @ 12:33 am | Comment

Hu Jintao did good in stepping down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Read and heard in a few places that it was a matter of principle for him too. Xi Jinping starts with a clean slate, and those men of Jiang’s on the PSC will not be able to curtail him as easily as they previously did to Hu Jintao. Ultimately, this is a big message to Jiang Zemin (bloody old scoundrel) and other elders – lay off future political meddling.

Hu Yaobang chose right.

November 17, 2012 @ 5:13 am | Comment

Richard, I think this is your blog’s finest hour (at 5:13 am). Tears of emotion streamed across my face when reading how the noble meritocrats in Zhongnanhai sent a big message to Jiang Zemin, and were all of one mind (with Hu Yaobang somehow on their mind).

November 17, 2012 @ 4:02 pm | Comment

It seems that a lot of the criticism of Western (US) style democracy has to do more with its being so messy and chaotic rather than being in disagreement with it’s ideals. The pro-China writers seem wedded to the idea of a government that runs smoothly and efficiently without protests or dissension. Everyone goes about their lives and work confident that those in power are acting in their best interests and the best interests of the country. The turmoil and raw emotion they see in US politics scares the hell out of them. What critics of the US fail to understand in that this is actually a feature, not a flaw. And, yes, Americans do take an overwheening, stubborn pride – even arrogance – it this.

The debates on the merits of the various forms of government are interesting on an intellectual level, in the real world that all have serious flaws. Least of which is all depend to varying degrees on the character of the people in power. From time to time, the people on each side line up for a good old fashioned throwing of brickbats – and both sides go away assuring themselves of having the moral high ground.

I have a cynical view of any form of governance, and an even deeper cynical view of those in power in those systems. And that applies to my own country and especially it’s political class.

November 18, 2012 @ 12:42 am | Comment

Yes, JR, that was a heckuva a comment. T. Low is a certified troll.

What goju said is quite right. And that is why this blog may seem, as KT said above, “bipolar.” It is bipolar. I a equivocal and ambivalent and I apologize to readers like FOARP and Handler, who make valid points, for my vacillations. I’ve been caught in this equivocal pattern for five years now. That’s because in so many ways the CCP has been an effective government, at least along certain lines, and that can’t be left out of the equation. And there’s so much about various forms of democracy that I find execrable. Every time the US government process fucks up, as it’s fucked up so spectacularly throughout the gridlock of the current administration, it diminishes the argument I make about how bad China’s system is. At least they aren’t sending out unmanned drones to police the world. I remember just two weeks ago when Iran fired at a drone and the GOP went into a tizzy, banging the drums for war ever louder. And I imagined how we would react to an unmanned Iranian drone flying 100 miles off the coast of New York City. And I do think much of the discussion over China’s government is one-sided, on both sides.

The CCP is capable of incredible badness and there is so much about it I detest. But there is much more to the story, and I believe the public, as our infamous Pew survey claims, trust their government more than any other institution. That makes total sense, seeing the improvement the government has made in boosting GDP and elevating so many from poverty. Of course there is also the very dark side of that, especially corruption and repression and gross miscarriages of justice. This is why I so often preface my negative posts with disclaimers about the good the CCP has done, or how the US is often guilty of similar injustices. My biggest beef is with the absence of rule of law in China, and checks and balances. Therein lies the yawning difference between the two systems, and while China is improving, especially in more developed geographies, the transition is much too slow and far too many people are victims of an inefficient, unjust and unfair system. I wish the story could be told in a way that reflects these flaws while acknowledging the fact that the imposition of democracy, while being a wonderful step, is not a panacea, as we see in India and Russia. I think Kaiser makes a valid point about the dangers of the argument being framed in a way that China has only two choices, both sides failing to take into account the badness and the goodness of the current system. I realize I leave myself open to attack for referring to the good of the CCP (and as I always argue, there is more than one CCP, and many in the party want only what they see as the best for its people) as well as the bad, but there are many nuances to what the party is and what it does, just as there are lots of holes in the American system, the main saving grace of which is freedom of speech and a generally effective rule of law, which are closely intertwined with one another. Sorry if that’s a messy argument, but it’s a messy topic.

November 18, 2012 @ 1:08 am | Comment

If Iran were flying drones 100 miles off New York, the US would send interceptors and shadow the plane. As we did with Soviet Bearcat bombers, subs and surface ships – some of which carried nuclear weapons. Shooting at that plane was an act of war. The GOP was not calling for war, it was asking why the hell the President had not even proffered a stern verbal response. The US is entirely within its rights to fly its planes in international airspace unmolested.

One of the things I have learned from this site is that any acknowledgement that one side or the other is not completely wrong and/or evil results in name calling and outrage. Being in the middle just means being a convenient target for all sides.

Richard, it is to your credit that you question your own beliefs. Only fools and fanatics are always sure of their beliefs.

November 18, 2012 @ 2:46 am | Comment

Thanks Goju. There were some Republican nuts who did see Iran shooting at the drone as an act of war; I heard at least one on Fox News. I’ve learned to block them out. I do wonder how we would react if there were an unarmed drone flying in international airspace 100 miles off the coast of Manhattan (let alone assassinating US leaders on the ground who the Iranians claimed were a life-endangering threat). I think we would apply the Monroe doctrine; we wouldn’t stand for it. But that discussion will take us way, way off topic. It was simply an example of America doing questionable things , and I think our use of drones is questionable — not necessarily totally wrong, but at least questionable.

November 18, 2012 @ 3:02 am | Comment

“Being in the middle just means being a convenient target for all sides.”

The story of my life!

November 18, 2012 @ 5:14 am | Comment

Seeing the good and the bad, and recognizing them as such and accordingly, is not a problem at all. The problem arises when the good is used to justify the bad. It’s a variant of tu-quoque that’s used with nauseating frequency. Richard acknowledges the good while calling out the bad, which is no problem at all. But people at times can drift towards being less particular about the particulars.

November 18, 2012 @ 9:18 am | Comment

Seeing the good and the bad, and recognizing them as such and accordingly, is not a problem at all. The problem arises when the good is used to justify the bad. It’s a variant of tu-quoque that’s used with nauseating frequency. Richard acknowledges the good while calling out the bad, which is no problem at all. But people at times can drift towards being less particular about the particulars.

This. Some people seem to think that maintaining the holistic status quo of China is the only way China could have accomplished what it did; these people then go on to think that maintaining a majority of the Chinese system is the only way China can go on to achieve what it can. This is a fallacy…

November 18, 2012 @ 9:30 am | Comment

“It seems that a lot of the criticism of Western (US) style democracy has to do more with its being so messy and chaotic rather than being in disagreement with it’s ideals. The pro-China writers seem wedded to the idea of a government that runs smoothly and efficiently without protests or dissension. Everyone goes about their lives and work confident that those in power are acting in their best interests and the best interests of the country. The turmoil and raw emotion they see in US politics scares the hell out of them. What critics of the US fail to understand in that this is actually a feature, not a flaw. And, yes, Americans do take an overwheening, stubborn pride – even arrogance – it this.”

True. And this attitude toward things unkept buttresses the PRC’s obsession with “stability” as a requirement for development, whether economic or cultural. Yet every day wrecking crews have to demolish large communities in the PRC, whose cities sure seem chaotic today; while individual cities of cultural lodestar Renaissance Italy, with few populations in excess of 60000, witnessed 4 to 5 murders every 24 hours (in addition to the wars which were continuously being waged between states).

Actually, though, I observe a great deal of animosity toward the ideals of democracy among the pro-China set, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of propaganda or strictly directed at democracy’s messiness. The source, as I see it, is a strong anti-populist streak, cured (like bacon) variously in Leninist strongman ideals, earnest republicanism, and insistent cultural distinction, the last of which is often expressed through the thoroughly misguided belief of a greater Asian stress on “competency”. Straight-up arrogance could, of course, conceivably be a part of all of these.

Richard

Let me get this out of the way first:

“I think Kaiser makes a valid point about the dangers of the argument being framed in a way that China has only two choices, both sides failing to take into account the badness and the goodness of the current system.”

I still don’t see any proof of this. I don’t think Kaiser has a valid reason for his expressed concern; I think it is an affectation. Stepping into a field characterized by a diverse distribution of opinion and claiming “the middle ground” is generally asinine, indicative of 2 dimensional thought. However, a special part of the donkey is reserved for those who actually step into an adjacent field and say the same thing.

That said, you certainly owe me no apology. I think I understand the perspective you have, and I hope you don’t mind me appropriating the terms of your self-reflection from time to time. As I said, it is my impression that you are a very honest person. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to abuse the privilege. Especially since that is Tubby’s job.

November 18, 2012 @ 9:41 am | Comment

If the 5.13 am comment elicited tears of emotion, the 4.02 pm comment certainly aroused hearty laughter and cemented the opinion why there are some folks in the world who will just “never get it”, and will live their entire lives under that frustration. Of course, the only way people like these get relief is to come to a blog to get soothed and comforted by several birds of the same feather.

At least the person making the 1.08 am comment is slowly becoming more realistic and sensible (albeit in a teeny weeny way, but then, better then no improvement).

November 18, 2012 @ 10:45 am | Comment

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