A new Big Idea for China

Disclaimer: This ended up roughly 4500 words longer than I expected when I sat down.

A while ago, following the start of the Arab Spring, John Quiggin wrote a post declaring “Fukuyama, F*** Yeah“. Apart from showcasing an appreciation of both late 20th century political thought and early 21st century scatalogical humour, it also presents an interesting intellectual exercise, or at least diversion.

Let’s let Fukuyama restate his oft caricatured argument

“The End of History” is in the end an argument about modernization. What is initially universal is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern — that is, technologically advanced and prosperous — society, which, if satisfied, tends to drive demands for political participation. Liberal democracy is one of the byproducts of this modernization process, something that becomes a universal aspiration only in the course of historical time.”


I’ll restate (or misrepresent) in my own terms with an emphasis on political legitimacy. The end of the cold war left Liberal Democracy, as defined by rule of law (encompassing impartiality, rights and government limited by law) and democratic accountability was the last standing Big Idea on the ideological battlefield. There are no other options to reach for to legitimise an existing or prospective regime. Even if not universal in practice, even in regimes that formally espoused it, this Big Idea’s lonely status is what represented an end of history in Kojèvian-Hegelian sense.

The game I want to play is to ask what a alternative Big Idea might look like. I should mention here that I don’t think this is a particularly useful or pertinent exercise. I would place it only slightly higher than asking “Would Batman beat x in a fight?”, and that’s only because a sensible person recognises that Batman always wins. Nonetheless…

Lets look at possible regimes they might come from. Russia may be kleptocratic and undemocratic, but it makes no attempt to dress in anything but the garb of law and elections. Iran may reach to religious authority, but it still makes a show of law (even if it’s sharia), a constitution and elections. Venezuela as well. However illiberal they are, they neither presenting, nor do they appear to have either the ability or inclination to present an alternate Big Idea. Experiences in Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere show that a pseudo liberal state can build on the existing pseudo democratic institutions (or even just the promise) to create a more genuine liberal democratic polity.

Not so China. The Party has not replaced it’s revolutionary justification for its hegemony,  not even with a liberal veneer. So long as the good times roll, this is not a problem. But it may well be in the foreseeable future, since it takes no clairvoyance to say that a crisis of some kind will happen some time in the future. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics describes only policy pragmatism. Nationalism is only a band-aid, and is like riding on a tiger that will consume them if they fall.

Political progress and disruption throughout human society, up to and including the Arab Spring or the Tiananmen protests, have been built on masses of smaller concerns, many material or petty to which ideas are leveraged. If there are ideas endogenous to the system to lever against them, they will often be preferred. If not they are adopted from elsewhere. The Party needs an endogenous idea so concerns can be addressed within the bounds of its hegemony. Otherwise other ideas, including  will have more sway.

Well into the writing of this post I happened to hear this talk with David Kelly of UTS courtesy of the Lowy Institute. The last five minutes or so, starting at around the hour mark 1 are a wonderful description of the problem in the terms I’m talking of. He describes the legitimacy of the Communist Party as “the great mystery” and describes it as the most compelling reason why the Fukuyama hypothesis remains valid. The party is denying itself a large “resource of legitimacy” by rejecting democracy, even as a facade. But what other resources does it have besides the promise of sustained growth and the party’s image as the upholder of national pride and defender against foreign depredation?

The Party is not as kleptocratic or cynical as the Russian leadership, though it is tempting to over simplify it as so on cursory observation. Despite the pervasive corruption, kleptocracy is not nearly sufficient to explain observed behavior.  Corruption exists because the Party is ill equipped and unable to deal with it, not because it is the Party’s sole reason for being. As distasteful and unethical as we may find the government and its elite – not to mention doubts about it’s long run sustainability, it can only be interpreted as a body that sincerely believes that it is acting in the best interests of China and its people. It desires the resources of legitimacy to sustain it’s hegemony into the future even when the figures of today are gone.

The party needs a Big Idea for when times are not good and one that can promise modern government, including lower corruption. We can hypothesise many a potential crises on current observations, but all we need recognise is that crises inevitably happen The party also has the inclination to do so to guide itself. Whilst it has routinely torn itself apart over ideology before 2 and thus would try to avoid the debate for as long as possible, it will eventually begin to formalise the terms in which the feel they act for the country and why it is appropriate for China in a way Liberal Democracy is not.

Additionally China, unlike the other illiberal regimes, has a long intellectual history filled with dueling Big Ideas – longer in fact than Western Europe.It easy to put this history into a quasi Hegelian framework of conflict and synthesis. The Warring States Era also saw a proliferation of schools of thought, and when political power was settled there was a Confucianism in the Han Dynasty which quietly took on board much of the legalism that previous Confucians had scorned. Centuries later political disunity saw ideological disunity and eventually synthesis into Neo-Confucianism, having taken on board ideas from Daoism and the foreign Buddhism. Perhaps the last two centuries of disintegration, warlordism and revolutionary chaos are a precursor of a further synthesis of domestic and foreign ideas.

I’m abandoning most of my inclination as an economist to play this intellectual fancy dress – and anyway the economics of markets are already present in China, even if it looks increasingly close to the New Economic Policy. You could say this game has important implications if we can anticipate the way the government legitimises itself affects us, but its mainly dilettantism.  I’ll abandon my personal ethics. I’ll keep referring the Party as the agent making a decision, but of course this simplification is misleading. The party is absolutely massive, with considerable divergence of views and interests and opaque and Byzantine internal dynamics. I’m especially looking at intellectual history and the simple practical problems of  modern government.

If a alternative Big Idea emerged, it would probably be justified on the basis of something intrinsically Chinese, both to appeal to nationalist pride and to dismiss the “foreignness” of Liberal Democracy. I venture that the party would ultimately envision its state as an after the image of Singapore. Authoritarian, technocratic, illiberal, guided capitalism whilst remaining stable and avoiding corruption. The fact it is dominated by ethnically Chinese is a bonus. This has been proposed domestically by the likes of Pan Wei (to whom I will return), but not yet openly by the party. However,  Singapore and the People’s Action Party present problems as a model.

The first is that, as per the terms of this discussion, there is no distinct Big Idea in Singapore. There has always been a ritual of elections  to provide the basis for the People’s Action Party’s claim to power. More genuinely there is a functioning system of law. The Asian Values project of the 1990s seemed to be an attempt to create one for authoritarian or paternalistic leaders in the region, but it faced several hurdles. The 1997 crisis put a dent in , and particularly led to post Suharto Indonesia expanding its democratic institutions and making leaders draw legitimacy almost solely from the ballot. Moreover, as a shared project with regional neighbours it was doomed by an attempt to define values for an Asia that doesn’t really exist – at least in a way that would exclude a democracy like Australia.

The prospects for a revival of this project, or an alternative happening are diminishing. The election results in May, where modest gains where made by the opposition parties, were widely interpreted as a sign that Singaporean democracy may become worthy of the name. In future the government may not be accountable to only its own virtue, and there will be no need for an alternative Big Idea.

There are also practical issues of personal authority and succession, and informational problems and the question of law.

The issue of personal authority and succession is one where the CCP may feel they have one up on the PAP. The influence of Lee Kuan Yew  seems vital in the stability and lack of corruption in the PAP, whether as Prime Minister or background cabinet member. It is diffucult to know how the party will govern itself with his recent move to the back bench or when he departs this world. The CCP has also been heavily influenced by personal authority, for the worse under Mao and somewhat more positively under Deng. The latter exercised his influence without formal office, most strikingly (and perhaps positively) with histrip to the South in the early  1990s which reversed the post Tiananmen anti reform movement. Yet after his death the party managed a stable transition in 2002 and appears set towards one next year. This may be no more sustainable than the successions under the five good emperors and may fall to the same tie of bloods, but it seems to be working for now.

The second practical issue is more tricky. Any Big Idea that is adopted in China would need to include a substitute for the information provided by democratic accountability, open(ish) government, law courts and freeish speech.  Similar problems to those that inhibit a command economy in synthesizing information are present in a large bureaucracy. The head does not know what the hands are doing, the hands are ill disposed to tell them and the whole body may suffer. Singapore may have been able to dodge this by virtue of its size. In a small island and a small national population, malfeasance is far more easily detected and positive norms upheld. The Chinese Communist Party alone on the other hand has a membership some 16 times the  the entirety of Singapore’s population, and proportionately much more difficulty monitoring itself than the PAP. Incompetence or corruption that undermines the larger party’s ability to govern well in accordance with its self image or promotes discontent and undermines the government’s stability is harder to identify and target. It struggles to have enough information to govern itself, let alone the country.

As China has the longest history of bureaucratic government (long enough that bureaucracy is cosmically natural) it also has a long, and mixed history of addressing it. Many of these attempts are reflected in contemporary governance.

The Ming dynasty resorted to a parallel system of eunuchs to spy and report to the court what the mandarins were doing, and what fiefdoms were being built.  It has a parallel in the contemporary internal affairs bureaus (Such as the Internal Discipline Commission) which appear to have great, but secretive powers that lend themselves to abuse especially in intra party struggles and they were under Mao. This of course also creates another hierarchy with incentive to obscure the dissemination of information – the spider swallowed to catch the flies.

What then of other ways of seeking public feedback outside a free press and elections?

The CCP has formally tried public scrutiny before by promoting mass movements, and it was nightmarish. It took the form of the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution. They did provide scrutiny of officials and bureaucrats, and were effective. Unfortunately they were devoted to rooting out thoughtcrimes and technocrats in the service of one part of the party against the rest rather than rooting out corruption or incompetence. The rhetoric of mass movements is still used today, but with this history there is a great wariness. A fear of idealistic and mobilised youth goes a long way to explaining the willingness to crack down on the Tiananmen protesters 3.

There is also the old practice of petitioning the central government. This routinely is covered in the Western Press since when petitioners travel to Beijing they become much more accessible to the journalists stationed there with limited means to travel into the interior. The fact this is so visible to foreign press is enough to make it undesirable, but it is also clunky, costly to the petitioner and largely ineffective. It’s a bit like why politicians pay limited attention to letters they receive, only more so.

There still appears to be a willingness to get feedback provided it does not criticise the party as a whole, it does not court a foreign audience and it does not involve mass movement of people or create a new organisation. This can be seen in the bounded tolerance for internet dissent. Social media provides a myriad of criticisms and mockery of day to day incompetence (particularly of local officials) and corruption along with a troubling jingoistic streak which does not suffer the same censorship that mentions of sensitive incidents like Tiananmen or the Arab Spring or rumours of Jiang Zemin’s death do. It would be very difficult and impractical to do so. Public interest in these are far greater than loftier political ideals or geopolitics and all politics is local. But it also provides a needed source of feedback about potential sources of discontent that could become systemic without waiting for unrest 4. Feedback on local discontent is very valuable. It is where failings of officialdom is infinitely more visible to the people than the party elites and thus more dangerous if unchecked. It can be targeted without targeting anyone too powerful. Lastly it allows the central party to gain credibility by targeting the local party.

There is a traditional hope for “blue sky” officialdom, whereby a bureaucrat can sweep into town like white hatted cowboy and clean things up. Pomfret uses the analogy to current practice. An exerpt

It’s important to note that among the people remonstrating with the Communist authorities, no one criticized the central government or, more broadly, China’s system of government. Yes, they attacked all of the Communist Party organs in the county – the cops, the government and the secret police. But throughout, in their letters to the party-state, they drew a clear distinction between the local thugs and Beijing. The implication from the remonstrators was clear: the center – Beijing – is good, but it’s just been led astray by local apparatchiks.


Internet feedback allows the central party to fulfil this role and dissuade people that the party is systematically failing to address corruption and incompetence. This editorial in the (English language) government press explicitly endorses microblogging for this purpose and urges officials to listen to it.

Although some officials and cadres still cannot adapt to the new public opinion pattern of the microblogging era, it has already become an inevitable phenomenon that the people will participate in public affairs and express their opinions by microblogging. Topics regarding government policies, public administration, and cadres’ words and deeds usually turn into hot topics very quickly.

In fact, most microbloggers’ behaviors of “surrounding to watch” and “participating in” are ultimately out of their goodwill of caring about the work of local governments and their sincere desire to help local governments overcome shortcomings. The thing that makes microblogging a perfect platform for responding to concerns is goodwill and sincerity.

If governments can correctly and properly guide public opinions, use microblogging as a good platform to learn about public opinions and the wisdom of the people, and find and solve problems as soon as possible, forming a widely-participated, orderly and interactive microblogging public opinion environment is completely possible. Microblogging will also become a “release valve” of social emotions and the “lubricant” of government-public relations

An acceptance of social media feedback within the bounds I outlined above explains the disparity between treatment of different figures. For instance the more domestically obscure but internationally feted systemic critics like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei are arrested and their names are condemned to the internet memory hole. The tremendously popular blogger Han Han limits his still substantial criticism to a thousand petty injustices and resigns himself (without accepting) the constraints placed by the government. Subsequently he is treated far more lightly, as are the broader anonymous hordes of netizens. Targeting someone who is popular is obviously a great deal harder, but it also exhibits an acceptance of a kind of loyal opposition. For more on that point see Monica Tan 5 (or the New Yorker profile that arrived when I was writing this).

To bring this back to the to formulation of a Big Idea, this shows a sign of a willingness to add a consultative element to the legitimacy of the CCP that is no longer the Vanguard of professional revolutionaries. I will return to this. But first, the “blue sky” official, once informed of misdeeds rides in and dispenses justice. This brings us to the last issue in the Singapore model. Singapore has a functioning system of Common Law, which is the medium through which liberties are curtailed. China does not have a functioning legal system…yet.6

This is central to the  best known of the alternative Big Ideas that have been proposed, Wei Pan’s Consultative Rule of Law regime, which was described in English in 2003. Pan neatly falls into the dialectic structure I suggested for Chinese intellectual history. Educated in the US, he now advocates a synthesised system based on Chinese institutions and the “borrowed” concept of Rule of Law, but with no need for Democracy – a model he sees encapsulated by Singapore. He is not of the party, and some of his suggestions may be anathema to it. It is well worth examining though, because it does suggest the shape of ideas that may arise.

Pan sets out to “demythologise” democracy, defined by him as the periodic election of leaders, and separate it from the rule of law. The latter is defined as making law paramount above personal authority. He says “Rule of law does not aim at governing the people; it aims at governing the government.” Democracy he says has virtue in the right cultural contexts, but it is the latter which is the key to modernity, good government and the management of corruption (which I have been treating as the greatest threat to regime stability). To this end he divides the world into four regimes. States with neither democracy nor rule of law. States with democracy but no rule of law. Liberal democracies with both and finally rule of law without democracy. The first two make up the poverty of the developing world. The third are the democracies of the West and the fourth are the “essentially Chinese” societies of Singapore and Hong Kong whom are their equals.

He suggests that Chinese society has little demand for democracy and a deep seated desire for governance by “moral principals”, claiming it are these principals that are the traditional basis of legitimacy rather than God in the European tradition.  There are practical limits to the exercise of moral principals and a modern state requires law instead. He suggests the adoption of several institutions to this end. These include; a revival of impartial civil service exams to prevent patronage or cronyism; making this meritocratic bureaucracy nominally answerable to the Party assembly; construction of an independent judiciary building on the nascent Civil Law system and least palatably to the party, complete freedom of speech.

His distinction between rule of law and democracy is problematic even if we accept his definitions, even his rather vague treatment of the rule of law. Given democracy is the “periodic election of leaders”, there must be some basis that determines this periodic election – a constitution usually. This would make law necessary for any democratic regime that lasts beyond one election. Rule of law is not a complement to democracy, but a necessary condition.When discussing Singapore and Hong Kong he dismisses the idea that law there required British influence by claiming that law fitted neatly with existing Chinese society, even whilst he maintains that democracy is incompatible. He describes the rule of law without democracy on these island as having “existed nowhere else”. This is strange considering he earlier suggested last of his four combinations of law and democracy may once have included Meiji-Taisho-Showa Japan and 19th century Prussia. To these I would venture to add past regimes in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, India…in fact in some form every stable democracy was preceded by the legal prerequisite. He later rebuts the idea that democracy fosters rule of law by claiming “respect for law” long predates American and European democracy. Strangely this is in in the very next paragraph after claiming his model has existed nowhere else, but sees no need to reconcile the two claims.

I suspect that Fukuyama would deem adoption of Rule of Law in China as consistent with his thesis, particularly if the signs of change in Singapore do augur a movement to genuine democracy. There is a problem though. In the recent Origins of Political Order Fukuyama uses a dual definition of rule of law includes the both the concept that everyone is answerable to the consistent laws and the concept that government draws its legitimacy from the law, and is below some law. The latter half presents difficulties for the Pan model.

For instance we can look at a theory of the origins of this kind of rule of law that is rooted in religion, such s Fukuyama describes in Origins. By this take the principal is aided by an experience of temporal power that is separated from the mundane manifestation of religious authority. This way the granting of legitimacy to rule was separated on the worldly plane from those who ruled, a principle that transferred from religion to law. This was the experience in several places. In India the Kshatriya caste who ruled relied on the Brahmin for religious sanction. The the Islamic world after the fall of the Abassid caliphate, temporal rule was held by Sultans whilst religious authority was not. In the Byzantine world the patriarch, although controlled by the emperor, was nonetheless separate. In Western Europe a series of historical accidents, including the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the Investiture Controversy left the church largely autonomous from the holders of temporal power and by the time the latter could retake control, the respect for law had already taken root. India’s religious history made it fertile ground to receive it, as did Eastern Europe and the Islamic world may prove the same.

China however, did not have this history. I am wary of endorsing this theory, but it works within the bounds that Pan is discussing. If he is prepared to use Chinese history to dismiss China’s receptivity to democracy, he must be prepared to consider the same for rule of law. He has, unfortunately, glossed over Chinese intellectual history in order to make it a better fit for imported rule of law. Firstly, the “moral principles” whose historical importance he invokes do not seem as likely to be the complements to law that he hopes. Historically they have been law’s antithesis. Secondly, when law was propounded, the state in its entirety was not answerable to it.

I mentioned earlier that its easy to put Chinese history into a rough dialectic. Whilst there are many schools, the main story is successive forms of Confucianism shaped by a partial synthesis with other schools including Daoism and Mahayana Buddhism, but mainly Legalism.

Pan uses the term Legalism to describe both the use of law in the Chinese tradition and in the West, but this obscures some differences. Legalism in China described how a ruler should use law to shape a populace that could respond only to sticks and carrots. A ruler should set out clear laws, rewards and punishments and apply them consistently. But the ruler is not answerable to the law but its source. It is not a source of legitimacy for the ruler. This was the guiding principal for the Qin dynasty which produced the first emperor and the Sui dynasty which reunified the country after a period of chaos. Both were hugely influential and created templates that lasted for centuries 7, but neither possessed the legitimacy to last very long. It’s influence is felt more in how the forms of Confucianism adopted by the state responded to it.

Pure Confucianism would have no truck with laws at all. A gentleman official  could draw on his own moral principals and sense of what was right and undertake the action that a circumstance required. He had no need of laws to determine what should and should not be done, and applying them when only interfere with good sense. There were moral principles in the shape of social obligations, but their application would be reliant on the official’s good sense. This seems impractical and when there was eventually a Confucian State under the Han dynasty, it had tacitly absorbed much of the formal structure of the Legalist state. It nonetheless maintained it was not beholden to it. The later Tang and Song dynasties would further this synthesis by adopting elements of Sui legalism including the civil examination system giving birth to the Neo-Confucianism that would also be adopted in Korea, Japan and Vietnam 8.

There remained the problem of legitimacy and accountability, which Pan suggests by describing the ability to rebel. This is a tacit reference to the Mandate of Heaven, and it needs expansion since it was the traditional source of legitimacy and it is not merely “moral principals”, or as easy to distinguish from divine right as in Pani’s description. The Heaven (tian ?) in this context might better be rendered as “cosmos”. The latter world comes from the Greek meaning “order” and like tian it applies both to the heavens and the natural order of the universe. The mandate might not come from heaven, but it is from without humanity.

How this makes a polity accountable is somewhat vaguer. If a dynasty held the mandate things went swimmingly, there was not starvation or natural disasters or suffering. If there were these things, the mandate was lost and it was a licence and duty to revolt. The extent to which this was supernatural uncertain. When floods were the result of failed hydraulic systems, then this was a likely sign of poor governance in maintaining them, just as the collapse of buildings in Sichuan a few years ago was taken as evidence of poorly enforced building regulations. But natural disasters could be taken as a sign from the cosmos. Problematically if a revolt failed, then the mandate was still in force, and if it succeeded it was not. Accountability was ultimately to the cosmos, and legitimacy was confirmed merely by maintaining power and the absence of systemic failure.

This doesn’t seem as fertile a soil for worldly law based accountability as Pan would hope. The tradition would suggest a regime that maintains the right to exercise power in whatever ways it deems wise and one legitimised almost entirely on the fact things are going OK and they are maintaining power. This actually sounds a great deal like the contemporary Chinese government.

I do not believe that we can claim a society is uniquely well or ill suited for rule of law or democracy. If I did, I would have to say that if China was ill suited for democracy, it was by the same standards ill suited for law. I suspect that were China to create a legal system to enable rule of law and accountability, it would follow the same road as the other examples of law bound non democracies and end up as a democracy. It may well end up where the other Chinese republic has on Taiwan 9. This would work, but it would not be an challenge to the End of History Thesis.

I still like the game of adopting something foreign to augment native Chinese institutions. An alternative Big Idea would also need grounding in past Chinese practice, just like Pan’s attempt. This both allows a dismissal of “foreign” Liberal Democracy and pleases a rising nationalist pride in Chinese history. This belatedly brings me to the brain fart that started this exercise. If they maintained officialdom that was constrained not by law, but by their sense of what was right, how could these moral principals be strengthened to combat corruption and incompetence, to allow modernity and allow the state to monitor itself?

This requires a diversion into a metaphysical question that plagued intra Confucian debates – are men10 intrinsically good?

The stream that came via Mencius to dominate the school held that men were . They had an inate understanding of what was right. This could be corrupted by external factors however. The common analogy was off a lushly grassed hill that had been overgrazed. Ritual and study was always required to polish the sense of good and maintain its natural shine. The adoption of this was partly in response to the strain in legalism that held that people were of the most base desires, and needed to be shaped by the carrots and heavy sticks of the law. Thinking of people as innately good meant that the touch of government would be less tyrannical. But it causes its own difficulties, not the least of which is that it makes difference of opinion a matter of good and evil as those who disagree with you have obviously been corrupted. This strain of thought was also implicit in Maoism, despite its explicitly anti-Confucian sentiment. The educated, the foreign and the travelled had been corrupted, but the good decent sense had remained in the peasantry.

There was however another thought that held that  men were neither good or bad. This is typified by the preimperial thinker Xunzi. Xunzi was long discredited as his students became legalists, but he is better thought of as a centre that did not hold. In this take men are by nature selfish, but creations of society, including moral principals, could prevent this nature from from being of detriment to society. A gentleman’s morality was created by the company he keeps, not by his nature. Men were selfish, but in company they could become moral.

He was teetering at the brink of writing Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments two millenia before the event. It’s only a short jump to diving that the selfish desire for the esteem of ones peers is what creates moral sentiments in society. Moral Sentiments is already readily quoted amongst the leadership, something that took Nicholas by surprise when he looked at this paper.There’s grounds for a philosophical synthesis that also helps vindicates the economic policy whilst discarding the broader freedom in Smith that might be deemed unsuitable.

The paper finds parallels between broader Confucianism and Smith than I did. It was only when I came to Xunzi that it occurred to me, since its is only here that we find imperfect people that in the right social contexts can be wonderful. By contrast the dominant schools have perfect people stranded in varying degrees of muck. I think there are also other reasons to focus on the narrower stream associated with Xunzi. He makes an attempt to argue his case rather than just presenting aphorisms and appealing to the authority of past practice. Additionally he makes no bones about stripping Heaven of it’s moral judgment. Its mandate is determined by the material effects of government, not by cosmic events. These latter two are much more attractive when you have inclinations to rational argument, which I hope is the case in the modern world.

How would this philosophical synthesis as political practice? How would a Smith-Xunzi synthesis create an officialdom that was constrained not by law, but by their sense of what was right, how could these moral principals be strengthened to combat corruption and incompetence, to allow modernity and allow the state to monitor itself?

The most likely path would build on methods the party already tentatively uses. This includes the bounded criticism of netizens. Competent and uncorrupt officials might desire the esteem of the people more than material gain. They might also fear disapprobation in the form of mockery. This would probably require a more firm understanding in the party and in the public about what speech is free and what is not. This might be supplemented by an environment in which a surfeit of bad feedback lowers esteem within the party, and recognition strengthens it. This adds a career aspect to the mix.

It also allows for bounded protest. Citizens can criticise leadership without attacking it’s legitimacy. The allows a loyal opposition that can call on the leadership to maintain its mandate. When the mandate is defined in purely material terms, feedback and understanding is provided by those who live in this world, rather than cosmic inertia.

Maintaining a term limited system of succession, as has occurred in the past generation can be extended to maintain the longer stability of the regime and some kind of examination system might be readopted to cement a sense of technocracy.

These are possible elements to create a system of accountability and legitimacy with neither elections nor law. It is rooted in a philosophical synthesis that draws on Chinese intellectual history and a foreign tradition that vindicates an economic policy.

Does this seem sustainable to me? No. Not at all really.It’s not just because one would have to selectively ignore much of Smith to take only what suits one’s prejudices – conservatives and liberals in the West have been doing that for yonks – but because power attracts the kid of person we don’t want having power. If a gentleman associates with broken men, he will also become broken. Morality can work for a time, but eventually you’ll get a Steerpike. Short of government by lottery, the best way to mitigate their ill effects is by having reins of law and elections on them.

Nonetheless, I it the most likely and sustainable alternative Big Idea on current estimation.

If I was to venture a prediction, or even a desire, it would probably be that the party embarks along Pan’s desired path, although probably much less smoothly than he hopes. In time this could (with disruptions) morph into something close to Liberal Democracy. National pride means that a River Elegy style call for wholesale embrace of foreign political ideas is unlikely.

Additionally in the English speaking world, full suffrage was resisted for a great deal of time by a prosperous part of the ruled out of fear of the consequences if the Wrong Kind Of Person (proles, blacks, women etc.) was able to vote. The Prosperous Urbanites may fear that those they hold as ignorant and stupid (migrant workers, rural peasants) would elect Maoist demagoguery. The hegemony of the CCP would be security. Perhaps in the long term we’d end up with a bicameral set up. An elected “advisory” assembly to the party assembly; the latter supreme at first, but with power devolving over time to the former, mirroring the history of various parliaments and diets in the West. Or maybe a restricted suffrage, or initially an internal democracy in the party.

To channel my inner TV journo; One thing’s sure, only time will tell.




1 Though the whole thing is fascinating, as are many of the Wednesday lunch talks.

2 Something we wouldn’t expect under a cynical kleptocrat hypothesis. Why sacrifice the worldly for an idea if the ideas are just a lie in order to gain the worldly?

3 This of course should not be taken as condoning the crackdown, but it does help explain what happened.

4I understand that unrest in the interior is more common that casual observers often think.

5 A talented Australian writer who the Australian media establishment (in their resolute mediocrity) saw as best applied to doing ninemsn puff pieces

6 I am on shakier ground here. The barrow pushing in legal origins theory was always distasteful to me, so I tended to steer clear of it even when being advised to read it by an (Austrian school) honours supervisor.

7 The end of the first Qin emperor’s reign also anticipated the 1989 film Weekend at Bernies.

8 This is as good a place as any for a digression on these other countries. Korea and Taiwan do seem to have rule of law, and it is present is relatively unutilised in Japan. Insofar that these are offshoots of Chinese civilisation, this seems contrary to the religious source of rule of law described by Fukuyama. There are tempting hypotheses to explain this within the bounds of that theory. Korea under the Choson dynasty was formally a tributary state, and declined the title of Emperor, instead claiming legitimacy from the Chinese court. For most of the Second Millennium AD temporal power in Japan was exercised by Shogunates that were nominally under a divinely legitimised Emperor. These both echo arrangements elsewhere.

9 Pan does claim that Taiwan enjoyed a natural partisan gulf between mainlanders in the GMD and native born Taiwanese that was suited to a partisan democratic system, and that the mainland lacks a natural divide. I don’t buy this. Divides can be found in any society, the most obvious in China would be a rural-urban divide (amongst many others). The income divide in Australia, though higher than I’d like, is not a staggering split yet it is still the most reliable predictor of party identification.

10 Men, because the school was so terribly patriarchal.

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About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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12 years ago

Thanks Richard, that was interesting.

However, I’m not really sure I agree with one of your first premises:”Not so China. The Party has not replaced it’s revolutionary justification for its hegemony, not even with a liberal veneer.”. As far as I can tell, China has been moving to a more liberal society since year zero for them (say, 1970) — sure there’s no big bang, and maybe it’s not as fast as the Western mind thinks it should be, but it’s certianly happening.

For example, whilst there are still quite a few authoritarian nasties around, they are breaking down with full knowledge of the CCP. For example, we hear a lot about censorship, but by liberalizing information flow (both electronic and allowing people to go places with no cencorship — HK is bursting with Mainlanders, for example), the CCP, with full knowledge of the obvious consequences, has basically allowed more and more free speech (and some one argue, the end of the CCP as we know it). You can already see the consequences of this at the highest level of government — last big Earthquake, for example, you may have seen Wen Jiao Bao actually trying to look like he and the party cared about the carnage, and resources were used to fix it. Would that have happened in 1985 or if there was no real information flow? I don’t think so. The same is probably true about the increasing levels of education the CCP has been happy to promote — once you have a well educated population, which is what you are gettting in China (Grade 6 is now a serious legal minimum, high school is the norm in all the rich provinces and university is becoming more common), you are going to cause problems for yourself since well educated people want more freedom, get sick of corrupt officials harassing them and hence want better laws, etc. .

However, the top level isn’t where all the daily corrpution and annoyances are generally happening — it’s the levels in between. This is where you need to be interested in the minutae to know things are happening. Now I’m not sure how much is really happening, but you can often read about various little experiments with some forms of democracy that has been tried in the lower levels of government (which is where most of the corruption that really causes people problems is), and it’s also the place most likely to benefit from a more democratic system. Someone might correct me on this, but I believe it is now common that people vote for their village head — already a good step in getting rid of one level of corruption. I don’t see why these sorts of things are going to stop or slow down for any reason.

So in the end, I don’t think it’s a Big Idea that is going to change China, it’s going to be a whole pile of little incremental changes that will occur over the decades, many of which are already here and many which will come about as the CCP tries to think of ways to deal with corruption in lower levels of the government (or for that matter, the provincal governments, which can act fairly independently of the top level of government).

Nicholas Gruen
12 years ago

Thanks for an interesting post Richard. Jason soon has written some interesting stuff on similar themes.


[…] When we get down to it, what really was Wilson’s vision of a Eurasian civilisation? Did it encapsulate dual lingualism, or a new synthetic language? Did it incorporate a fusion cuisine like that we call Modern Australian? Did it attempt a merged political philosophy between branches of liberalism and Confucianism? […]