The reforms that count tend to conform to the western model, writes Martin Jacques

In the west there is an underlying assumption that the Achilles heel of China is its political system. Since the country lacks western-style democracy, its system of governance is unsustainable. Ultimately, China will be obliged to adopt our kind of political system.

Yet China’s governance system has been remarkably successful for more than three decades. It has presided over the greatest economic transformation in modern history.

The state is highly competent, able to think strategically, while at the same time pragmatic and experimental. It has presided over rapidly rising living standards and enjoys a great deal of popular support. The idea that sooner or later – the western assumption has generally been sooner – public support will evaporate is farfetched. On the contrary, with economic growth still rapid and living standards rising similarly, it seems more likely that the regime will enjoy growing rather than declining support.

We should not, however, regard support for the regime as simply a function of economic growth. It has become almost axiomatic in the west to believe that democracy is the sole source of a regime’s legitimacy. This is mistaken. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies deep in the country’s history. Along with the family, the state is one of the two most important institutions. For at least two millennia the state has been seen as the guardian and embodiment of Chinese civilisation. This is the key source of its legitimacy.

Some of the other characteristics of the state – the emphasis on meritocracy, state competence and an essentially familial concept of the relationship between the state and the people – are similarly deeply rooted.

When the state has functioned poorly, then so has China, the classic example being during the century of humiliation from the first opium war to 1949. The Communist party’s achievement in recent decades has, not least, been its reinvention of the state and the restoration, in a modern context, of its main historical characteristics – its pivotal status, competence, meritocracy, legitimacy and efficacy – following their disastrous decay over the previous century.
There is a tendency to see Chinese government as unchanging. This is because in the west the only reforms that we really count are those that appear to move the country towards the western model. In fact, government has been through huge and constant reform since 1978, far greater than anything that has taken place in the US or the UK. It is inconceivable that the Chinese state could have masterminded such a huge economic transformation if it too had not been the subject of profound reform. This process will continue, probably even more dramatically.

Rather than dismiss the Chinese governing system as fragile and tenuous, we need to understand what has been, by the standard of the past three decades, an extraordinarily successful institution, one that the world will increasingly come to recognise it must learn from.

Hitherto it has been assumed that China, rather than western democracies, will face chronic problems of governance. We have become deeply ahistorical about western democracy, viewing it as some kind of eternal and ideal solution to the problem of governance. Yet it is clear that American democracy has become increasingly dysfunctional, short-term, polarised and subject to capture by vested interests, in particular the 1 per cent.

There are strong historical reasons for believing that western democracies may face a difficult and uncertain future. Their past success has been based on two underlying conditions: firstly, the fact that the west has for at least two centuries dominated the world, bringing huge economic advantages and bestowing on their political elites great status and prestige; and secondly, their populations have for a long time enjoyed rising living standards. Neither can be relied upon in the future.

The west is in decline, Europe rampantly so. Some estimates suggest that by 2030 China could account for a third of global output and be twice the size of the US economy. American power would then be a pale shadow of what it is today. This is bound to affect how the American people regard their political elite and political system. Furthermore, with strong evidence that living standards have been static for many people in the US and western Europe, the outlook is uncertain.

Rising powers tend to enjoy strengthening domestic support, while declining ones incur their citizens’ discontent. We should not discount the possibility that the problems of governance will become more acute in the west than China.