The real test of governing systems is not their performance over a brief period like the last seventy years, but over a much longer historical period. For the last two millennia, the Chinese system of governance has been far superior to all others. The West insists that its system of democracy cannot be improved upon and is of universal application, China included. There are, however, strong reasons to believe that the future of Western democracy is far from certain. Certainly over the last four decades it has been out-performed by China’s governance.
Nowhere is the difference between China and the West more evident than in their systems of governance. Since 1945 the typical form of Western governance has been universal suffrage and a multi-party system. This has been the West’s main calling card for over 70 years. It believes that every country – most certainly including China – should adopt the Western system. There is nothing surprising about this. For two centuries, the West has believed in its own universalism: that its governing system is the model for all others. It holds, with a religious-like fervor, that Western democracy is the highest form of governance which cannot possibly be improved upon.
A little historical context is needed at this point. Between 1918 and 1939, we should recall that democracy existed in only a small minority of Western nations, most notably the US and the UK. Furthermore, there must be serious doubts about the prospects for Western democracy. Even in the United States, regarded in the West as the home of democracy, its future is far from guaranteed. The January 6th insurrection on Capitol Hill marked the greatest threat to democracy since the US Civil War. Trump’s commitment to democracy remains in severe doubt. The US example is the starkest, but in a range of countries, including France and Italy, democracy is under serious pressure. The reason is that Western democracy does not live in a vacuum: its relative endurance since 1945 was a product of specific historical conditions, most notably economic growth, rising living standards and Western ascendancy. Since 1980, and especially 2008, all of these have come under growing challenge. In an era of palpable Western decline, Western democracy faces a troubled and uncertain future.
The belief that Western democracy is universally applicable is at its most absurd when it comes to China. Chinese governance and statecraft are the oldest and most successful the world has ever seen. Francis Fukuyama argues, furthermore, that Chinese governance has displayed greater continuity over two millennia than any other. China’s history and culture is profoundly different from that of the West, and its governing system has been and remains the most important expression of this difference.
The effectiveness of China’s governing system has been abundantly clear since 1949, and especially 1978. A combination of far-sightedness and pragmatism has been responsible for the most remarkable economic transformation in human history. China increasingly ranks on a par with the United States to the extent that it is now regarded by the latter as a threat to its global ascendancy. China’s governing system, long derided in the West, has emerged as a formidable challenger to America’s democratic system. Over the last 40 years, there is no question which has been more effective and which has delivered most for its people.
A fundamental Western criticism of China’s governing system is that, as a one-party system, it does not offer choice; that only a multi-party system, with the alternation of parties in power, ensures this. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The transition from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping saw a huge shift in policy and philosophy, with the embrace of the market, alongside the state and planning, and the rejection of relative isolation in favor of China’s integration with the world. The change was more profound and far-reaching than any undertaken by a Western democracy since 1945; and the Chinese Communist Party was solely responsible for it. In other words, a one-party system, certainly in its Chinese form, is capable of offering more choice – including very far-reaching choices – than any Western democracy. Over the last four decades, moreover, the Chinese system has been characterized by a constant process of reform and renewal that stands in sharp contrast to the ossification that has typified Western democracies.
Finally, the real test of governing systems is not their performance over a brief period like the last 70 years, but that over a much longer historical period. The latter reveals a most extraordinary feature of Chinese governance. Over the last two millennia, China has enjoyed five separate periods when it has enjoyed a position of pre-eminence – or shared pre-eminence – in the world: part of the Han, the Tang, arguably the Song, the early Ming, and the early Qing. In other words, China has demonstrated, over a very long historical period, an extraordinary capacity to reinvent itself. Five times, to be exact. Other civilizations may have done it once, twice at the most, but none have done it five times. It is unlikely in the extreme that the UK will achieve this again, nor I would wager the US. Yet, China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, now stands on the eve of becoming the world’s pre-eminent country for a sixth time. History demonstrates that China has a remarkable ability to reinvent itself in a manner that no other country or civilization has succeeded in doing; a testament to the strength, resilience and dynamism of Chinese civilization and its governing capacity.