The leadership turnover in China has taken place in a shifting political situation. There have been increased calls for more political accountability and multi-candidate elections, broader media freedom and financial reform. We need to watch this closely. The behaviour of Chinese leadership for change will determine whether China will continue its phenomenal ‘rise’ or will it be hampered by the intransigence on part of its leadership.

Let’s take a closer look at the context:

The Arab Spring has prompted many to ask whether China will be the next to be swept along in a wave of popular unrest. Indeed, the Chinese leadership, both incumbent and previous, have been watching the situation closely. This is justified considering that President Xi Jinping assumed power at a time when social media had become a real force. These new forms of communication played a phenomenal role in the Arab uprisings. Now, half a billion Chinese are registered on Sina Weibo; a website much like Twitter. This online platform has served ‘netizens’ to voice their complaints ranging from governance malfunctions and corruption to food and environmental issues.

This raises inevitable questions. Is the bid for democratic reform a matter of time? Might the prediction of an ‘end of history’ and of a uniform move in the direction of liberal democracy make a comeback? Or, might there be other sustainable alternatives?

Under the current Chinese model ‘with a meritocratic bureaucracy and self-enforced leadership turnover ‘ people are materially better off. This has happened in a short period of time, generating a great deal of optimism. Yet, there are two things to consider:

(i)    Whether the Chinese governance model can still be preserved in the long term

(ii) Whether it is sustainable in a world of greater connectivity and deepening global interdependence

The ‘Chinese model’ is built around a long tradition of meritocratic recruitment, civil service examinations, high emphasis on education and deference to technocratic authority. Some of these factors may be a source of dynamism that may give the Chinese state the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

Yet, weaknesses abound. The dignity of Chinese citizens is violated by land seizures and unfair compensation. Forced relocation to make way for development projects is common. China also faces serious healthcare, environmental and demographic challenges. Water and air pollution, for instance, depict the price of China’s meteoric rise.

In this context, rapid growth may buy social peace for the time being; but in the long run, public outrage may be more difficult to contain. The growth of a middle class inevitably leads to shifting values and demands.

A government based on dignity

The sustainability of any political order depends on the guarantee of human dignity for all people, at all times and under all circumstances. Dignity here means much more than just the absence of humiliation. Its nine-fold metric consists of an accountable government, reason, security, human rights, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation and inclusiveness. It is also more inclusive than just the insistence on ‘political freedom’ which is central to current forms of liberal democracy.

Adopting sensible and inclusive reforms provides guard against various forms of disenfranchisement. Rather than being utopian or idealistic, such steps are pragmatic and serve realist state interests. Addressing dignity is not a question of political concessions or liberal bias, but of meeting fundamental human needs.

Therefore, sustainable reforms do not have to imply a transition to mainstream liberal democracy. Rather than insisting that Western-type liberal democracy is the ultimate form of governance, we need to envisage alternative and feasible governance models that go beyond aspiring for ‘freedom’ and prioritize human dignity.

China has a long way to go. Public policy fails to address issues of social welfare and protection of human rights. Some people are held accountable; but this comes from the top-down and rules are hardly enforced uniformly. China has a dynamic economy that has lifted many people out of poverty, but stark disparities remain and inequality rates are at levels comparable to those of Russia and the Philippines.

Learning from others

This ‘dignity deficit’ could be China’s Achilles’ heel. Armed with social media, the young people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya revolted because their governments failed to respect and ensure the collective dignity of their citizens. The accumulation of collective dignity deficits were bound to translate into a level of frustration and discontent that ultimately could not be contained. If China is different, it is because it is able to deliver on economic development for the time being, even if wealth is unevenly distributed. But the winds of change are bound to blow eastward.

Thus, it is not only economic reform that is urgent, but reforms targeting corruption and addressing the wider popular call for fairness too are  direly needed. The Third Plenum did open a new era of political changes in the sense that it altered some of the domestic institutional structure by establishing the National Security Committee and the Central Reform Leading Group, mandated to guide the national security and economic policy. Such institutional changes are simply tectonic as they will recalibrate the internal political forces, making the two bodies operate under the authority of the party’s Politburo and its standing committee.

Social unrest still remains a possibility. This should encourage the leadership to proceed to consequential reforms and changes in a way that may not necessarily lead to the culmination of a Western-type liberal democracy. The alternative may rest in a tactful yet significant and dignity-driven evolution of the present system.

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