Is China better at picking leaders than the U.S.?

November 9, 2012

President Obama shakes hands with next Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the White House. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and China, perhaps the world's two most important countries, are both choosing their leaders this week. China's Communist Party Congress is expected to elevate Vice President Xi Jinping to a 10-year term running the nation of 1.3 billion.

The timing invites comparison, and the question of which system is better at selecting a leader is a big one this week. To that end, NPR's Louisa Lim recently moderated a formal debate between advocates of both sides. Since then, a few other writers have weighed in as well.

The argument seems to boil down to two separate questions. The first: which system is better at providing incentives for leaders to make more competent choices? The case for China is that its leaders can emphasize long-term planning and difficult decisions over short-term politics and voter-appeasement. The case for America is that its democratic system is more accountable, checks the power of its leaders, and allows for dissent – something that, in China, has at times led to instability and human rights abuses.

The fact that the Chinese system doesn't really incorporate popular will – it either resists it or, at best, happens to coincide with it – would seem to suggest that the American system has a significantly greater degree of legitimacy and thus authority, even if the Chinese version is better at implementing that authority.

One Western writer, economist Martin Jacques, argues at BBC Magazine that China's government enjoys American levels of legitimacy because Chinese citizens see it "as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact ... not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves." But, while China's boosters might believe this, the Communist Party itself doesn't seem to: families squabble, and grandma or whoever is in charge doesn't feel the need to crush the kids' ability to complain. Dad doesn't make it a state secret when he goes missing for two weeks out of fear that he'll come home and the family will no longer recognize his paternal legitimacy. The out-of-town cousins don't set themselves on fire because grandpa won't let them leave the family.

The second question gets to a premise of just about every debate about the Chinese system: should the country's leaders be held to different standards because of the unique challenges that come with governing China? It's an argument about relatives: China is much more populous than any other country, so, according to this thinking, it requires tougher measures to keep everyone together; lifting China out of poverty requires strong state control of the economy, which is worth the greater risk of corruption; the country has a darker-than-usual history with instability, so the state is defensible in emphasizing stability more and human rights less; speaking of human rights, China is improving, so it would be unfair to judge the country on Western standards.

This one is trickier. It is true that, particularly since Deng Xiaoping's 1992 "southern tour" to open up parts of the country to economic liberalization, rights and living standards have improved vastly in China. The country's model has been remarkably successful in this regard. Still, lots of countries are difficult to govern. Is there much reason to believe that only China's single-party system could have accomplished what it did? The United States, the world's third most populous country and perhaps even more diverse than China, had its own difficult rise in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The American system seemed to serve America's rise pretty well. Brazil, an enormous and diverse country, found its greatest success not under decades of dictatorship but under the democratic leadership of President Itamar Franco and his successors.

No government or system is perfect, of course. But the forces of history seem to be moving fairly decisively, with the exception of some recent stalls, in the direction of democracy. In global terms, democratic development seems to coincide pretty consistently with economic development and political stability. China is unique in many ways, but it's susceptible to same basic forces as every other country in the world.

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