China’s Challenge: Only Free Expression Can Make a One-Party System Work


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

China has two key challenges in the years ahead. The first is to build a new, global rules-based system with the other major world power, the United States, that supplants the post-WWII order. The second is to consolidate the rule of law within China. The challenge in both cases is to create a stable and fair playing field for all — by resisting hegemonic ambition and the use of force in international affairs and by restraining the abuse of power and privilege at home.

Beyond these challenges, China’s leaders ought to recognize that the key to making a one-party political system function effectively in the information age is robust feedback from the public. Limiting open expression will weaken, not strengthen, the Party’s authority.

The Global Challenge. The post-war period of American-led Globalization 1.0 — the security, stability and openness of which enabled the rise of China and the other emerging economies — has now given way to Globalization 2.0, an interdependence of plural identities where no one power dominates.

Interdependence, however, does not govern itself, and neither China nor the U.S. can do it alone. America may no longer be the sole superpower, but a post-American order does not mean a “no-America” order anymore than it means China will rule the world as the new hegemon.

For China, America is the indispensable partner, and vice- versa, in reconstructing a stable and inclusive order for the 21st century. If these two top powers do not buy into a global rules-based system that works for all, the world is destined once again to break up into divisive blocs, undermining everyone’s future.

Partnership is easier said than done. When I met President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year along with other members of the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council, he himself raised the peril of the “Thucydides trap” — the historical tendency of rising and established powers to clash as Athens and Sparta did in ancient times.

berggruen instituteBerggruen Institute 21st Century Council members meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, November, 2013

And unlike the trans-Atlantic order now receding, which was bound together by common cultural and political foundations, the U.S. and China come from very different civilizational roots. A “cross-civilizational” partnership is unprecedented.

The Middle Kingdom has defined itself by its centrality and uniqueness in the world going back millennia; America’s comparatively young identity is associated with universality and the mission of spreading its values. As Henry Kissinger has also noted, China’s geopolitical model, limited historically to East Asia, has always been that of a dominant power surrounded by tributaries. By contrast, the U.S., following the experience of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia gave birth to the nation-state, has managed its international relations through seeking a balance of power globally. Kissinger is no doubt right that, in today’s linked world, partnership must be a part of the balance of power in any new geopolitical arrangement. Both sides must trust, but verify.

If a trans-Pacific partnership is going to work, as Fu Ying, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, told Kissinger in a recent dialogue, America must be able to accept China as “an equal brother.” But that goes both ways: China must also step up to the plate with a global perspective of its responsibility that it has never had as a regional power.

The Xi-Obama deal on curbing climate change announced at the APEC Summit in November is a welcome, even historic, step in this direction. Hopefully, this precedent bodes well for active cooperation in a range of other areas, from cyberwar curbs to freedom of navigation in the seas to nuclear non-proliferation and even joint efforts to stabilize the Middle East.

For China, the “mutual respect” that would undergird any partnership means recognition by the U.S. of the legitimacy of its one-party political system. This is not a sharp edge of conflict, but it always shades the background of every other aspect of the U.S.-China relationship.

Regime change or fomenting a “color revolution” in China is not an active U.S. policy, as many in Beijing seem to think. But it is an ideological expectation of the worldview of America’s political class which continues to believe that China is “on the wrong side of history.” No leading American politician would today publicly acknowledge that China’s system of governance — despite pronounced flaws not unlike democracy itself — is not only legitimate but admirable in key respects, notably the capacity to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty in only three decades.

Absent this kind of objective acknowledgement — or “symmetry of validity” — that changes the narrative, a “cold war” taste will continue to sour the idea of a new relationship. It holds back any fuller embrace and raises suspicions over every initiative.

Americans must understand that Chinese will less defensively and less resentfully accept criticism at home or from abroad if it is rooted in this basic recognition of legitimacy and is not seen as a ruse, a plot or a conspiracy to overturn their system of governance. The U.S. could also benefit from seeing the limitations of its own model of multi-party democracy through the prism of the successful aspects of China’s governance and stop seeing itself, as Reinhold Niebuhr chastised, “as the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.”

“America should stop seeing itself as ‘the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.’”

Nearly half a century after the U.S. opening to China, it is time to come to terms with this issue because it is enduringly corrosive.

If the political class in the U.S. would look honestly and less ideologically at the whole world scene, it would see that China is more socially aligned with America’s goals — scientific development, the opportunity of upward mobility for all its citizens, and in particular, the advancement of women “who hold up half the sky” — than others with whom America clashes around the globe.

Unlike Russia, which is run in the interests of its “OILgarchy” and lately taken on a Czarist cast, or political Islam, China does not embrace a defensive or retrograde ideology. On the contrary, it is pragmatically engaged in a project of cultural, political and social reconstruction that aims to move the nation into the future, not the past. When much of the world today is reactionary or “elderly and haggard,” as Pope Francis has said of Europe, China and the U.S. are focused on the future. That future will be better for both if they work together to shape it.

The Domestic Challenge. The rule of law and judicial independence are not insidious Trojan horses of the West that seek to undermine the Communist Party. They are pillars of good governance everywhere because they protect the average person from abuse by the powerful and privileged — particularly from the kind of arbitrary exercise of authority seen during the Cultural Revolution as well as the pervasive corruption of the past decade when rapid growth hurled China into the top ranks of the global economy.

Singapore is a good example of how the rule of law strengthens the authority of the state, above all by cleaning up corruption.

Certainly, China is seeking to construct these foundational pillars on historical soil of a very different composition than that of the West. Just as the Middle Kingdom always ruled as a central power with tributaries instead of through geopolitical balance, so too the state in China has always been unitary and not characterized by a division of powers as in the modern West. The rise of civil society and the separation of powers in the West was the consequence of an historical conflict between religious and political authority that never occurred in China.

The urgent impulse to construct the “rule of law” in modern China instead came in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. When I sat down for an interview with Qiao Shi in 1997 during the time he was the head of the National People’s Congress, here is how he put it:

It was from the bitter experience of the Cultural Revolution that, by the end of the 1970s, we began to stress the need to improve the legal system and law, to maintain stability and continuity in this system of law and make it very authoritative.

According to the constitution of China, all power in the country belongs to the people, and the people exercise state power through the National People’s Congress and local people’s congresses at various levels.

To ensure that the people are the real masters of the country, that state power is really in their hands, we must strengthen these institutions and give them full play.

Presaging the prosecution of both Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang — and President Xi’s general campaign against “tigers and flies” — Qiao Shi told me then that “No organization or individual has the prerogative to override the constitution or the law.”

The phrase “rule of law” was enshrined for the first time in the Chinese constitution when it was amended in 1999 as the result of the efforts of Qiao Shi and others.

As Xin Chunying, Vice-Chairperson of the NPC Legislative Affairs Committee wrote recently in The WorldPost: “China has had a long history and a tradition of rule by man. Turning towards rule of law takes time and arduous effort. Now, 15 years after the constitutional amendment, the country still falls short of achieving its target of rule of law.”

It is a good sign that the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in October was devoted, for the first time, entirely to advancing the rule of law. President Xi’s biggest domestic challenge will be to bring Party disciplinary actions against corruption in line with prosecution by the government based on laws promulgated by the NPC and adjudicated in clean courts.

Robust Feedback is Key for a One-Party System. The strength of China’s political system is its ability to forge consensus and unity of purpose within one party through wide consultation and debate instead of dividing the body politic through competitive multi-party elections. When cronyism is under control, leaders are promoted based on experience and capability. That in turn allows the development of policies with the long-term and common good in mind and enables sustained implementation of those policies over the long haul.

It is this system that accounts for the Chinese miracle. While China today is connecting 80 percent of its cities with 8,000 miles of high speed rail, democratic India, by contrast, still can’t provide toilets for half of its population.

The present system is heir — in its ideal form — to China’s 2,000 year-old “institutional civilization,” where selection of leaders based on meritocratic competition has played the same central role historically as competitive elections in the West.

The downside of such a system, of course, is that it can too easily become hidebound and corrupt, turning the meritocratic ideal into rule by a self-interested, insular and self-perpetuating autocracy.

For it to work properly, there must be robust feedback loops — relatively open expression — and a legal system that can reliably prosecute corruption and arbitrary use of power.

In this context, the crackdown on the Internet seems misconceived. Fearing the fate of the Soviet Communist Party, which collapsed under Gorbachev, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to curb the “glasnost” — or transparency — that Weibo, WeChat and the rest has enabled.

By doing so, paradoxically, the Party risks inviting the very fate it seeks to avoid. When the veil was lifted on the lies and false claims of the Soviet party, there was nothing left. China could not be more different. In China, the emperor does have clothes because the Party and government have performed for society over the past 30 years.

Indeed, “glasnost with Chinese characteristics” could bolster the Party instead of weaken it if it openly allows the public to air its concerns and responsively addresses them. If a governing system is geared to delivering for its people, criticism fortifies legitimacy because it assures an avenue for self-correction.

In today’s wired planet, everyone knows what is happening in the world around them and shares that with others. Trying to censor reality will only further undermine the governing narrative, not strengthen its authority.