A Tale Of Two Systems

October 7, 2013   

Recorded at Ted Global in Edinburgh, Scotland. Eric introduces himself, saying that he was born in Shanghai at the height of the cultural revolution. He mentions the story he was told when he was young, A grand story that mentions the linear progression and development of human societies, from primitive society, then slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally to communism. He said they were told all societies will end up there at the end, a Utopia. And the Chinese bought it. Disillusioned with life in China, he moved to Berkeley, California to become a hippie.

There, he learns another great story where all human societies, regardless of creed or language, develop in linear progression, progressing from traditional societies where groups form the basic units to modern societies in which atomized individuals are the sovereign units. And they all want one thing — the vote. Cue a slide with a woman on a niqab holding her finger to show she has voted. With the vote, they produce good government and live happily ever after — paradise on Earth. Sooner or later, electoral democracy will be the only political system for all countries and all people, with a free market to make them all rich.
Meanwhile, people are engaged in a struggle of good against evil. Good belongs to those who are democracies, charged with the mission of spreading it around the globe, sometimes by force, against the evil of those who do not hold elections. Cue videos of Bush Snr and Jnr with Obama preaching American idealism, laughter from the crowd at Bush Jnr.

According to Freedom House, the number of countries practicing electoral democracy grew from 45 in 1970 to 115 in 2010. Li laments that Western elites endlessly trot this prospectus around the globe as the path to salvation for the long-suffering developing world. Those who buy it succeed, and those who don’t are doomed to fail. This time he says, The Chinese didn’t buy it. Fool me once, with laughter from the auditorium.

In 30 years, China has gone from one of the poorest agricultural countries in the world to the world’s second largest economy with 650 million people lifted out of poverty, and 80% of the world’s poverty alleviation during this period happened in China. He boasts with all democracies put together, they couldn’t do a mere fraction what a single party did without the vote.

He says the assumptions a lot of people make about China’s one-party system is that it’s operationally rigid, politically closed, morally illegitimate. He argues the opposite – Adaptability, meritocracy and legitimacy.


Li indicates the reforms and self-correction the party undertook in its 64 year history. From radical land collectivization in 1950′s, the Great Leap Forward in late 50′s, Privatization Farmland and the Cultural Revolution in 1960′s, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in 1970′s and 80′s, and Jiang Zemin opening Party membership to private business-people in 1990′s, something he thinks unimaginable during Mao’s rule. The party self-corrects in rather dramatic fashion. He mentions the term-limits enacted by the party to correct previous dysfunctions where party leaders retained the position for life, accumulate power and perpetuate their rule. He recalls Mao’s disastrous mistakes after ruling China for so long. He says the party instituted term-limits with mandatory retirement age of 68-70 years. Li observes one thing he often hears is that “Political reforms have laid far behind economic reforms and China’s in dire need of political reform” Li indicates it’s a rhetorical trap hidden behind a political bias, he says some have decided prior to what kind of changes they want to see, and only then such changes qualifies as political reform. He thinks political reform have never stopped compared to 30 and 20 years ago.


Another assumption is that power gets concentrated in the hands of the few, leading to bad governance and corruption. Li believes the Party is one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world, with only five members out of 25 Politburo members coming from privileged backgrounds, the so-called princelings with the rest including the President and Premier coming from ordinary backgrounds. In the Central Committee of more than 300, the percentage is even smaller. Li concludes the vast majority of senior Chinese leaders worked and competed their way into the top. Li introduces a body little known to Westerners; the Party’s Organization Department, it functions as a giant human resource engine and is made up of rotating pyramid made up of civil services, state enterprises and social organizations. The system forms integrated career tracks for Chinese officials, recruiting college graduates into entry-level positions and promoting them through the ranks, including high officialdom; a process requiring up to three decades. Although he concedes that patronage playing a role, merit is the only underlying driver. He compares President Xi Jinping rise into the top job which took him 30 years and combined experience of managing areas with 150 million population and combined GDP of 1.5 trillion dollars. Li observes without putting down, and as merely a statement of fact that George W. Bush and Obama, before running for president, would not have made small-county chief in China’s system.


Westerners assume that multiparty elections with universal suffrage is the only source of legitimacy. When asked how the Party justifies legitimacy, Li’s response was “How about competency?” He mentions the fact in 1949 before the Party took over, China was mired in civil war and dismembered by foreign aggression, and its average life expectancy was 41. Today, it’s the second largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity. Pew Research polls of public attitudes suggest consistently that citizens are highly satisfied with how the country and nation are progressing. A Financial Times survey of Global youth attitudes recently released suggests that 93% of China’s Generation Y are optimistic about their country’s future. Li wonders If this isn’t legitimacy, he doesn’t know what it is. Contrast this, he suggests, to the dismal performance of many electoral democracies around the world. With few exceptions, the vast number of developing countries who have adopted electoral democracy are still suffering from poverty and civil strife. Li concludes that Governments get elected and then fall below approval a few months later, and stay there or fall until the next election. Democracy is becoming a perpetual cycle of ‘elect and regret. At this rate, democracies and not China’s one party system that is losing legitimacy.

Li acknowledge the country faces enormous challenges: pollution, population issues, food safety, and on the political front, corruption, which is widespread and undermines the system’s moral legitimacy. But most analysts misdiagnose the disease, their argument that the one-party system causes corruption and in order to cure it, you have to do away with the system. With more careful look, According to the Transparency International index of corruption, China has recently ranked between 70 and 80 among 170 countries and moving up, while India, the largest electoral democracy in the world, is at 94 and dropping. Li thinks as a venture capitalist, he has to take risk and predict China’s one party systems future: China to surpass US as largest economy in the world, corruption to be curbed but yet not eliminated and economic reforms to accelerate with political reforms continuing and China’s one party system to hold into power.

Li is not out to make indictment of democracy but speaking against its universal claim many western elites are making about their system — the hubris — at the heart of the West’s common ills, He suggests that if the West spent less time pushing their meta-narrative on others and focusing more on political reform at home, democracy might have a better chance of success.

China’s system does not pretend to be universal — it cannot be exported, But that’s the point precisely, the significance of China’s example is, it provides an alternative and demonstrates that alternatives do exist. “Let us draw to a close this era of meta-narratives. Communism and democracy may be both laudable ideals but their era of dogmatic universalism is over. Let’s stop telling our children there is only one way to govern ourselves and a single future towards all societies must evolve. It’s wrong, it’s irresponsible, and worst of all it’s boring. Let’s let universality make way for plurality. Perhaps a more interesting age is upon us.”

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