Daniel A. Bell, Global Viewpoint
The purge of
Or so we are told. Such predictions about the collapse of
The key reason such dire predictions are taken seriously -- especially in the West -- is that non-democratic regimes are seen to lack legitimacy. A political regime that is morally justified in the eyes of the people must be chosen by the people. In the case of
But this view assumes the people are dissatisfied with the regime. In fact, the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party state structure. Since the 1990s, scholars in the West and
How can it be that the Chinese government managed to achieve a high level of political legitimacy without adopting free and fair competitive elections for the country's leaders? However paradoxical it may sound to Westerners, the Chinese government has succeeded by drawing upon sources of non-democratic legitimacy.
The first source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed performance legitimacy, meaning that the government's first priority should be the material well-being of the people. This idea has deep roots in
Hence, the government derives much, if not most, of its legitimacy by its ability to provide for the material welfare of Chinese citizens. It has substantially increased the life expectancy of Chinese people, and the reform era has seen perhaps the most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty.
The second source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed political meritocracy: the idea that political leaders should have above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. It too has deep historical roots. In Imperial
Political surveys have shown that Chinese still endorse the view that it is more important to have high-quality politicians who care about the people's needs than to worry about procedural arrangements ensuring people's rights to choose their leaders. In recent decades, the
The third source of non-democratic legitimacy is nationalism. An important part of legitimacy can be termed "ideological legitimacy": The regime seeks to be seen as morally justified in the eyes of the people by virtue of certain ideas that it expresses in its educational system, political speeches and public policies. The CCP was, of course, founded on Marxist principles, but the problem is that few believe in the communist ideal anymore. Hence, the regime has increasingly turned to nationalism to secure "ideological legitimacy."
Nationalism has more recent roots in
In short, it should not be surprising that the CCP is widely seen to be legitimate in the eyes of the people, and barring unforeseen events there is no reason to expect imminent collapse of the regime. But the key word is "imminent." In the absence of substantial political reform,
First, performance legitimacy varies according to economic conditions.
In fact, the real trouble may occur once
Second, the emphasis on political meritocracy does not just refer to rulers with ability, but also to rulers with above-average virtue. In the past, political leaders had moral legitimacy by virtue of their perceived commitment to Confucian values. Today, however, political leaders are widely seen to be morally corrupt and lacking any serious commitment to an ethical system that constrains their selfish desires. At the moment, most of the popular anger is directed at lower-level corrupt officials, but the Bo case points to rot at the top.
The leaders are also seen to be responsible for the moral state of the whole nation. If nothing is done to improve perceptions of widespread moral collapse, they may not be able to resist calls for wholesale change of leadership. Hence, there is a need for more ethical education in the training of officials as well as society at large.
Third, a form of nationalism that draws on the emotion of resentment to strengthen the state makes less sense as
There is still a legitimate role for nationalism, but it needs to take a more humane form. Hence, Chinese "cultural nationalists" have been calling for the revival of traditional Confucian values such as social harmony and compassion. Just as Americans take pride in "American" values such as freedom and democracy, so Chinese can take pride in "Chinese" values. The challenge, as always, will be to minimize the gap between the ideals and the reality, but any decent society needs some guiding ideals.
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(c) 2012 Global Viewpoint Network; Distributed by Tribune Media Services