Francis Fukuyama: US Democracy Has Little To Teach China

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The papers are filled with US-China stories today, most of them vanilla retreads of old news pieces, replete with a list of major bilateral issues on the agenda for when Presidents Hu and Obama meet in D.C. Weak stuff, just ignore it.

As an alternative, I would strongly suggest a much more enjoyable read, a recent column from Francis Fukuyama, one of the best professors I ever had. The article is not groundbreaking with respect to new ideas, and it is not a way to educate yourself on specific bilateral issues.

What the article does incredibly well is to present, in a very cogent fashion, the old “West vs. East” debate, also known as the “Washington Consensus” versus the “Beijing Consensus.” In still other words, the debate between Western-style democratic capitalism and the China model, which is often described as authoritarian capitalism.

I know that I’ve probably written on this topic 100 times in the past. At the moment, though, lots of folks in China and the US are fixated on bilateral relations and the differences between the two countries. I’ve been grinding my teeth during the past couple of weeks on the way that bilateral relations have been portrayed in the media, particularly the competition between the two nations.

Professor Fukuyama, in a very short column, explains not only how we got to where we are with respect to the US and China’s international standing, but where he sees the “China model” debate going in the future. His conclusions are familiar, but the way he gets there is definitely worth checking out.

He starts off with where we were a decade ago, when the US was riding high, and he then (rather bluntly) explains what went wrong:

The US managed to fritter away that moral capital in remarkably short order: the Iraq war and the close association it created between military invasion and democracy promotion tarnished the latter, while the Wall Street financial crisis put paid to the idea that markets could be trusted to regulate themselves.

This is not the usual “China is eating our lunch” sort of analysis, but a partial explanation of why the Western model has lost some of its luster in recent years. Policy blunders and governance problems in the US have happened contemporaneously with successes in China:

China, by contrast, is on a roll.

[M]any Chinese see their weathering of the financial crisis as a vindication of their own system, and the beginning of an era in which US-style liberal ideas will no longer be dominant. State-owned enterprises are back in vogue, and were the chosen mechanism through which Beijing administered its massive stimulus.

Fukuyama does not have nearly enough space to enlarge the discussion, but I wish that he could have folded in at least a bare-bones comment on the role of the Asian Financial Crisis of ’97/’98. If I could point to one seminal event in the modern debate over the US versus China governance models, it would be the AFC, which China weathered much better than its Asian counterparts Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand — particularly the latter two, which pulled the trigger on Washington Consensus economic policies.

China’s recent rise, however, does not necessarily point to a governance model that can be emulated by others. Fukuyama smacks down this notion in no uncertain terms:

But what is the Chinese model? Many observers casually put it in an “authoritarian capitalist” box, along with Russia, Iran and Singapore. But China’s model is sui generis; its ­specific mode of governance is difficult to describe, much less emulate, which is why it is not up for export.

I’m still surprised at how many folks out there haven’t figured this out. You would think that as the world pays more and more attention to China, particularly since the Olympics in ’08, they would figure out that there is no simple governance blueprint here that can be rolled out and implemented in another country with a completely different history and culture. Not gonna happen, people.

Let’s cut to the chase. Fukuyama is a democracy advocate that believes governance is best when it is directly tied to the general populace. Before stating where he thinks this is all going in China, he first explains the relationship between the government here and Chinese citizens:

Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

This brings to mind my occasional worry about online activism and Rule of Law, that outrage over certain “bad outcome” cases at the local level is on the one hand useful in highlighting injustice, but also potentially damaging in creating an ad hoc system of decision making that undermines the Rule of Law itself.

Fukuyama goes further with this idea and provides a very interesting explanation for why this is happening:

Indeed, the Chinese government often overreacts to what it believes to be public opinion precisely because, as one diplomat resident in Beijing remarked, there are no institutionalised ways of gauging it, such as elections or free media.

This comment makes me even more nervous about Rule of Law and institution building here, but it does make a great deal of sense. I don’t think this issue is going to go away anytime soon, at least not for this blog.

Fukuyama comments on the problem of income inequality as China’s greatest challenge, and uses this discussion to bring up his fundamental problem with governance here:

Today, [the central government] is shifting social spending to the neglected interior, to boost consumption and to stave off a social explosion. I doubt whether its approach will work: any top-down system of accountability faces unsolvable problems of monitoring and responding to what is happening on the ground. Effective accountability can only come about through a bottom-up process[.]

I like the way he has couched this criticism. It is not a nationalistic chest-thumping that proclaims “my system is better,” but a cogent argument based on the mechanics of governance, the interplay between the people and the government that is providing them services. This is not a normative argument, therefore, but a pragmatic one. By the way, Fukuyama also includes tough criticism not only of US foreign and domestic policy, but also the current failings of US governance itself, which he calls “polarized and ideologically rigid.” If anything, that is an understatement.

The bottom line for Fukuyama is that the American system is not working well at all at the moment, and it certainly isn’t something that can be held out as a laudatory model. That being said, he sees some fundamental problems with the system of governance in China and believes that the best approach is through utilization of a “bottom-up” model that allows the government to respond to all of its constituents’ needs in a more efficient manner.

Although Fukuyama does not address bilateral relations directly, one lesson that can be learned from this article is that, and I know this sounds trite and cliched, both sides could learn from the other’s strengths.

9 responses on “Francis Fukuyama: US Democracy Has Little To Teach China

  1. stuart

    Isn’t there a straw man at work here? Surely the idea that the US is trying to teach China something with its brand of democracy is a myth perpetuated by China themselves as an extension of the “why are they always moralising/lecturing us” fallacy. This, in turn, feeds the voracious appetite that Beijing has for playing the victim. I aint buying,

    1. Stan Post author

      No, that’s not really the issue. The US government doesn’t really do that with China these days, at least not the White House or State Department.

      The context here is the scholarly/media debate over the “China model” versus Western-style democracy. This has been an ongoing discussion for a long time now (I would argue since the late ’90s) among journalists and academics in the fields on economics, international relations, and political economy.

  2. pug_ster

    I don’t think it is really about democracy/authoritorian issue, but rather issue is if there is a disconnect between the government and its people. The revolt at Tunisia is an example. As long as the Chinese government keeps its social and economic reforms, it will keep its people mostly content.

    1. Stan Post author

      I’m with you on that (and not with Fukuyama). I think as long as the government gives most of the people what they need, things will be relatively stable. That’s a pretty big “if” though.

      1. Rogier C.

        What they need, or what they want? And how to deal with distributive aspects? The whole idea of “some areas getting rich first”, was based on the premise that they would be drivers of comprehensive growth. In an number of provinces, and on the urban/rural divide, this has not happened. After 33 years of gaige kaifang, will patience run out at some point?

  3. King Tubby

    A thoughful read. It IS about the mechanics of governance, particularly at the county and township level in China, and I think that rural Chinese folk at the bottom of the great chain of being don’t give a rats about the big picture stuff, and are more concerned about banal things like educating their children, not experiencing serious illness and the price of daily staples.

    Since the ‘if’ word was mentioned, this caught my attention:

    An employee at the Wuzhou Chinese medicine hospital said 18 people had been admitted for gunshot wounds. But she refused to say who shot the patients.

    A policeman in Wuzhou’s Changzhou district confirmed that a protest had taken place involving workers’ pay.

    Another official at Wuzhou’s public security bureau said more than 100 people had “illegally demonstrated.”

    “Our police went out and asked them not to do so,” he said.

  4. Henry

    The big question is why is the Chinese government relatively accountable to its citizens but other authoritarian governments are not? What makes a China and what makes a Zimbabwe?

    1. Rogier C.

      I think a part of the answer might be found in the legitimacy of rule. Mugabe in Zimbabwe was one of the leaders of the liberation movement against the white minority government, giving him enormous amounts of political capital. You see a similar thing with the ANC in South Africa, for example.

      Don’t forget: the same has been true for China for a long time. On the basis of revolutionary credentials, the CCP stayed in power throughout the Great Leap Forwards and the Cultural Revolution. One of the reasons for reform was the realization that – with the passing of a large amount of first generation leaders, and don’t forget Deng himself was already 74 in 1978 – the Party needed to realize a transition to become a governing party, or the risk of toppling would become very real. And that would mean at least some form of accountability.

  5. King Tubby

    Rogier C. You are right regarding the enormous amount of political capital enjoyed and then squandered by Mugabe, even with very conservative PMs in my neck of the global woods and with mandarins in the British Foreign Office.

    Re: the collapse of the CPC, here is an interesting read by the author of The Party, who like Assange, hails from Oz.

    He offers the odds which would allow you to open a Las Vegas sports book on regime change in the PRC.