CHINA’s most important political event — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress that happens once every five years — opened this week in Beijing.
The congress will chart China’s increasingly world-shaping trajectory for the coming five years. It will also mark a sort of mid-term review for President Xi Jinping who, incidentally, wields the politically vital position of general secretary of the ruling party.
Xi presides over the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, which is effectively China’s top decision-making body. Changes of personnel to this and other party organs, which will later be reflected in changes to personnel in China’s government, will be endorsed by the party congress.
China has, of course, been transformed by leaps and bounds within a single generation, which is why so much global attention is focused on political goings-on in Beijing this week. The country is now the second most powerful country in the world in economic and military terms, and governing a nation of nearly 1.5 billion people (never easy at the best of times) gets ever more complex.
But, China’s political leadership transition has now become structured and institutionalised, with its top-most leaders staying in office for fixed 10-year terms. Which only means its politics has also become much more predictable and stable even compared with the supposedly stable and advanced democracies which have, in just the past year, dealt us the politically-startling election of Donald Trump as United States president and the British vote to exit the European Union.
If elections in democracies throw up leaders ill-suited and ill-prepared for office, and in the fullness of time bring about a thorough discrediting of the entire political process and its capacity to effect any meaningful, let alone transformative change, China’s deliberate and plodding politics may have much going for it.
China’s modern-day politics is at root a selection, not an election, process. And, in the course of a few decades, that selection process for its national leaders, combined with grassroots democracy at the local level, has undergone a refinement process that is now perfected into almost a fine art.
Critics allege China’s political selection process is opaque and secretive. But, its leaders undergo rigorous training and much practice at lower levels following and being adjudged based on well-publicised performance criteria before they rise to national prominence.
It is, thus, a contemporary adaptation of the ancient imperial system of open and competitive examinations for selection into China’s bureaucratic coterie of mandarins.
CCP’s political legitimacy today rests on its competence in governing China and leading its economic juggernaut to ever greater heights. On that score, its political leadership selection process has indisputably served the country well.
This provides China with a political system that is probably much more popular than anyone (most notably sceptical foreigners) gives it credit for. A system that inoculates politics from the scourge of populism, now running rampant in many of the advanced democracies, and which delivers economically may be one which other countries may increasingly be interested to take a look at.
As Daniel A. Bell noted in a preface to his path-beating book, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, “If China were to become an electoral democracy, the CCP might still be in power, but any demagogue without political experience could become leader: a Communist Donald Trump who threatens to expropriate the rich, declare war against Japan and roll back measures to deal with climate change might become the next Chinese president. Even able and moral leaders need to worry about the next election and make decisions influenced by short-term political considerations that bear on their chances of getting reelected”.
The danger is that those who unquestioningly accept electoral democracy as the default system for all humanity without exception will mistake efforts — however, haltingly initially — towards political meritocracy as lurching towards autocracy and will seek to reverse it. An increasingly confident and assertive China may not take this lying down, seeding the future with the potential for serious global discord.
As Bell suggests, ideally, we should all come to accept “One World, Two Systems”, a hitherto unheard-of global political pluralism through which humanity benefits from healthy competition between two sets of political-governance concepts.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak