A new model for democracy: Expansion and liberalisation of Chinese leadership

China’s journey ahead may be a bumpy one, as it struggles to expand its bottom line, strengthen its political relationships and tighten its noose around corruption. However, some critics argue that China’s way of liberalising its leadership and introducing more democratic governance could cement its lead in shaping the world’s political and economic order.

China needs to build on its tradition of political meritocracy and practise more liberalisation to develop a new model of democracy. This was the shared view of a panel discussion at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Debating on the topic, ‘Should China become more democratic, or should democracies become more like China?’, Professor John Dunn, Emeritus Professor at Cambridge University, Professor Bai Tongdong, Professor of Philosophy at Fudan University, and Professor Ci Jiwei, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, looked at how China could maintain its growth.

They highlighted the need for China to represent its leadership in new ways and the unlikelihood of it adopting Western democracy. They also noted what the West could better learn from the Chinese.

China renewed: A new representation of Chinese leadership

The Chinese Communist Party has withstood socioeconomic changes and advanced the country’s economy through sound management of its powerful networks, resources and opportunities.

However, China has faced irregularities with politicians manning state-owned enterprises, imbalanced investments in manufacturing and real estate, and surging labour costs that have caused problematic unrest, according to the Financial Times.

To counteract these problems, Professor Ci argued for a new leadership that is transparent, committed and restrained. He said that this is required if China is to play a more stable and sustainable role in the new global order.

China’s messaging about its meteoric rise will need to be more tactical to gain more global appeal, according to The New York Times. Chinese propaganda experts should portray China’s political system in a more flattering light if the Communist Party wishes to remain in power.

Chinese media is also expected to ‘tell China’s story well‘ by portraying the Chinese political system as one that is meritocratic, efficient and superior to Western democracy.

Domestically, Professor Bai highlighted, the majority of the Chinese population has always unquestioningly accepted government policies as long as promises are fulfilled. This has left the country with a contented citizenry, albeit uncertain as to how the government can maintain this satisfaction and continue to placate the Chinese population.

Professor Bai pointed out that as such, a hybrid regime combining meritocracy and democracy could be a more effective evaluation method of China’s political progress.

However, others are less optimistic about the meritocracy model. Author and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University Timothy Garton Ash commented in The Atlantic that political meritocracy may be untenable in the long term, due to China’s slowing economic growth, ageing society, and a more educated younger generation that harbours increasingly sophisticated aspirations beyond prosperity.

To paint this emerging class a compelling picture of leadership, the Chinese Communist Party will need to change how it represents itself. It will need to appear responsive to popular opinion in order to strengthen its influence and, similar to struggles in the U.S. and the UK, find outlets to channel the dissatisfaction of its people.

China’s resistance: Why China is unlikely to adopt Western democracy

Western democracy is not necessarily superior to how the rest of the world operates. Although the U.S. government champions democracy and freedom, these principles do not dictate its policies and behaviour. Similarly, China’s economic vision, Confucian beliefs and beneficial diplomacy may not translate to a more democratic form of leadership.

According to National Interest, this incompatibility between the U.S.’s and China’s political culture is due to a great contrast in political culture between China and the West, and the success of the state will depend on how its political and civil society flourishes.

Professor Bai explained that China should not develop solely on democratic qualities. Citing American sociologist Professor Daniel Bell’s book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, he argued for a model of governance that selects and promotes leaders based on merit, such as their intellect and virtue.

“Whether it is democracy on the bottom, experimentation in the middle and meritocracy on top – these are good ways of looking at how to govern a large country, and I think overall it fits Chinese political culture pretty well,” Professor Bai said.

Confucianism can also position itself as a new model that’s superior to the current nation-state model. He noted that the Confucian revival in China is globally viable as it can address issues that structured democracies are not able to address, such as class division and popular sentiments of distrust.

On the other hand, the reality is that freedom of speech, government transparency and a definitive rule of law – all conventionally ‘Western’ values – are being sought by the people of China. It is inevitable that their demand will intensify as China modernises.

The challenge, Professor Bai observed, lies in how the Chinese government can open up without creating a governing model that would undermine its deliberately designed and delicate meritocratic system.

He said that the solution does not lie in exchanging one problematic political system for another one that has its fair share of imperfections. If China were to move to a multiparty liberal democracy, it would be impractical and unsustainable, as this would involve a clash between political leaders and military dictatorship. This could cause considerable upheaval and risk a revolution in China.

China rising: What the West can learn from Chinese leadership

The Western democratic model is seen as limiting and ineffective. The Brexit outcome showed Western democracy as a façade, behind which isolated groups of powerful people decide on issues. It also showed how democracy is based on an illusion that humans are only concerned with a narrow range of political issues.

Tim Clissold, author of Mr. China and Chinese Rules, observed that Chinese politicians as more knowledgeable and articulate about the fundamental ideas of Western society than vice versa.

Clissold pointed out that the West could learn from China about the selection of critical leaders, financial stability, conflict resolution and the environment. “Paradoxically, China does not have so many orthodoxies and they have been willing to experiment with [outside ideas],” he said.

Apart from fostering critical thinking and garnering knowledge, civic society could also take lessons from China’s success. Professor Dunn advised Western governments to have more respect for China’s achievements, to recognise contrast and learn from their own shabby performance.

Best foot forward for China’s future

The path to a new leadership will require the Chinese government to seek a balance between China’s historical tradition and the changes in political power at the time of transition.

Professor Dunn reasoned that as a whole, regardless of the realities in the West or Asia, there is a need for the two models of democracy to converge, to allow for more informed and well-educated citizens to be capable of thoughtful and rational thinking.

He argued that China’s rise as a formidable superpower will be met with obstacles, and it may need a democratic revival that elevates the nation to the forefront of global politics.

Professor Dunn further observed that there may be possible pushback from countries that see China’s authoritarian system as a threat to the global order, and that want to limit China’s place within it.

To maintain its supremacy as the global order shifts towards it, China will need to build on its established tradition of political meritocracy.

Both a Chinese brand of democracy and a strong central government would be compatible with a more robust press and the eradication of corruption, said Professor Ci.

He highlighted that the meritocracy model needs to be adaptable and to be condoned by the Chinese population to show potential for global influence and to set the bar for further political reform.

As Professor Bai concluded, a strong state is one that takes care of its people, not one that evades criticism or opposition.


This is an event coverage piece for the panel discussion, Should China become more democratic, or should democracies become more like China? held on 12 December 2016.

To read a related piece on “21st Century China and the World”, written by Professor Tommy Koh at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, click here.