The 'China Model' and Democracy


Tiannemen Square, Beijing. Source: Wikipedia


Since the start of this century, China has established itself as the only alternative model for national development to Western democracy. Around the world, all other major challengers to the Western model are shattering.

I do not argue China’s model is a legitimate alternative. Rather, I say that democracies must acknowledge the power of China model and try to outperform it.

Russia, even with the deft statecraft of President Vladimir Putin, is struggling with the declining price of oil, which is the pillar of its national finance. Its industrial and military capacity is barely a shadow of its Soviet past. No one seriously believes that Russia will stay in the elite club of contenders to global prominence, as it was in most part of the last 300 years.

The theocracy of Iran keeps the appeal to the majority of domestic population, but the virulent anti-Western spirit has declined significantly since the international sanctions against its nuclear ambition have been lifted.

The legacy communist regimes are either folding their communist flags and deepening the cooperation with the West (Vietnam and Cuba), or sliding into a personal dictatorship that further undermines the state capacity (North Korea).

The failed or failing states in the Middle East and the terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are indeed troublesome, but certainly they are not in any sense providing a model that could be conceptually or realistically categorized as an alternative to the Western model.

I do not argue China’s model is a legitimate alternative. Rather, I say that democracies must acknowledge the power of China model and try to outperform it.

China is different. Its economy in the last few years stumbled, but the 7% annual growth rate is still more than enviable to other major economies. If the leaders of Germany or Australia got a growth rate like this, he or she would most likely call a snap election to increase the ruling party’s majority in the legislature. More importantly, the Chinese growth in the past 35 years may NOT be the success of market economy per se. Arguably, the Chinese government has learned to use and not use standard western economic measures, and combined selective market mechanisms with governmental actions (some would call interventions) both to boost economic growth and to ensure the government’s grip on the critical sectors of a globalized national economy.

China is not following the textbook of economics as known in the West, and apparently is doing quite well.

Politically, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has maintained domestic peace and monopoly of power even when the socio-economic structure of the nation has changed beyond recognition. Until one generation ago, many scholars would still correlate rapid changes in society with rapid changes in national politics. Not only this is not happening in China, but we see signs that the Communist Party has increased its effectiveness and appeal.

One after another, opinion polls done by the best Chinese and international scholars show that all major social classes, including the new capitalists and the middle class, strongly support the CCP.

At the same time, it is in the Western democracies that voters are becoming disappointed by their politicians and, more worrisomely, the system as a whole. So, which one is better, Western liberal democracy or Chinese authoritarianism?

China is not following the textbook of economics as known in the West, and apparently is doing quite well.

The Chinese government is fully aware of the uniqueness of its political economic system. Moreover, in the last five years, CCP has become the No.1 cheer leader of its own “China Model”. The government-sponsored promotion of Chinese Way, Chinese Story, Chinese Experience etc. are everywhere in China, and is quickly spreading across the world via the Confucius Institutes, the CCTV, the training programs of officials from the third world countries, advertisements at the Times Square in the New York City, and so on. Domestically, such promotions would help the ruling party to further legitimize the regime. Internationally, these are at the same time a charm offensive to the poorer countries and the best defense to any possible criticisms, typically from the West, of its regime.

So, there is a China Model, with its distinctive institutional arrangements and a keen self-awareness among the people who are running the system. This model is not necessarily good. The moral foundation and sustainability of the model are perfectly legitimate questions for researchers. But for politicians and people in the mature and fledgling democracies, China is first of all a political challenge: if China is a viable alternative to the system we are living in, what should we do here?

I am not drumming for China bashing or a new Cold War. Rather, I would simply argue that if history is not ending with liberal democracies in every corner of the planet, it may be wise for the democratic people to give thorough reflections to the ideal and practice of the politics here, bearing in mind the principles and realities of China.

About two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville published his Democracy in America, giving a best sociology of democracy in its then largest experiment.

Now, with China’s historic rise as a systematically different and enormously powerful model other than the liberal democracy, we are all becoming “democracies outside China”.


Jian Zhang

Peking University

Published Date
October 1, 2015