This November has been a month of momentous change. The world’s two largest economies chose their newest leaders. At home, 131 million people went to the polls and cast ballots, an event unique only in its ordinariness. For the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens, such an occurrence is unfathomable. Instead, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party anointed a predictable slate of leaders, headed by President Xi Jinping.
These elections are striking in just how different they were, and the advantages of American democracy would seem as obvious as the benefits of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms over Great Leap Forward-communism. Yet, praise of China’s regime persists.
Thomas Friedman has written that China’s one party autocracy led by its “reasonably enlightened group” of leaders can have “great advantages” in imposing “politically difficult but critically important policies.” Kishore Mahbubani, former Singaporean diplomat, wrote in the Financial Times that the CCP has created a succession model that is “strong and durable,” resulting in leaders that could prove to be “a talented group of reformers.”
Such acclaim might make you pine for China as well, especially when combined with the pervasive feeling that our democracy fosters pettiness, untruth, and incoherent policy. Kennedy School Professor Dani Rodrik likened the 2012 presidential race to “third-world politics” and a “failed African state” in its distortions and failure to address “the signature issue of our time,” climate change.
President Obama often tells us not to bet against America, and I would take Friedman’s odds any day. China’s problems remain bigger than ours and its leaders increasingly ill-equipped for them. In the past year, the corruption at the highest levels of the CCP has become stunningly clear. Even as former prime minister Wen Jiabao called for reduced inequality, his family amassed a fortune of $2.7 billion through government patronage. The downfall of rising star Bo Xiliai for bribery and perhaps even murder is astounding.
And even when China’s leaders are clean—unlikely as it may seem—they are mediocre. Promotion in China veers far from meritocratic Confucian ideals. Instead, rising through the CCP depends on connections and vanity projects. The party is dominated by “princelings,” the children of old revolutionary leaders. And it is no coincidence that nearly member of the new Politburo Standing Committee was an ally of former leader Jiang Zemin. Finally, one of the new leaders is a North Korean-trained economist. How about that bet?
In this winter of anxiety about the fiscal cliff, there are at least charted paths and plausible solutions. China faces turmoil at every level as its economic growth slows. Corruption is rife, dissent at the grassroots level is no longer possible to suppress, and the middle class fears contaminated food and growing income inequality. Even former premier Wen has called China’s growth “unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” That a crisis of legitimacy for the CCP is on the horizon is not implausible.
In America’s greatest moments of crisis and instability, our electoral system bestowed on us leaders who more than met the moment: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt. History will judge Bush and Obama, but I suspect they will fare better than Hu Jintao. For the sake of the Chinese people, I hope Xi Jinping proves to be the man who changes China, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.
And there was one more election this November. We elected the 45th Editorial Board of the Harvard Political Review. I’d bet on them.