Martin Jacques, former editor of of Marxism Today and author of When China Rules the World, occasionally has interesting and clever things to say about contemporary China. His latest op-ed, “Is China more legitimate than the West?”, is… not so clever.
The subtitle to the piece, which presumably was not written by Jacques himself but does a decent job of summing up the author’s argument, and the fact that he is trolling:
China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one anointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.
This is a profoundly stupid premise of the sort normally not seen outside university debating societies. Nevertheless, Jacques’ blatant trolling has got up the noses of several China watchers who, despite their well written retorts, are in the equivalent argument as someone trying to explain in the comment section on RedState why the gold standard isn’t a good idea.
Charlie Custer (previously) of China Geeks expends 3,000+ words (!) in taking apart Jacques’ op-ed. If simply commenting is ‘feeding the trolls’, then this is throwing one a five-course banquet.
Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right.
And while China is more populous than any other nation on earth, Jacques’ assertion that it is more difficult to govern is highly questionable (and, in his article, totally unsupported). Certainly, governing a billion people is difficult. I imagine that governing a multiracial, multicultural nation of immigrants that has a history of divisive violence and a legal system that permits most people to carry firearms is also probably difficult.
So what makes China in particular so difficult to govern? Geographically, it’s about the same size as the US, and although it is far more populous, Jacques has just gotten through arguing that virtually everyone in China supports the government. If China’s central government really enjoys 95% approval, then that means it has to worry about around 62 million dissatisfied citizens who may be tough to govern. The US government’s approval rating, by almost any measure, means that it is frequently dealing with a dissatisfied citizenry whose numbers are at least double that.
Jacques’ article is full of the vagueness that is characteristic of China’s-system-is-the-best arguments because, as usual, his only real evidence is China’s remarkable economic growth. And while its growth has been impressive (to put it mildly) it has also given rise to significant problems. Some are already in full bloom and some have yet to emerge but pose serious questions about the Chinese system’s long-term viability if it does not reform. China’s system has done an incredible job of improving the economy over the last thirty years. But thirty years is barely more than a generation, and using that period (which was not without its rough patches, by the way) as evidence of systemic superiority is at best premature.
Sam Crane, at The Useless Tree, also helpfully took apart an argument that was never at risk of convincing anyone:
What does it mean to say that the PRC state is more legitimate than any in the “West”? He gives us no definition or basis for understanding what he means by “legitimacy.” Serious considerations of the topic, remind us that legitimacy is not simply popularity. And it’s obvious that Jacques has not really done any sort of systematic analysis to back up his claim. He’s just throwing rather empty rhetoric out there to demonstrate his admiration for the CCP.