Li engages in some pretty simplistic invocation of a monolithic "China" that can "see" things and move on a path predicated by "larger national ends" (who defines these ends? are the terms of this debate any less elite dominated than the money-dominated democracies that Li is so quick to castigate?) and can't avoid the temptation of comparing the relatively short-lived democracies of Greece and the West with what he sees as the broad unbroken continuity that is "China." Of course in such a comparison, the West comes off as "far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties." I expected him to trot out the Zhou Enlai "too soon to tell" canard next.
Nonetheless, Li raises some interesting questions and issues. He cogently points out some of the shortcomings of a representative system, particularly one in which money can wield so much power and in which all too many people clamor for benefits without cost. He also correctly notes that the Western faith in democracy as the be all and end all of human existence can hardly be said to be rooted in long-term experience. It may very well be the case that humans will look back in a century our two on our time as a brief, atypical one in which the Enlightenment-inspired democratic experiment turned out to be a short-lived success or perhaps even an out and out failure.
But at this point I remain unconvinced that the PRC's track record is any better of an indication of the "superior" model, whether one limits one focus to China alone or considers the issue more broadly. Li praises the stability and growth of the last two decades:
The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.Fair enough (and it should be noted that Li does acknowledge Tiananmen Square and appears to conclude that it was a high but justified price to pay for the ensuing stability and growth).
But Li, the putative Oriental who takes the long view, appears to have suffered from some short-term historical amnesia and neglects to consider the disastrous Great Leap Forward (which, if Frank Dikotter's recent book is to be considered, was even worse than we thought it was) or the Cultural Revolution. Where was the far-seeing, national-interest promoting Chinese nation during the early PRC? Perhaps 200+ dead in and around Tiananmen might be, in a cold realpolitik sort of way, an accetpable price to pay for the next two decades of growth and development. But forty million dying of famine? Not to mention hundreds of millions brutalized and dehumanized with almost nothing to show for it.
Many in the PRC (not to mention on the op-ed pages of the NYT) favor an authoritarian system that can make the tough decisions and get things done. Perhaps, but without the Enlightenment-based checks on the power of the state, the possibility of Mao-era madness seems much greater, at least to me.
My last, off the cuff, thought on this op-ed is the observation that Mr. Li surely feels much more secure and confident in his ability to publicly criticize the democratic system of the West without any fear of punishment or repercussion than he would if he were to level a similar criticism of his own system. If the marketplace of ideas has any relevance or salience in the world (and perhaps Li would dismiss this too as a parochial, fleeting Western chimera) then a system that accepts and even encourages disagreement, criticism, and dissent will likely end up faring better than its closed counterpart.
Time will tell.