In 2016, the South Sudanese politician Anthony Kpandu led a delegation to China. What he saw there blew him away: modern industrial parks, high-speed trains, gleaming infrastructure, dazzling skylines. “It was magnificent,” he enthused. “You can’t believe it, but it’s there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Such reactions contribute to a growing fear in the West that developing countries are finding the so-called "China model" more appealing than liberal democracy. The Chinese leadership has inadvertently exacerbated these fears. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping confidently declared that other states should learn from “the Chinese solution for tackling the problems facing mankind.” In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, the journalist Richard McGregor wrote that Xi is promoting the idea that “authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies.” Beijing’s real goal, he warned, “is encouraging the spread of authoritarianism.”
Yet for all of the panic and paranoia over this development, some basic questions remain unanswered. What exactly is the China model? It is clear that China’s economy has boomed despite its decision to spurn Western-style democracy, but does this mean that authoritarianism was responsible for the country’s capitalist success?
In reality, different parts of China have followed many different paths to economic and social development over the last several decades. The China model changes depending on where and when one looks for it. More important, it is inaccurate—and indeed misleading—to equate the China model with conventional authoritarianism. As I have argued in this magazine, the political foundation of China’s economic success since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened markets in 1978 was not autocracy, but autocracy with democratic characteristics. By reforming China’s bureaucracy, Deng introduced democratic features, specifically accountability, competition, and partial limits on power, into the country’s single-party system. China’s experience in the reform era shows that even a partial injection of democratic qualities into an autocratic system can unleash tremendous
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