Fool’s errand for liberal democracy

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Fool’s errand for liberal democracy

Forget Client No. 9. If you want to understand the future of world politics, it’s Document No. 9 you need to know. This semisecret directive from the senior members of the Chinese Communist Party tells you how President Xi Jinping plans to manage pro-democracy voices in China: by shutting them down. The sharp repudiation of constitutional government, human rights, civic participation and free speech - not to mention truly free markets - guarantees that the ideological struggle between China and the West will continue well into the future.

If this sounds obvious to you, you haven’t been watching closely in recent years. Alongside China’s economic miracle have come cautious local experiments with what was sometimes called “intraparty democracy” - the permission of a range of opinions and even elections within the Party. At leading universities, if not beyond, academics have enjoyed substantial free speech. Among China’s intellectual and political elites, there is a discernible right wing, usually defined as including pro-market, cautiously liberal thinkers, and a left wing, made up of those loyal to the more traditional Communist ideals of state ownership, equality of wealth and rigid party control.

Observing these trends, some liberal optimists - including many in China’s elite - hoped that Xi’s rise to power would see a gradual expansion of rights and movement in the direction of constitutional governance and the rule of law. When I was in Beijing and Shanghai in March, the excitement among reformers was palpable.

No sophisticated person doubted that the party would remain in control, but perhaps it would pin down directions for future reform. In the optimists’ view, China’s liberalizing economic reforms demanded political reforms to go along with them. An economy that must shift rapidly to meet consumer demand, went the thinking, must also accommodate citizen demand for a semblance of political voice. A growing economy requires the rule of law to stabilize investors’ expectations.

Document No. 9, first issued in April and only now reaching the Western news media in summary form, ends these optimistic speculations. It lists seven tendencies or currents in China that must be reversed - a kind of inverted wish list for the liberals. Chief among these is the very ideal of constitutional government - namely, the principle that those in power can and should be constrained by the legal norms contained in China’s written constitution.

From the standpoint of the Communists, the rejection of constitutionalism reinforces the idea that the party, like the Roman emperor of old, stands above the law and outside it. Laws may be useful tools for the party, and so law itself seems to have escaped mention as a particular danger. But laws controlled by the party to serve its interests add up to rule by law, not rule of law. Above all, China’s laws don’t function to bind the leadership, which is the core of constitutionalism.

From this general stance, it follows that the party would also reject human rights or “universal values,” which can be used as grounds for criticizing it. Free speech, the practice by which criticisms are made, similarly would function as a check or limit on the power of the party, and so must be rejected. As for a free market, it also has an existence independent of the party and the state, and so imposes limits on what they can do. “Neoliberalism” must therefore be rejected, because it advocates for an economic sphere autonomous from the state, much like civil society calls for an autonomous domain of community life.

But knowing what the party rejects leaves a huge question mark over what the party actually plans to do. How, you might well ask, does the party hope to govern its increasingly capitalist and consumerist society without the technologies of governance developed by liberalism over the last 200 years in places as diverse as Sweden and India?

The short answer is that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to develop solutions to the problems that can be solved with liberal democracy without actually adopting democratic institutions. In place of elections to ensure accountable leadership and regular transitions, the party turns over its principal offices every 10 years on a generational basis. Accountability and merit are supposed to be built into the system of promotion. Instead of free speech, the party allows 15 minutes of discussion of unpopular or outrageous occurrences on the Web, after which the censors who guard the Great Firewall shut it down. That allows users to blow off steam, informs party leadership of public opinion and creates an opportunity to redress grievances.

Xi clearly thinks that these and other experiments in 21st-century nondemocratic governance can promote the legitimacy of the party. He just as clearly believes that introducing governmental reforms or increasing genuine free speech would produce a snowball effect that could undercut the party’s power. The ultimate imperative for the party is, of course, to maintain control.

Document No. 9 demonstrates that the cool war between China and the West isn’t just strategic, but also ideological. The Communist Party believes that to stay in power, it cannot take on the ideals and values that the West considers prerequisites for just government. From the Western angle, then, the government of China will remain fundamentally illegitimate - in the end, just another bunch of communists.

*The author, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.

by Noah Feldman
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