Democratic or Legalistic Legitimacy?

By White, Lynn T.,, III | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Democratic or Legalistic Legitimacy?


White, Lynn T.,, III, Harvard International Review


Professor Wei Pan ("Crossing the River," Summer 2003) suggests China's next decade of reform will succeed or fail according to three choices: whether "reformists" or "conservatives" run the government, whether external powers (especially the United States) help or hinder China's political reform, and whether Beijing elites prefer a "legalistic rule of law" or "democracy." I agree with Pan on his first two points. On the third, his position is unadmittedly conservative, not reformist, even though its inadvertent result may be democracy.

Any modern country has both laws to constrain officials and elections to legitimate them. Laws lend predictability to rule, but they do not guarantee good governance any more than does any other regime type, including democracy. Competitive elections provide temporary mandates to the winners. Such rulers can make allocative decisions, including market-regulative ones of the kind that Pan recognizes as necessary. Where would "legalistic" governors get their mandate? They are inherently weak. As the concerns of modern Chinese people diversify, dissent rises, and legalistic governors will need more police if they lack institutions to prove popular consent.

Pan thinks that, "Through firm rule of law, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) executive power would be reduced by an emergent system of checks and balances." Contrary to many analysts who see the CCP as still subject to vicious factional struggles, I agree that China's emergent system involves restrained compromises. But Pan downplays politicians' links to constituents: Hu Jintao has inland colleagues; Jiang Zemin has coastal ones--and these leaders are presently cooperating. Balances are not abstract legalisms; they are between sociopolitical interests.

Who could write laws apolitically? China was traditionally ruled by intellectuals, most of whom disdained "legalism" in favor of more sensitive ethics, although Pan's apparent main hope is to perpetuate rule by intellectuals. Governments are indeed better run by smart people than by stupid people. Civil service exams are a boon that the Chinese gave to us all; and we are grateful, because such tests ensure some smart bureaucrats. China's recent stress on "intellectualization" (zhishihua) has modernized its old system, so that now on the Politburo 16 percent have postgraduate degrees, and another 76 percent have bachelor's degrees. (See a current Asian Survey article by Li Cheng and this author.)

Technocracy provides a criterion for choosing elites, but it gives ordinary citizens no ownership of decisions and, thus, less cause to support them. Pan proposes "an extensive consultation system based on China's central and provincial parliaments." (He avoids their proper name: people's congresses.) He says this system should be "independent" of the executive bureaucracy, but he never defines how "consultation" makes allocations.

Pan fears that, "Democratizing the country without ... clear and stable social or class divisions would lead to a Hobbesian war of all against all." How would more divisions help? Ethnically, China is 92 percent Han. Socially, the migration of 100 million people to cities--the "turmoil of urbanization" that Pan fears--does not threaten the Chinese state. Such events have not brought down other governments, for reasons Wayne Cornelius, Oscar Lewis, and Charles Hirschman have researched. Wide income differences are common in countries that industrialize quickly while unskilled workers remain near subsistence. Many democracies in various culture areas avoid Hobbesian chaos. Many other states have disorder. Arguments about consequences may be moot. No matter how they turn out, Pan seems to think the legitimating power should be kept--forever--in the hands of the few because he suggests that is the Chinese way. His view underrepresents China's rich diversity.

Singapore may indeed be threatened by divisions. That city, with 0.

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