In May, The Atlantic ran two interesting pieces on the future of liberal democracy, especially in the context of Asia and the Middle East. In “The Future of Democracy in the Middle East: Islamist and Illiberal,” Shadi Hamid argues correctly that democracy and liberalism do not necessarily go together, as they do in the West. It is just as likely for a democracy to produce an illiberal system as it is to produce a liberal one, especially throughout much of the Middle East (and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and so on). This is, of course, non-ideal, and reveals several flaws in the idea of implementing democracy in non-Western societies. It also raises the question: what is more important in the end — having basic legal rights (liberalism) or simply voting once every few years for a government whose policies one can hardly influence?
The problem with democracy in the long run is that it will always be hijacked by people with an agenda or special interests — contrary to Alexander Hamilton’s theory that factions could cancel each other out — simply because it is impossible for hundreds of millions of people to directly participate in the government. Groups with money, power, or influence easily sway governmental policies by claiming to be doing the “will of the people.” This trend has become especially pronounced over the past few decades in countries as different as the United States and India. In a country with multiple interest groups and multiple cultures like India, it is very hard to get anything done without protests, despite best intentions. What is to be done when a country cannot experience good governance because individuals and groups within it hide behind the plutocratic shield of electoral democracy?
There is an answer to this question from Asia, though it is much maligned in the West. It is a system of governance that avoids both the pitfalls of totalitarianism, North Korea style, and the dysfunctionalism seen in modern American politics. The concept of semi-liberal autocracy is not new nor is it unique to Asia — many 18th and 19th century Enlightenment European states were also organized on such lines. In short, this method of governance and development amounts to rule by an oligarchy that fills its ranks with technocrats or knowledgeable individuals that can dominate the system, whatever its formal constitutional structure: monarchy (Victorian Britain, Meiji Japan), aristocratic alliance (the United Arab Emirates, essentially), republic (the Founding Fathers of the United States), or a single-party state like China. Decisions are made and implemented at the highest level with relatively little outside interference but at the same time, people are free to go about their daily lives without the state constantly breathing down their necks.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At The Atlantic, Daniel A. Bell argued in his piece, “Chinese Democracy Isn’t Inevitable,” that there are in fact better models for governance and that one of them is emerging in China. I believe that it is important to observe and derive political theory from China and other Asian countries because these could be blueprints of the future, in the same way much of modern democracy theory comes from the observations of individuals like Montesquieu and Tocqueville who observed emerging structures in Britain, France, and the United States. Bell points out that there is democracy in the Chinese system at the lowest level — the level where it is the most practical, because “In small communities, people are more knowledgeable about the ability and virtue of the leaders they choose.” Bell continues: “At the local level relative to the national level, policy issues are more straightforward, generating a sense of community is easier, and mistakes are less costly.”
Bell also notes that in China’s autocratic system, experimentation is possible because of the stability of the top level of governance and its “flexible constitutional system.” I would add that on top of this, the social basis of Chinese society (and perhaps most other Asian societies as well) is more conducive to this sort of top-down authoritative experimentation because its traditional worldview and philosophy of human nature and governance has not been fully eaten up by Western progressivism, yet is not so rigid as to be incapable of modernization like the extremism of the Islamic State (IS).
Moreover, and most importantly, Bell points out that “the top of the China model is characterized by political meritocracy — the idea that high-level officials should be selected and promoted on the basis of ability and virtue.” This cannot be anything but a good thing, because “once leaders reach the pinnacle of political power, they can plan for the long term and make decisions that take into account the interests of all relevant stakeholders, including future generations and people living outside the country.” Bell contrasts this with democratic systems:
Leaders who need to worry about the next election are more likely to make decisions influenced by short-term political considerations than their counterparts in China. Democratically elected leaders are more vulnerable to the lobbying of powerful special interests, and the interests of non-voters affected by government policies—future generations, for instance—are likely to be sacrificed if they conflict with the interests of voters and campaign funders. Such leaders spend a lot of their time raising money and giving the same campaign speech again and again. In contrast, meritocratically selected leaders are judged by what they do, not what they say.
In other words, the Chinese system, despite its flaws, promotes good governance. China, unlike many other countries, is a one-party system and does not have to worry about the method of implementing a meritocratic form of governance; it’s unlikely that every country would be able to simply copy China’s actual political structure verbatim. But many aspects of the Chinese system are evident in other countries. The forerunner of this type of governance in Asia can in fact be said to be the Meiji oligarchy that dominated Japan for a few decades after 1868. It can also be argued that modern states like Singapore, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have arrived at this sort of collective top-down meritocracy, to the great benefit of strategic planning and governance in their nations.
True leaders do what is best for their nations and consider the overall effects of their policies on the development and virtue of their people. They do not cling irrationally to ideological notions of governance: after all, a nation’s political system is a means and not an end to its success. As long as basic economic and personal freedoms are guaranteed on the level of daily life, there is no reason for the complicated nexus of money, politics, and media activism that has emerged in the West. Political democracy is not a condition of the modern world — only social democracy is, which has leveled out the previously important classes of society.
A new hybrid system of governance is emerging throughout Asia that can show the way to better forms of governance throughout the world. Both the West and other Asian states — India in particular — can and should take note from this and draw the appropriate conclusions when considering their own political systems.