What Taiwan Can Teach China's New Leaders

By Christopher Ford

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has just completed its first leadership transition in a decade. The world now knows the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee and other key positions, and China-watchers are busily trying to analyze its significance. How these CCP officials got to be leaders, however, is also a significant question: the answer to which is both entirely opaque and all too obvious. 

The CCP process is an entirely secretive one of back-room deal-making and clandestine bargaining within the party bureaucracy, as apparatchik careerists maneuver against each other behind closed doors. What is clear, however, is that such deal-making and maneuvering -- leavened by the occasional purge of one’s rivals -- is the sum total of China’s top-level leadership selection process.

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During the stage-managed public show put on by the CCP for its 18th Party Congress, a number of China-based authors were rolled out in apparently carefully-scripted efforts to promote the idea that this CCP process represents a “meritocracy” that compares favorably to Western-style democratic politics. Chinese propagandists in recent years have also tried to describe their system as a “democracy,” pointing to how keenly they say CCP leaders pay attention to the voices of the Chinese people.

If what counts as “merit” in a national leader is the ability to out-maneuver rivals within a complex bureaucracy -- building alliances through Byzantine back-room politics and corrupt back-scratching, while deploying internal security forces to control political behavior and censor disfavored ones -- then this is meritocracy indeed. And if by “democracy” one means that self-selected power-holders make a show of consulting with the population before giving it directions, then there is democracy too in Beijing.

How fascinating, however, to view the 18th Party Congress as the coda on a year that began with a very different leadership selection exercise in Greater China. In January 2012, presidential elections were held in Taiwan. In this contest, the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou represented a party that once ruled that island with an iron hand, but which has long since relinquished this hegemonic role in favor of free and fair elections. His opponent, a woman named Tsai Ing-wen, represented a party with very different views on some key national issues, and one that conducts, and sometimes wins, political campaigns against its rival.

President Ma Ying-jeou won re-election with just under 52 percent of the vote. The fabulous thing about the event, however, was simply that it occurred, and that it seemed so, well, normal. That a closely-fought contest for the highest office could be decided by popular vote -- and as part of what has clearly become an institutionalized and peaceful political rivalry between broad-based parties representing significantly different political, demographic, economic interests and positions in a stable and prosperous modern East Asian country -- makes the Taipei of January 2012 a perfect counterpoint to the dynamic of authoritarian elite self-replication on display in Beijing.

In a season when so much attention has been focused upon the U.S. presidential elections, Chinese actually need look no further than across the Taiwan Straits to see a rebuttal of the orchestrated apologetics for CCP “meritocracy.” Clearly, “Chinese democracy” is not just possible but in fact very workable indeed: a stable and resilient way for the merit of aspirants for office actually to be judged by those who will have to live under their rule. 

The Communist government in Beijing is trying to foster the idea that its authoritarian mechanisms represent a desirable alternative to democratic leadership selection. There is irony in this, of course, for this is a choice that the CCP denies to its own citizens. No matter how much better “meritocracy” is said to be, in other words, it can only, apparently, be forced upon the Chinese people. 

The rest of the world, however, is perfectly capable of evaluating the alternatives available, and of assessing the true merits of “meritocracy” vis-à-vis one or more of the multiple forms of genuinely democratic governance that are available in the world. If CCP propagandists really want a debate between systems of governance, perhaps they deserve to get one. The vibrant and prosperous success story of modern Taiwan is well positioned to represent an alternative.

Christopher Ford is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He previously served as U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation and as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.

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