Can one-party systems be more accountable than democracies?

June 27, 2008, [MD]

Caveat\ I have spent over one and a half year of my life living in China, and a significantly larger part visiting it, learning the language, watching movies and soap-operas, reading blogs, discussing it with Chinese and non-Chinese, and in general thinking about it. There is still so much I don’t know or understand, but it is probably the non-Western country that I understand the best. And so it is natural for me to compare my experiences in other countries to my experiences in China. I did this to a certain extent in Indonesia (although realized that I should never say this aloud, since people there have a bit of an inferiority complex about China, due to their own very complex past with Chinese ethnic minorities). However it seems the obvious thing to do in India, since the whole world is talking about the two rising giants, India and China.

Note however, that if I am beginning to get an inkling of understanding of China, I am a complete and utter neophyte on India, having spent only a few weeks here, and being continually baffled by almost everything. I have also seen almost nothing of the country so far, and a half-assed knowledge of Hindi, and more Bollywood movies than I can count, scarcely qualifies me to say anything at all. Yet you cannot shut down your brain, and with all the caveats possible I will try to “think aloud” and see if putting my thoughts down on the screen will make them any clearer.

**Inequal development\ **Trying to quantify a country’s level of development is very treacherous stuff. I have travelled all over China and seen both luxury hotels in Shanghai, and rural schools in Shanxi, bicycling through tiny villages in Xinjiang, and taking buses through southern Yunnan on horrible roads. But how many percentage live in nice flats, and how many sleep on the streets? And how do you weigh certain factors up against others? For India, I have seen only a tiny part of the country so far, although I have read and heard a lot.

It still seems quite clear to me that the difference in development between China and India, today in 2008, is stark. This is especially relevant in all sectors pertaining to government. The train system, the level of roads and other public transportation, the quality of government schools, environmental controls, etc. There is no doubt that there are many problems in China, and I am sure that there are often reasons to criticize the government. Yet there is also a sense that it is continually and relentlessly working to improve the conditions of the entire country. The poorest rural schools are not in great shape, but teachers mostly show up, and so do students - literacy levels are very high.

Roads are quite well maintained, train stations are paragons of order (although this would not necessarily be felt by a random foreign visitor), and cities are well-ordered and orderly developed. There are large urban libraries in bigger cities, as well as cultural centers and museums. In general, althoug there is no doubt that corruption happens frequently in China, it still seems to happen a lot less frequently than in India, where many NGO workers have claimed to me that 80% of all government funds disappear between the central government, and the local level.

So during my weeks in India, both personally experiencing the level of urban and rural neglect (living in one of the poorest states of India, and also recently returning from a visit to a rural site, taking 7,5 quite uncomfortable hours to complete 145 kilometers of distance), I kept struggling with the concept that India being a democracy, with a very vocal press and a large number of independent NGOs, seemed to have a government that was much less efficient, and accountable, than that of China - where freedom of press is curtailed, organizational freedom is very low, and obviously voting the party out of power is impossible.

**A tentative solution\ **Turning this over in my mind (I had plenty of time on my before-mentioned trip), I came up with a tentative explanation for why the Chinese one-party rule would actually be more likely to be accountable, than the Indian system. Let me try to explain.

Just like we learn in economics that although monopolies can charge more than companies in a competitive situation, they can in fact not charge any price they like (or rather - they can, but would not make any money), in the same way one-party systems that wish to remain in power long-term can not drive through any politics they like. China has no tradition of democracy, and Confucianism would seem at first to support very authoritarian rulers, but there is a provision that this is because God’s will is projected through the ruler. If God should cease to view a certain emperor favorably, which would result in widespread economic and social problems in his society, it would be the duty of the citizens to overthrow the ruler.

In this vein, the Chinese government made a kind of social contract with the Chinese people in the 1980’s. They would radically reduce political supervision (total control through work units, people spying on you, etc) to increase economic growth. Their bargain was that they would bring continual growth in welfare and prosperity for all of China, as well as the global ascent of China as a nation (the communists certainly did not invent Chinese nationalism, although they skilfully played to it), and in exchange, the citizens would not bother about politics.

**So far, so good: Total responsability\ **So far, this bargain has worked wonders. Chinese growth has been in the two figures for years, and although it is certainly a much more inequal society than it was 20 years ago, the growth has to large extents benefitted the whole country, and more importantly: most people see opportunities and possibilities, rather than being locked into a situation where only others may prosper.

Certainly overthrowing a government as powerful as the Chinese is a much more difficult task than replacing a leader in India, thus on the outset one would think that the accountability in India would lead to better governance. However, in India there are many parties, as well as local, state and national governments. It is very hard for the common man to place blame on any level, as they continually blame each other, or blame the last party in power. In addition, I am guessing that many voters are voting mostly out of clientelism (we give you rice/loan-waivers just before election), or ideology (the BJP will create the great Hindu nation), rather than rationally for those who promote their long-term interests.

China is different - because there is only one party, for the last fifty years, on all levels. They have total control - and this leads to total responsibility. If the economy should start to falter in China, they can certainly try to blame all kinds of external and international forces like high oil prices, but within China, there is only one force - the Communist Party. They made a bargain, the people have done their part, and they will darn sure make sure the Communist Party does its part.

**Planning for the long-term\ **When I was travelling through Kazakhstan I saw posters everywhere with the number 2030. It later turned out that Kazakhstan’s strong president had an economic 30 year vision for how to turn his country into an “Asian Snow Leopard” (not content to be an Asian tiger, clearly). At the time, I though tthat it was a bit scary with a “democratic” politician with a 30 year plan, it didn’t seem like he was planning to go somewhere.

On the other hand, there are good things to be said for long-term planning as well. The Chinese Communist Party clearly plans to be around during the next 10-20 or even 50 years, and since there is no election tomorrow, they are able to make long-term strategic plans that will enable the country to continue its steady growth. There are no four year terms that cause silly actions like the recent Indian loan-waiver for farmers (which penalized those who had actually paid back their loans, and destroyed all loan-repaying discipline for the future) and they can concentrate on things that will strengthen the rural sectors in the long term, building infrastructure, increasing educational investment, shoring up resources globally, etc.

*They lucked out and got some nice non-democratic leaders\ *Ethan Zuckerman (can’t find the direct link), when writing about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, has written that ideally you’d want a dictator that is planning to stay around for a while, because he is not likely to run the society completely to the ground, since he’d like to have something to extract resources from even in the future. Although China has gone through incredible upheavals and hardships during the first 30-40 years of the Communist Party, one could say that they have been rather lucky during the last 20 years, and this is likely to continue. Because the leaders of China are not out for personal enrichment at all (if they were, they would rather have started internet companies). Certainly some mid-level caders skim off transfers and sustain mistresses in Hong Kong and nice houses, but I believe strongly that the motivations of the top caders are all to make China stronger and better for all that live there. They are patriots who want to see the rise (or the return to their proper place) of China, after their 150 year of humiliation.

One might surely not agree with all their actions, one would hope for a much more open internet, more freedom of speech and assembly, etc. But on the whole, they are pushing China forwards, and they are taking full responsibility for their actions - in the long term. And honestly, if I had the choice between that, and hundreds of random politicians, mostly with a criminal background, killing their opponents, squabbling in parliament, busing in peasants to demonstrate in their favor, and caring only about power and privilege and not at all about the progress of the nation, and taking no responsibility for the outcomes of their actions… I might have to go with the current leadership. And that’s no easy choice for someone who is at heart an absolute democrate.

I might be giving India a hard rap here, and I am excited to be exploring this fascinating country more and learning more about it. However, this writing is more about China than about India, and for me it’s interesting because I believe I did come up with two reasons - total responsability and long-term perspective - why a one-party system in a relatively open state, that is committed to the long-term growth of the country can be more accountable and produce better governance than a (dysfunctional) democracy. Doesn’t mean it will always happen.

Comments welcome.


Stian Håklev June 27, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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