Should the 18th Party Congress’ initiatives succeed, 2012 might one day be seen as marking the end of the idea that electoral democracy is the only legitimate and effective system of political governance. While China’s might grows, the West’s ills multiply: since winning the Cold War, the United States has, in one generation, allowed its middle class to disintegrate. Its infrastructure languishes in disrepair, and its politics, both electoral and legislative, have fallen captive to money and special interests. Its future generations will be so heavily indebted that a sustained decline in average living standards is all but certain. In Europe, too, monumental political, economic, and social distress has caused the European project to run aground. Meanwhile, during the same period, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and is now a leading industrial powerhouse.
The West’s woes are self-inflicted. Claims that Western electoral systems are infallible have hampered self-correction. Elections are seen as ends in themselves, not merely means to good governance. Instead of producing capable leaders, electoral politics have made it very difficult for good leaders to gain power. And in the few cases when they do, they are paralyzed by their own political and legal systems. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels around the world extolling electoral democracy, the legitimacy of nearly all U.S. political institutions is crumbling. The approval rating of the U.S. Congress among the American people stood at 18 percent in November. The president was performing somewhat better, with ratings in the 50s. And even support for the politically independent Supreme Court had fallen below 50 percent.
Many developing countries have already come to learn that democracy doesn’t solve all their problems. For them, China’s example is important. Its recent success and the failures of the West offer a stark contrast. To be sure, China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy because, unlike the latter, it does not pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But its success does show that many systems of political governance can work when they are congruent with a country’s culture and history. The significance of China’s success, then, is not that China provides the world with an alternative but that it demonstrates that successful alternatives exist. Twenty-four years ago, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that all countries would eventually adopt liberal democracy and lamented that the world would become a boring place because of that. Relief is on the way. A more interesting age may be upon us.