Asia, Politics, World Affairs

The China Model Is Failing

Chairman Xi Jinping is preparing to prolong his rule beyond the end of his second term, thereby breaking with the two-term limit set by Deng Xiaoping. The two-term limit had been one of the few civilized elements of China’s political system, checking the worst excesses of despotism and providing some structure for the peaceful transfer of power.

Xi’s stunt is, however, only the latest episode in China’s creeping return to more intensified political control. This development has yet to show its full destructive impact on China’s economic development (for that, we must wait a few more years), but it is already having a devastating effect in the realm of ideas, as it is the final nail in the coffin of the ‘China model’ philosophy. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its defenders will continue to portray China’s political system as uniquely virtuous. But, intellectually and internationally, that line will be difficult to maintain. It is precisely because those old perceptions are now threatened, that the Propaganda Ministry has ordered Chinese media to lash out against the Western “obsession” with liberal democracy.

Defenders of the China model hold that China has made great progress toward developing a unique and laudable societal model that combines economic success with political stability, draws on ‘Asian values’ of the kind praised by the late Lee Kuan Yew, and possesses as much legitimacy as liberal democracy does in the West. International Relations scholar Zhang Weiwei, businessman Eric Li, and philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell have all argued that China is successful and stable precisely because the Chinese do not elect their government. This leaves the CCP free to rule in a meritocratic, harmonious, and stable fashion. Democratic India has often served as a negative counter-example. China, they claim, would do better to follow its own unique cultural and political traditions than attempt to emulate those found in the West.

So, was the China model supposed to be an authoritarian dictatorship? No. Bell in particular reassured Western sceptics that the CCP’s harmonizing guidance would leave room for a freer civil society, critical journalism, and a greater openness to the outside world. When those sceptics expressed doubts about the CCP’s civility, Bell would often point to the two-term limitation and the orderly transitions of power between leadership generations since the nineties. China – or so the story went – had forever freed itself from leadership cults. The key point was that, although the China model was not liberal or democratic, it was not a raw authoritarianism either.

That is, however, exactly what it is now appears to be. Certainly, since Xi came to power in 2012 – but more probably since the Olympics in 2008 – the liberalization process has stagnated and even reversed. Political control of universities, media, and NGOs has tightened, while the censorship and propaganda machines have run at full capacity. At the same time, however, rising prosperity has created a growing middle class, which is increasingly educated and demanding. China observers in the West had hoped that the party-state would compromise with this middle class by allowing civil society, the media, business, and the universities to become increasingly independent and open to the rest of the world, which would nudge China towards liberal democracy with ‘Chinese characteristics’ or some other innovative synthesis. But, instead, the party-state has dug in its heels.

Megalomaniacal political projects are back in vogue, too. Deng, who had to undergo Mao’s social engineering madness for 30 years, had once renounced such projects: no more visionary Leaders bearing Great Plans, thank you very much! Yet Xi has a vision of a new ‘silk road’ from China to Europe. The practicalities of this idea are rather vague, but the main aim is to draw countries in Central and Southern Asia into the Chinese sphere of influence with infrastructure projects and investments. This project undermines the ‘free market,’ as companies come under pressure to invest in what is primarily a political project.

Furthermore, this project will march China straight into an Islamist trouble spot. If, as planned, China decides to construct infrastructure worth $62 billion in Pakistan, it is likely to be drawn into the country’s problems. In China itself, the party-state is already faced with the problem of what to do about non-Han Muslims. In the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where the Uyghur Muslims live, the party-state conducts a reign of terror. The New York Times speaks of a “dystopian totalitarian surveillance state,” and now that same party-state seeks to reach further westward, deeper into the Islamic world.

My prognosis: growing tensions between Party authoritarianism and the urban middle class, and growing tensions between the Chinese state and non-Han peoples in its expanding sphere of influence.

Most Chinese and many Western analysts still mistakenly think, however, that China is heading toward a golden future under the current regime. They are blinded by the image of a decisive leader and party elite, and underestimate the importance of societal pluralism. By which, I mean independent science, journalism, professional organizations and trade unions, the free market, inter-party competition, and freedom of inquiry and public discussion. All of these are presently either undermined or prohibited. In China, power and prestige are concentrated in a single organization, the CCP, and its elite which has a finger in every pie. This is a legacy of both communism and the imperial tradition with its elite of Confucian mandarins. However, China’s rapid development over the last forty years was actually enabled by the liberalization process. The progress that has occurred was due to the relative increase in societal pluralism since the death of Mao, and Deng’s subsequent Reform and Opening Up. But now Xi’s clan is offering a return to the old, controlling paradigm, which will put a brake on China’s further development.

Of course, the CCP argues the exact opposite. China, it says, will continue to prosper because it is the party-state that harmonizes society. The ‘father-mother officials’ (fumguan) take care of their child-subjects by protecting them against ‘inharmonic’ ideas and impulses, and the CCP can be trusted to use its power responsibly because its leaders are wise and attained their positions strictly based on their administrative and moral merits. In his 2016 book, The China Model, Daniel A. Bell speaks of “Chinese meritocracy,” which he favorably contrasts with the circus-show elections and demagogy of Western liberal democracy. Proponents and defenders of Chinese meritocracy contend that Western voters often vote for bad politicians because they are distracted by wild nonsense, whereas the Party selects the best leaders through backroom processes – “a sophisticated and comprehensive system for selecting and promoting political talent that underpinned China’s stunning economic success.” I think I know Bell well enough to say that he wouldn’t describe Xi’s power grab as ‘meritocratic,’ and that recent developments must have disappointed him.

The figure of Xi originally seemed to strengthen the case for the China model. Bell and others loved to compare the ‘serene’ and ‘strong’ Xi with the erratic and clumsy Donald Trump. The comparison has always been misleading, however. Yes, Trump is incompetent – but what do we actually know about Xi? Xi is even more of a princeling than Trump, and he flourishes in a sheltered Party realm. He does not face domestic criticism from anyone. Everywhere, obsequious officials await him with notebooks to jot down his wise utterances. His inviolability is a façade. When Xi visited the Netherlands in 2014 and Tibetans protested on the Dam Square, a screen had to be erected separating him from the demonstrators so that he would be spared the sight of dissent.

Even if we accept that the CCP does appoint the best administrators, the party-state’s massive societal footprint still undermines meritocracy in the rest of society. Scholars with party connections are favored, so faculty selection is not purely based on scholarly merits. Entrepreneurs with party connections enjoy advantages, so economic competition is polluted, and innovation, product quality, and efficiency are less strongly rewarded. And so on. A true meritocracy is pluralistic; it rewards in a differentiated manner across different societal systems. Incentivizing excellence in specific arts and virtues enables talent to flourish. But centralized political control and interventionism crudely over-ride those differentiated evaluative systems with a single political hierarchy.

The main problem is that the Chinese place too much faith in the infinite wisdom and ability of a great leader and party elite. That totalitarian tendency hurts Chinese society, but it might also eventually become the problem of liberal democracies. We share a globalized world with a hyper-authoritarian superpower that is politically hostile to the liberal world order from which it profits economically. And that super-power is led by a man of boundless ambition.


Dr. Eric C. Hendriks is a Dutch, Beijing-based sociologist who previously worked at Peking University and is now connected to the University of Bonn. You can follow him on Twitter @ericchendriks


  1. If I had a dollar for every article I have read decrying the Chinese system and predicting its failure for not following the Washington consensus/liberal democracy path, I would be in the 1%.

    There is an inherent instability in authoritarianism between the Leader and the backers of the regime. After Stalin, there was a concerted effort in the Communist Party leadership to make sure there wasn’t another Stalin–and there wasn’t. After Mao, Deng tried to insure the same, No future Mao. But it really depends on the Leader, and if the Leader insists on consolidating power, it either happens or elite supporters turn on the Leader and insure his/her ouster. So Xi has made the grab for the one ring.

    The fundamental problem the Soviets faced was their inability to innovate and stay ahead on the scientific and technical front with the Americans. The problem was not providing ethnic separatists with a forum to undermine Soviet hegemony. Xi’s crackdowns may or may not stifle China’s technological innovation (and they certainly won’t stop China’s “borrowing” of other people’s intellectual property), but if and only if it does will the Chinese system be imperiled.

    As far as the “Silk Road”, this is not a vanity project, it is a geopolitical project. If there is a road from Beijing to Hungary, it will be wide enough to accommodate Chinese tanks, giving them the power to project military force throughout Eurasia. Further, with falling arctic ice levels, and Russia’s development of cold water ports and defense agreements, the Chinese may have easy access to North America without having to deal with the U.S. Navy.

    With the caveat about whether China can avoid Lysenkoism (something I worry that America, too, with its “free press” owned by six companies can avoid), the biggest concern I have about Xi is that he is establishing himself as a warlord with the support of his people and his party. Second, the “Silk Road” project is directly connected to a push for military hegemony, further suggesting a drive toward increasing China’s capacity to project force. It looks like China is shifting from a primarily economic power to a nation-state looking to expand its influence by force.

    As far as the ethnic minorities and Islamists, as a practical matter, if you round up and shoot suspected militants, its not much of a problem. This would in theory violate “international law”, but said “international law” is mostly an American invention, and doesn’t extend beyond America’s sphere of influence. Given that the Chinese strategy seems to be moving toward a direct geopolitical confrontation with the Americans, I doubt they are going to cry for long if they upset Western do-gooders, and disposing with “international law” in practice will only establish their superiority and power, and America’s loss of power and influence. In other words, its only bad if you are an analyst for the CIA or the U.S. Defense Department.

    • I don’t think China truly want to be a military power. I think it’s more about projecting the appearance of force to forestall any foreign military attack.

  2. Alex says

    China sees the planet’s resources shrinking, no real cooperations with anyone, the West with over 1000 military bases around the globe installed on foreign soil, has no real alliance with oil rich countries, and a growing middle-class that is ever more demanding of manufactured products, with 1/4 of arable land and 1/5 of drinking water less per capita than western countries.

    What exactly would you like China to do, that’s really what I don’t understand? Beyond an appearance of totalitarianism, it is just preparing itself to survive what’s coming.

    • dirk says

      But Alex, what do you mean? One fifth of drinking water for the Chinese? Do you think, they are going to have more thirst and suffering than elsewhere in the world? I doubt that, really, and also, free market in China is not what it is in the rest of the world, of course, as I read in my Dutch newspaper. Free markets and free speech there, are good only as long as it suits the leaders and the general well being, as soon as the targets and the ultimate goals are not met, this whole free thing has to give way. And I think, very O.K., because, what good things can be expected from the masses of ordinary simple people (the “basket” of Hillary!!)? The world is not, and no longer (after quite some time) the USA and the West, noho way!!! ( as Humpty Dumpty said already,a long time ago).

      • Alex says

        I mean that per capita, China has 1/5th of the drinking water and 1/4th of the arable land that is available in a western country.

        I can go two ways:

        1/ Science makes it possible to live comfortably with said resources.

        2/ China will find those resources elsewhere, by force if necessary.

        • dirk says

          By force is not necessary Alex, they just buy the things up, build a railway or stadium in the African countries for mining rights, bribe the leaders to get fishing rights there. And the NL have less than 1/4th of the arable land compared to Canada or the US, but we export half of what we produce (the government wants to force the dairy keepers to sell their animals, for farthing and belching and shitting too much, we have no more room for all these cows, as neither has China for feeding theirs ,so, buy the soybeans from the US, at least, uptil last week, because the Chinese now have to buy them from Brasil).
          But the case China as an economic and political giant, with their own approach, will arouse much more alarm, of course, from the left as well as from the right, from conservatives as well as from post-modernists and feminists.

    • Exactly! What do people exactly want China to do? This is a prime example why it’s important for Quillette editors to have a sound knowledge of geopolitics. China doesn’t have free press. Well, does the US has free press? China is an authoritarian state. Do you believe the US is truly a democracy? More like an oligarchy. Plus, at least China isn’t waging war on sovereign countries just to preserve its economic interest and maintain its influence. Good thing there’s only one US.

    • ga gamba says

      China sees the planet’s resources shrinking,

      Since the time of Malthus the doomsdayers have forecast collapse due to depleting resources. Yet, human ingenuity keeps finding new sources, alternatives, and more efficient use. It’s not that I’m arguing humans don’t use resources, or that more humans who also have higher spending power won’t impose greater demands, it’s that for about 200 years we’ve kept creating numerous ways to support mankind’s needs as the population grew from fewer than one billion to more than seven billion. Most of us live more prosperous, safer, and healthier lives than even the nobility of just a few generations ago.

      no real cooperations with anyone

      I think the fault for that rests with the CCP. For example, it could have resolved the dispute over the South China Sea with its neighbours by entering into multilateral negotiations, yet it chose to take the more aggressive tack. The result of which is all SCS states are much more constrained to develop the region than they would have been had they chose to cooperate. Beijing could have buttressed its claimed “peaceful rise”, an expression rarely heard nowadays, had it taken a less anachronistic approach, one rooted in the 18th century.

      the West with over 1000 military bases around the globe installed on foreign soil,

      Almost everywhere these forces are invited; each host government finds some benefit in the relationship. The governments negotiate status of forces and visiting forces agreements to define the legal relationship. Of course these agreement may be terminated, as it did when the Philippines decided to end hosting US forces in 1992 – years later Manila revised this. Let’s not ignore China seeks to place its naval forces in countries it deems geopolitically sensitive in pursuit of the String of Pearls strategy.

      has no real alliance with oil rich countries

      Yet, most oil consuming countries don’t have alliances with oil producers. Does Portugal have an alliance with the UAE? Does Thailand have an alliance with Iran? Tell me about the Kuwait-Chile alliance.

      The top 10 oil producers are Russia (10.5m barrels per day[bpd]), Saudi Arabia (10m bpd), USA (9.2m bpd), Iraq (4.2m bpd), China (4.1m bpd), Canada (3.8m bpd), Iran (3.5m bpd), UAE (2.7m bpd), Kuwait (2.5m bpd), and Venezuela (2.4m bpd). The US has alliances with KSA, Canada, the UAE, and Kuwait. China enjoys better relations with Russia, Iran, and Venezuela than does the US, though not a “real alliance”. Of the group, it’s KSA that’s most important because it’s the only producer with spare production capacity ready to enter the market at any given time – about an extra 2m to 3m barrels per day.

      Though not amongst the top 10, Africa’s oil producers are still large, they have excellent growth potential, and they provide about 25% of China’s oil imports presently. China enjoys good relations with many of Africa’s top producers such as Sudan, Rep of Congo, and Angola. China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009.

      An overlooked yet equally vital segment of energy production is natural gas – think of electricity generation and home heating. The top 10, ranked in order of production, are USA, Russia, Iran, Qatar, China, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Algeria. The US has alliances with Qatar, Norway, KSA, and Canada. China enjoys better relations with Russia, Iran, and Turkmenistan than does the US, and of that group Turkmenistan is a vital supplier to China.

      About 60% of China’s energy needs are met by coal. China is the world’s largest producer, biggest consumer, and the giant importer. The remaining top 10 producers are, by rank, USA, India, Australia, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, Germany, Poland, and Kazakhstan. China imports most of its coal from Australia, Indonesia, Russia, Mongolia, and South Africa, of which only Australia is a US ally. As China transitions from being coal-dependent to other sources it’ll likely look to Central Asia, Africa, and Iran as easy-to-deal-with suppliers.

      • China doesn’t have an alliance with anyone because it refuse to toe the line and become the US minion. Do you honestly think that a sovereign country would be pleased to have the military of a foreign country installed on his territory? This is more a form of blackmail rather than a deal between two equal party.

        • ga gamba says

          Plenty of counties find the arrangement agreeable. It gives them capabilities they don’t posses nor need to pay for entirely. This allows them to redirect resources from national defence to national development, for example.

          This is more a form of blackmail rather than a deal between two equal party.

          Ah, this old chestnut. I think you need to get it through your noggin that genuine symmetries of power, competence, skill, or just about anything else rarely, if ever, exist. Imbalance is the norm, especially when we start fractionating all the aspects. This is true for countries as well as businesses and even for interpersonal relationships. We look to others to mitigate our shortcomings, which we all have. Modern countries enter into alliances because they both believe they benefit – this is not the age of tributary states’ rulers sending their sons and daughters to be held hostage by the dominant dynasty. Whether they do so for the same reasons, benefit in different ways, or even benefit unequally, is immaterial. Each thinks it’s better off together, even when unequal, than alone. Keep in mind the potent US hosts personnel from Canada to help run NORAD.

          I suspect the average American gives little thought to Estonia, and probably couldn’t find it on a map, yet because it’s a NATO partner Americans would find their blood spilt in its defence. Frankly, Russia could seize the country in 36 to 60 hours, yet in doing so this would trigger NATO’s Article 5. US forces on the front lines are there, to put it coldly, to die. They’re a deliberate message to the enemy that if you invade America’s ally, you will have to kill a lot of Americans first. Which will galvanise the US into full-scale war against you. The intent is to thwart mischief making.

          Are the US and its allies bluffing? There’s only one way to find out.

  3. Speaking of failing, it looks like this morning that the US wants to provoke a war with Russia and Iran to make the world safe for Israel. I doubt Xi is that stupid.

    • TarsTarkas says

      If China’s economy falters, and there are many possible reasons why including an incredible debt load caused partly by the theft of middle-class savings via inflation being higher than savings bank interest rates, watch out. Getting the people to rally ’round the flag via a military excursion is a favorite tactic of tyrants, and Taiwan is the most obvious target. And if the Red Army has fallen to Brezhnev-level corruption and incompetency and the assault on Taiwan fails, we could see nukes in action. Another worry is a major earthquake breaching the Three Gorges Dam, in which case we could see millions die in a colossal flood.

      • The US economy is way more likely to falter than the Chinese…I feel like a lot of people around here feel a sense of exceptionalism because they are Western. Or at least feel superior because they are Western.

      • I think if you look at the historical records, similar predictions (by capitalists) were made concerning a particular nation organized on ethnonationalist lines employing authoritarian rule and state capitalism. While that regime did end, it ended through military defeat at the behest of the two remaining superpowers. I think the world has at best 4-5 years before China starts revising the map of the world.

        I understand that Xi is not possibly as scary as Putler and his crooked Orthodox Christian Petro-Oligarchy, and that American business has a vested interest in pretending they are not feeding a regime that will last 1000 years, but I find it interesting that the N-word, while used a lot, never seems to come to rest on the actual regime in the world which resembles Neo-N-ism.

  4. Always predict Collapse.

    If it comes true, you are proven correct.
    If it doesn’t, you can claim your warnings were heeded and a disaster averted.


    And thus exists the 4 decade plus cycle of China-Collapsists.

  5. David Santos says

    1. Whoever said it was a model?
    2. It’s being working economically and politically.
    3. The author gives no reasons for why it will fail.
    4. That this man has a PhD is more a reflection of the failing US education system, than an indication of expert knowledge and higher level analysis.

  6. I am continually amazed and despondent on how ignorant these “intellectuals” and “academics” are in regards to basic human nature. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If men were saints and angels then governments might actually do good things.

  7. Andrew says

    I see too many similarities between the Chinese leaders and the rulers in the west. Both seem to know what is best for the plebs. I do not see any true liberal government. All seek to impose the party doctrine on the masses. The further western governments push socialist policy, the closer we will come to see that perhaps china has already realized that the current trajectory would take us to their view.
    Maybe political oppression is just another force of nature in a hostile world the individual will always have to struggle against like cold, disease, hunger, gravity, and time?

    • Jim says

      You have hit upon exactly what the problem is with so-called “Progressive” thinking. Their view is that mankind is universally basically good and all that is needed to bring that out is understanding and discussion leading to peaceful resolution of disagreements.
      They are correct only to the degree that democracies do not make war on one another. (I believe I read that from Condoleezza Rice, but I could be wrong about that part.)
      They are seriously and, for many, fatally wrong in that they refuse to recognize the presence of Evil in the world. All that is necessary for its triumph is for good men to do nothing, which is exactly what they propose.
      You are exactly right that Evil, in the form of political oppression, among others, is just another force of nature in a hostile world.
      OBW, I am proud to be an American because even though we are not perfect our nation has a pretty good track record of opposing and defeating oppression over the 242 years of its existence. And for the America Haters who always bring up the history of slavery, I would remind them that it was in America that the moral repugnance of slavery became an issue, and our nation fought a bitter civil war to end it.

  8. Jim says

    What strikes me in its absence is any reaction to the offhand comment that Trump is “incompetent”. He may be many things, but I would not consider incompetent to be one of them. He won an election that was universally seen as unwinnable for him. His economic policies (read decreased excessive regulations) have re-invigorated the American economy after 8 years of stagnation under his predecessor. He got a tax reform bill passed in congress despite the refusal of any member of the opposition party to vote for it. He has completely changed the terms of the political debate on immigration and even offered a legislative solution, which the opposition party rejected even though it offered much more than they had previously demanded. In Iraq he has gotten the U.S. re-engaged with the result that the Islamic State now has no home to call its own. He has made the NATO alliance stronger by pressuring its members into paying – wait for it – their Fair Share. I am waiting to see how his meeting with Kim Jong Un turns out. In principle, KJU gas agreed to the denuclearization of the peninsula. Under his father’s regime talks like this were merely a smoke screen to hide their continued R&D efforts, but Liberal American politicians fell for the ruse. I don’t think he will be as easily bamboozled, and I don’t think he will agree to anything that does not have very strict verification and enforcement requirements, unlike his predecessors.
    Not Bad for an incompetent who has been in office a total of 15 months.
    In addition, in my personal view, anyone who can make the so-called “Progressive” radical left as unhinged as they have become is supremely competent.

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