A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?

China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one anointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.

This week will witness an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. On Tuesday the next American president will be elected. Two days later, the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party will select the new Chinese president and prime minister.
The contrast could hardly be greater.
Americans in their tens of millions will turn out to vote. In China the process of selection will take place behind closed doors and involve only a relative handful of people.
You are probably thinking, "Ah, America at its best, China at its worst - the absence of democracy. China's Achilles heel is its governance. This will be China's downfall."
I want to argue quite the contrary.
You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.
But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.
Think of Italy. It is always voting, but the enduring problem of Italian governance is that its state lacks legitimacy. Half the population don't really believe in it.
Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. How come?
In China's case the source of the state's legitimacy lies entirely outside the history or experience of Western societies.
In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.
Given the sheer size and diversity of the country, this is hugely problematic. Between the 1840s and 1949, China was occupied by the colonial powers, divided and fragmented. The Chinese refer to it as their century of humiliation.
They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.
There have been many examples in history. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies, above all, in its relationship with Chinese civilisation.
But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?


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