November 07, 2012

The Value of a Vote and China's Governance Deficit

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Whatever you think of the outcome this morning, it's clear that American voters placed a high value on their chance to choose the next president. In the East Coast states buffeted by Hurricane Sandy, where many are homeless or without power, turnout was heavy.

That's not how it is in China, where the next leadership will "emerge" in a few days' time from the communist party's eighteenth national congress.

Although not a professional China watcher, a few months ago I began to notice a rash of articles telling us how much better off China is with its supposedly meritocratic leadership selection process. What's more, we are told, it's such a great system that the Chinese people themselves endorse it. China's leadership, although selected in secret by unknown rules, is apparently "legitimate." I saw this first in February in an influential article in the New York Times by the Shanghai "venture capitalist" Eric X. Li on Why China's Political Model is Superior. In August the China-based academic Daniel A. Bell was extolling the merits of China's meritocracy in The Huffington Post. A few days ago the China pundit Martin Jacques repeated the same message in the BBC Magazine.

Some contributions in this vein refer to the empirical research of the Harvard political scientist Tony Saich. Saich has carried out repeated opinion surveys in China. These indicate that Chinese respondents are generally more critical of the lower tiers of government. However, high proportions are "relatively or extremely satisfied" with higher tiers, and their satisfaction rises with distance so that at least 80 percent are satisfied with China's central government. Moreover, satisfaction levels have been rising over time.

An alternative source gives a different picture. The Worldwide Governance Indicators dataset measures perceptions of the quality of government in over 200 countries since 1996 on six dimensions -- Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption. Each indicator is based on hundreds of individual underlying variables, taken from a wide variety of data sources. Each indicator is scaled from +2.5 to -2.5, with the global average set to zero. (The dataset is described by Daniel Kaufmann, Aart Kraay, and Massimo Mastruzzi, "The worldwide governance indicators: methodology and analytical issues," Policy Research Working Paper Series 5430, issued by the World Bank in 2010; RePEc handle:

The advantage of the Worldwide Governance Indicators is that they are worldwide; they allow one country to be measured against others on a uniform methodology. For China I'll give you the 2011 results, but the Worldwide Governance Indicators go back to 1996 and they are fairly stable over time.

In the table below, the first column shows that the data include most countries in the world. The second column shows the percentage of countries that score below China on each of the six dimensions. The third column shows China's score. Since we are also given the standard errors associated with the scores, we can also work out whether China's difference from the world average (zero) is statistically significant. An asterisk indicates that China's score is significantly above or below zero at 5 percent.

China in the World Government Indicators 2011

Three things stand out:

  • China scores below the median country in the world in every dimension except one: effectiveness. China's citizens definitely agree that their government can make decisions and carry them out.
  • In two dimensions, effectiveness and regulatory quality, China's score is not signficantly different from the world average. In the other four, it is significantly below.
  • In voice and accountability, China is grouped among the worst countries in the world.

How can we reconcile China's deficit in the Worldwide Governance Indicators with praise for the "legitimacy" of the communist one-party state? I'd start from Tony Saich's finding that Chinese people are least critical of the level of the government that is farthest from them. It would seem that in their society there is still a place for the myth of the "just monarch": the benevolent ruler in the faraway capital city.

According to this myth, the just ruler thinks of nothing but the plight of his people. But his will is said to be distorted by ambitious and corrupt intermediaries -- his ministers, the provincial barons and local authorities, who stand between the people and the king. The king relies on the people to tell him of the injustices from which they suffer; supposedly, only he can put them right. If they will reach out to him directly, bypassing those that pervert his intentions, he will answer their prayers and petitions and right their wrongs.

People who believe this can thus reconcile personal experience of oppressive and corrupt rule with the idea of a kindly but distant ruler who will eventually vindicate them.

One reason the myth endures is that it is open to manipulation. A ruler who is not benevolent but self-interested and power-seeking can exploit it to remain in power. From time to time he will give up some local princeling to assuage popular anger and build his own legitimacy. Stalin did this; Mao did it; today's Chinese communist party does it.

But managing the mythology of benevolent dictatorship is like riding a tiger. For the myth of the just monarch does not make the people passive; on the contrary, from time to time they may rise up in the name of the ruler to act directly against those that oppress them. (See for example Daniel Field, Rebels in the name of the tsar, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1976.)

Finally, in many peasant societies, as China was until quite recently, this myth has persisted until the illusion is shattered by some collective blow. There will be some setback, some outrage, or some scandal that is too deep for the myth to endure -- at least, until some new ruler emerges who can once more take up the mantle of the true king.

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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  • Thanks Tony! by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • A very good read, Mark. I hope you write more of these! by Tony Addison on this entry
  • I appreciate the kind words. by Mark Harrison on this entry
  • Fascinating read, thanks. by Andrew Sebastian on this entry
  • Mark, An excellent piece and great rebuttal. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat … by Mark Allen on this entry
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