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China Flirting with Democracy?

Election day in America isn’t the only important news today. Reuters reported this morning that Chinese President Hu Jintao is calling for a more democratic system for selecting members of the ruling politburo in his country, partially due to the crises of legitimacy and popular unrest that have plagued China for the past few years.

Although his proposals fall far short of democracy as it would be understood in the West (or in India or Japan for that matter), they are interesting for a country that has resisted anything that bears even slight resemblance to democracy for more than half a century:

Under the proposal, a Politburo with, say, 25 seats would be contested by a maximum of 30 candidates, leaving five of the candidates put forward by party power-brokers at risk of defeat.

Given the Standing Committee is chosen from the Politburo, such a reform could also lead to surprises at the most elite level of the party, which is normally decided by painstaking consensus in a series of back-room negotiations.

China experts said that of the main candidates for both the Politburo and Standing Committee this time, there are a few whose chances could be improved in a competitive Politburo vote and some who would probably sweat over the outcome.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, said such a vote might help reputed reformers such as Wang Yang, Guangdong party boss, and Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s powerful organization department.

These are baby steps, to be sure, but here’s the interesting thing: Despite its great economic success, China’s government is wrestling with the need to move toward democracy in a much more serious and far-reaching way.

Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” has taken a lot of beating over the years, but this is Exhibit A that he was on to something important, and that liberal democracy has in fact won the ideological competition. As its power rises and its economy grows, even China remains powerfully drawn toward ideals like the rule of law, democratic selection of leaders, the right of ordinary people to speak freely, and so on.

History is full of surprises, and Via Meadia doesn’t feel up to predicting where China will go. But it is certainly noteworthy that even China, which is far and away the most successful authoritarian state in the contemporary world, if not history, feels the need to bolster its legitimacy with democratic reforms.

There aren’t many democracies around that feel the need to bolster their legitimacy with authoritarian reforms.

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