By Qitong Cao (NYT Blog) May 1, 2015 — Francis Fukuyama’s widely read essay “The End of History?” — published just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — posited that Western liberal democracy may turn out to be the endpoint of political development. So when Mr. Fukuyama laid out what he considered the weaknesses of the American political system in a new book last year, “Political Order and Political Decay,” the Chinese state news media immediately asserted that he had altered his views and now considered state capacity, like that of China during the last 35 years of rapid economic development under Communist Party rule, as more important for a country’s prosperity than democracy.
But Mr. Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, responded that this was a misreading. “My argument is that an effective political system has to balance state capacity against rule of law and democracy,” he said last November. “I think in the United States and certain other democratic countries, the emphasis has been so much on the constraint of state power that we end up not being able to make difficult decisions. But I think China is the opposite, and that’s not a good situation either.”
In an interview last month, he discussed what China’s past and present portend for its future political development:
Q. China plays a major role in your last two books, “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay.” Why?
A. China really invented modern bureaucracy at the time of the Qin and Han dynasties, with relatively impersonal forms of official selections and bureaucratic rules. But for me, there’s a big empirical question: You can see certain similarities between those traditions in ancient China and the system that governs China today, but I think we know relatively little empirically about how the Chinese government works.
For example, a lot of people will assert that China is more meritocratic [than Western countries], but we don’t actually know that because we don’t have good empirical measures of to what extent Chinese bureaucrats are promoted on the basis of merit, or to what extent on personal connections, guanxi, political reliability. So we need to figure out a way of trying to understand that.
Also, China is such a big place. I think that different regions, different levels of government, different ministries all have different characteristics. So we need to understand better what some of those differences are. For example, a lot of people in China believe that corruption is much more prevalent in low levels of government and that higher levels of government are better. But I don’t think there’s any evidence to show that’s true.
Q. You write that China has not had the rule of law because there has never been an overarching religious power in the Chinese state. But you also say that political institutions may evolve. So what is the significance of historical traditions?
A. In India, Europe and the Middle East, you had this tradition of an independent judiciary based on a religious institution, and what happened in Europe is that that institution eventually became secular and part of the state, but not part of the executive branch. So there’s a very deep tradition of having independent judges and legal systems and so forth, and I think that was really critical to the development of the rule of law in Europe.
But that doesn’t mean that’s the only way that the rule of law can develop. For example, the rule of law is also important for commercial purposes. If you don’t have property rights, arbitration, contract enforcement and dispute resolution, you’re just not going to be able to create a modern economy. So there are a lot of functional reasons why you’d want the rule of law in China. Part of the process of entering the W.T.O. was creating legal institutions that would allow Chinese firms to interact with international firms and so forth. So there has been a buildup of commercial law.
Yet the real absence of law, I think, is not at that level. It’s more at the level of the party, at the higher authorities that don’t necessarily feel bound by the same laws. They see that it’s useful to have these laws, but they don’t feel bound by them necessarily. If they want to change the rules to suit themselves, they can do it.
I think that this is going to be really critical in rules that have to do with succession and term limits. One of the things that I think has made the current Chinese leadership exceptional among authoritarian regimes is the fact that there are term limits. You have these three turnovers of leadership on 10-year intervals. You have retirement, a somewhat mandatory retirement age and so forth. Most dictatorships don’t do this. I mean, Qaddafi hung on for, like, 42 years.
But the problem is that that’s not a constitutionally embedded rule. This is just a kind of understanding among the senior leadership, and it’s something that could, in the end, fall by the wayside. [Editor’s note: The Chinese Constitution stipulates that the president, as the symbolic head of state, shall serve no more than two consecutive terms of five years each. However, no constitutional limits apply to the general secretary of the Communist Party or to the chairman of the state or party Central Military Commissions.]
Q. You mentioned that Deng Xiaoping and his leadership decided to introduce more rule-based procedures to prevent a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution from happening again. So this was an economically rational decision?
A. Not just economically, but I think in terms of the survival of the leadership, the Cultural Revolution was terrible for the elite in the Communist Party. They were the first victims of it. So I think just in their own self-interest they decided that they need more rule-based decision-making. In a certain way, that’s been the origin of the rule of law in many countries. Rulers try to evade the law if they can, but at a certain point, they realize that it’s safer for them if they actually have rules rather than just arbitrary struggle for power.
Q. Do you think the Chinese leadership has a similar interest in promoting the rule of law today?
A. That’s a big question right now, whether they do or not. I think, in the long run, they should, but they also want power. So it’s constantly a struggle.
Q. You wrote in “Political Order and Political Decay” that “greater adherence to China’s own Constitution is an obvious path for future reforms.” How do you see the possibility of China introducing the rule of law based on the current constitutional system?
A. You are not going to get a real constitutional system until the party itself accepts the fact that it’s subject to the Constitution and to constitutional rules. But I think that’s something that would be most important for China, because I think there’s been an increase in rules and law, but it needs to reach up to the highest level of the political system and constrain even the most powerful people. That’s really what happened in Europe in the 19th century. You have these authoritarian regimes like Germany that nonetheless had rules, and the rules spread and became a stable expectation of the people.
Q. You wrote that a main reason for China’s success is that its bureaucracy is highly autonomous. What role will this play in China’s development?
A. It’s a complicated issue, because autonomy can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how it’s used. Deng Xiaoping had a lot of autonomy to basically shift China over to a marketplace system, and he was able to do that much more rapidly than a democratic leader, because a democratic leader would have to be elected, have a mandate and deal with all these laws, interest groups and so forth. I think China could make that shift quickly because it wasn’t constrained in this fashion.
There’s also a couple of different levels of autonomy. There’s autonomy in setting the final policies, and then there’s autonomy in the implementation of policy. I think China has been pretty good in the latter. They hold competitions among cities, counties for who can innovate, and so forth. They’ve given the lower level a fair amount of freedom to come up with different ways of doing things. But they also have the higher-level autonomy where they can reset policies.
But there is the “bad emperor” problem. This autonomy is good as long as you have a good emperor, but the moment that you don’t have a good emperor, it becomes a real liability.
Q. You say a liberal democracy such as the United States faces the opposite problem. When the leader is bad, he can be restrained, but when he’s good, there’s not much he can do about the country. So some might ask, why not just build a better meritocracy in China instead of introducing democracy?
A. Well, that’s a basic problem for all hierarchical governments. It all depends on who’s at the top. If you give the [Communist Party Central Committee’s] Organization Department the power to promote what it thinks are good leaders, how do you know that they are going to do that? Who’s going to watch the Organization Department?
This is the problem of traditional Chinese government. You had an emperor and a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy was supposed to implement what the emperor wanted, but then the bureaucracy became so autonomous that the emperor couldn’t control the bureaucracy. So he relied on the eunuch court in the palace to watch over the bureaucracy. But then you couldn’t trust the eunuchs either, so there’s a Eunuch Rectification Office. You keep piling on these monitoring organizations in order to check the power of the subordinate bodies from the top. I think China suffers from similar problems now. You have the government, and then the party to look over the government, and then you have the department looking over the party, and, in the end, who watches the department?
Q. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the importance of “the party supervising its own conduct.” Do you think that will be effective in the long term?
A. As I said, it depends on the people at the top. It’s hard to keep that kind of system going forever. That was a classic problem with the Chinese government. You can have a good emperor one generation and a really awful one the next.
But we are living in a very different social world now. In traditional China, 80 or 90 percent of the population were peasants. You didn’t have a middle class. You weren’t well connected to the rest of the world. So people could accept that kind of government over a very long period, and it produced famines and peasant uprisings and lots of social instability. But I think today it’s harder. I think the Chinese people aren’t willing to accept the really bad emperor for, say, 25 years just because that’s their bad luck.
Q. You say that all regimes are susceptible to political decay. How do you perceive that possibility in China?
A. I think the problem is the problem of elites. You have all of these entrenched parts of the Chinese economy and the political system, state-owned enterprises, ministries, many actors that have gotten very comfortable and powerful, and a lot of times they are going to be obstacles to economic growth, to political reforms and so forth. So I think that’s the potential source of decay in China.