Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels: China May Be More Open to Fundamental Political Reform than the U.S.





[Nicolas Berggruen is founder and president of Berggruen Holdings, an investment firm. Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ.]

...As they try to rebalance a relationship in which China still largely depends on American consumption of its exports and the United States largely relies on China’s purchase of U.S. Treasury debt, these tightly tethered partners in prosperity will only intensify their interaction in the coming decade. Inevitably, as the geo-civilizational plates push up against one another and produce tremors, might the cultural equivalent of subduction take place? Might, for example, more appreciation for freedom of expression shift Eastward and a greater appreciation of governing in the common interest and long-term perspective shift Westward?...

Counterintuitive as it may sound to the Western ear, China may be more open to fundamental political reform than the United States. Since the rule of law in America is based upon the notion that the state itself is constrained by a body of pre-existing law that is sovereign, any thought of rewriting the Constitution is anathema.

In China, however, some intellectuals point out that Communist Party theory posits that the current system is the “primary stage of socialism,” meaning that it is a transitional phase to a higher and more superior form of socialism. The economic foundation will change with broader prosperity, and thus the legal and political superstructure must also change.

That has led some contemporary Confucian scholars to argue that new institutions for the higher stage of development should be designed based on indigenous sources of legitimacy from within the Chinese experience — meritocratic knowledge of the governing class, the people and tradition....

Paradoxically, while Chinese intellectuals seek to expand democratic accountability as the poor become more educated and prosperous, the U.S. has the opposite problem: Too much short-term focus by the citizens of the prosperous consumer democracies is undermining long-term sustainability....

During the first round of globalization at the turn of the 20th Century, Sun Yat Sen tried to blend the institutions of Western democracy with Confucian meritocracy. Perhaps today, as the “rise of the rest” challenges Western dominance, the political imagination may again be open to new ideas. This time, it won’t be just Western ideas flowing East, but Eastern ideas flowing West as well.

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