I finally got around today to watching the Idea Festival debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei. It's lively and interesting, and becomes more so as it progresses. My major take-away is that the pro-democracy side of the argument is most vulnerable when it makes global claims (the 120 democracies in the world gaining adherents in some sort of happy arc of history towards freedom and justice for all). That kind of vision is easily discredited, and Li gained a lot of audience sympathy for instance by reference to the dysfunctional condition of US and European democracies, and by a comparison of the 'clean', successful autocracies of HK, Singapore and Qatar and the corruption of Greece and Italy. In doing so he kept the attention off any real deep-dive criticism of the true flaws and miseries of the Chinese system. Would-be proponents of democracy for China take note - a more nuanced version of the argument needs to encompass the flaws and inconsistencies of the western democratic model and thus establish a less assailable foundation for the critique of China's current system itself. Otherwise it is easy for the EXLs of this world to cry hypocrisy and claim to have exposed your democratic dream as a sham.
Below are my live reactions to the video:
Considering Kaiser Kuo's endorsement on the always-excellent Sinica podcast of Li as the 'first sword' of the apologists of authoritarian rule, by the end of Li's closing statement around 13:30 I'm a bit disappointed. The 'the CCP has a superb track record and hence will continue to flourish' argument is weak, and would be as weak in an investment analysis as is it in this political critique.
His position is getting stronger around 20:00 comparing satisfaction in China with the disarray of western democratic systems. 22 minutes in on corruption pretty good - 3/4 of non-western countries in the top 20 cleanest of Transparency International index are authoritarian (Minxin Pei's rejoinder that they're all city states with low monitoring costs is right on the button), while plenty of western democracies (Greece, India, Italy) are far from clean. Nice concise survey of the wild times of the industrializing US too.
Eric Li: around 30 minutes - the breadth of change that the one-party system has been able to encompass since foundation are far greater than democracies have had to deal with, but it has been flexible enough to keep up with the pace of that change. Minxin Pei - the party hasn't changed that much, the gap between the political system and economic/social reality is changing fast, either the former must change or the pace of growth and opening must slow quickly.
Minxin Pei paints a picture around 34 minutes of a split between party elites fueled by social discontent that will be the start of a transition to multi-party democracy. Sounds a bit optimistic - that kind of split would be more likely to turn very nasty than herald political reform.
38 minutes - EXL: a fallacy to equate democratic elections with legitimacy; like a legally binding contract on a sub-prime mortgage loan: morally illegitimate. MXP: that legal legitimacy is actually moral legitimacy too - noone thinks otherwise.
MXP - democracy will happen in China within 10-15yrs from now.
EXL - political liberty/rights come from men, so they're not absolute, they're negotiable. MXP - that's ok, but in China (and autocracies) one class of people has lots more rights than the regular people - regardless of moral relativism that's wrong because the negotiation happens from a totally unbalanced power dynamic.
EXL - regarding the new democracies (Taiwan, Korea etc.) it's too early to pass judgement on the success of that transition, particularly with corrupt former presidents in jail.