Who Picks Better Leaders: China Or The U.S.?

Nov 3, 2012

By coincidence, the U.S. presidential election and China's once-a-decade political transition are taking place just days apart this month. The timing helped inspire a recent debate, sponsored by Intelligence Squared Asia, with the motion, "China Picks Better Leaders Than the West." NPR correspondent Louisa Lim served as moderator at the event in Hong Kong and filed this report.

In chairing my first ever debate, I didn't expect to have the participants marshaling the likes of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Winston Churchill. They also deployed Plato, Confucius and Eric Hobsbawm to argue their cases in the debate, which featured two teams each made up of a Hong Kong lawyer with a China-focused academic.

Holding the debate in Hong Kong — where leaders have been picked by Britain and China — made the motion a live issue rather than a theoretical question.

The U.S. political system came in for a beating from those arguing for the motion, "China Picks Better Leaders Than the West."

Hong Kong's former solicitor-general, Daniel Fung, pointed out that in the U.S., "it is possible — indeed it has been the case — that an individual who has never governed, or even run a large corporation, could end up in his very first job of government, running the most powerful government in the entire world."

U.S. Politicians And Short-Term Thinking

His debating partner, Daniel A. Bell, who lectures in political ethics at Beijing's Tsinghua University, contrasted that with the Chinese system, which he believes is meritocratic. Those who make it to the very highest levels of government are tried and tested administrators, having mostly served as governor or party secretary of a province the size of most countries.

"You can't have a Sarah Palin, or a [Silvio] Berlusconi, or even a George W. Bush succeed in the Chinese system because they lack the basic competence," Bell argued. "Instead of wasting time campaigning for votes and wasting money, [Chinese] political leaders spend much of their time improving their political performance and knowledge."

He also pointed out the chronic problem of short-term thinking in the U.S. system.

"If there's a conflict of interest between future generations and the current generation, you can be sure that the interest of future generations will be sacrificed," Bell said. "That's not just a theoretical question. Think of global warming."

The high costs of U.S. electioneering also came under scrutiny; this election year in the U.S. is estimated to cost around $6 billion. Fung described the electoral system as looking "increasingly like a strange Rube Goldberg echo chamber, where the Republicans and Democrats only talk to themselves during election cycles."

Fung then invoked Winston Churchill. First he sprang one of the statesman's famous sayings on the audience: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have ever been tried."

But he followed that by quickly adding that "much less well known is Winston Churchill's observation that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

In China, Lack Of Accountability

But there was impatience with criticisms of U.S. democracy from the opposing team, particularly lawyer Ronny Tong, a Hong Kong legislator with the Civic Party. Tong compared the one-person, one-vote model to traffic lights: Even if people run through them "almost every day," it doesn't mean the system doesn't work.

"This motion doesn't make much sense," he said bluntly. Then he joked, "I don't want to openly criticize mainland China too much because I'm in Hong Kong and I'm in politics."

That didn't stop him from citing Hong Kong's unpopular current leader, Leung Chun-ying. In arguing against the motion, Tong appealed to the audience in true populist fashion.

"Hong Kong doesn't get to pick its leader. One thousand, two hundred people get to do that," Tong said, referring to the members of the Beijing-appointed selection committee that chooses Hong Kong's leader. "And look at the result. Do I need to say anything more?" That brought laughter from the audience.

Tong also brought up Chinese leaders' lack of accountability on human rights issues and the 1989 killings of unarmed protesters following weeks of demonstrations in Tienanmen Square.

"A selected leader has a huge sense of insecurity," he said. "This fear of not being accepted by those they rule will make him a very defensive, very often repressive, leader. That's what you get in China."

The Communist Party's legitimacy crisis also worried his debating partner, Kenneth Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution.

"You look at any mature democracy, and no one worries about the stability of the system," Lieberthal argued. "They worry about individual leaders, they worry about particular policies, but the system is stable. ... In China, they worry about the stability of the system every single day."

Lieberthal cited one of the fundamental philosophical differences between the two systems. He believes the American political system is premised on the notion that anyone exposed to power could be tempted to stray, therefore checks and balances — in the form of term limits and a transparent legal system — are in place to constrain them. In contrast, China assumes its leaders are virtuous, and so has a system that maximizes their power, assuming they'll shape a good society.

Both sides tackled the rampant corruption and nepotism in the Chinese system, though Bell attributed this to China's stage of economic development, rather than its political system. This did little to persuade the audience, many of whom asked questions about Beijing's lack of responsiveness to its citizenry, except when they mount demonstrations.

Debate's Conclusion

Those arguing in favor of the Chinese method had a harder row to furrow. In an audience of nearly 500, only 14 percent said they supported this position before the debate began, while 45 percent were against and 41 percent undecided.

In the end, those arguing for the motion managed to double their support to 28 percent. The team arguing against the motion carried the day with 65 percent of the votes, while 7 percent were undecided.

As moderator, mine was clearly the easiest job on the stage, mainly limited to cutting people off when they spoke too long and reminding debaters of their duties.

Fung likened the debaters' task to the Monty Python skit about the All-England Summarize Proust Competition, when competitors had just 15 seconds to summarize Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

Joking aside, it's an unusual pleasure in this Twitter era to devote an hour and a half to a pure battle of ideas, with no multimedia distractions.

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