Live from TEDGlobal 2013

A tale of two systems: Eric X. Li at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Karen Eng

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Born in Shanghai in 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Eric X. Li grew up hearing a story: All human societies develop in linear progression, beginning with primitive society, moving through capitalism to socialism and, finally, Communism. Sooner or later, all of humanity, regardless of creed or culture, will reach that final stage of political and social development. The world’s peoples will be unified in this paradise on Earth and live happily ever after. Meanwhile, we are engaged in a struggle between the good of socialism and the evil of capitalism. One third of the world’s population lived under this meta-narrative, distilled from the theories of Karl Marx. The story was a best-seller. “We were taught that story day in day out,” says Li. “It was part of us, and we believed it.”

But then, he says, showing a slide of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the world changed overnight. “Disillusioned by the failed religion of my youth, I went to America and became a Berkeley hippie.”

There, as he came of age, Li was told another story, one where all human societies, regardless of creed or language, develop in linear progression, progressing from traditional societies where groups form the basic units to modern societies in which atomized individuals are the sovereign units. And they all want one thing — the vote. With the vote, they produce good government and live happily ever after — paradise on Earth. Sooner or later, electoral democracy will be the only political system for all countries and all peoples, with a free market to make them all rich. Meanwhile, we are engaged in a struggle of good against evil. Good belongs to those who are democracies, charged with the mission of spreading it around the globe — sometimes by force — against the evil of those who do not hold elections.

This story was also a best-seller: according to the Freedom House, the number of countries practicing electoral democracy grew from 45 in 1970 to 115 in 2010. Today, says Li, Western elites endlessly trot this prospectus around the globe as the path to salvation for the long-suffering developing world.

Li, now a venture capitalist based in Shanghai, considered these meta-narratives and compared them to his experience of childhood in China, living on food stamps, versus his experience in the city now — entrepreneurship booming, a fast-growing middle class. In 30 years, China has gone from one of the poorest agricultural countries to the world’s second largest economy — and 80% of the world’s poverty alleviation during this period happened in China.

“So I asked myself, what’s wrong with this picture?” According to the metanarrative, none of this should be happening, Li says. “So I did the only thing I can do: I studied it.”


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

What he found punches holes in our assumptions about China’s limitations. People think that the one-party system must be operationally rigid, politically closed, morally illegitimate. In fact, he argues, the opposite is true: what defines China’s one-party system are adaptability, meritocracy and legitimacy.

1. Adaptability: Political scientists say that one-party systems are incapable of self-correction. Li counters this with the fact that the Party has self-corrected dramatically in the last 64 years, more than any other country in recent memory. The Party’s policies encompassed land collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, and Jiang Zemin opening Party membership to private businesspeople — “something unimaginable during Mao’s rule.” And the Party self-corrects in dramatic fashion. New rules get enacted to correct past mistakes, such as term limits with mandatory retirement rates. We also often hear that China is in dire need of political reform, but Li argues this is rhetoric — even if critics don’t see the reform they want to see, political reforms have never stopped. Chinese society is unrecognizable today as compared to 30 years ago. In fact, Li says, “I would venture to suggest that the Party is world’s leading expert in political reform.”

2. Meritocracy Another assumption is that one-party rule leads to a closed political system in which power gets concentrated in the hands of the few, leading to bad governance and corruption. Li argues that actually, the Party is one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world. Only one fifth of Politburo members come from privileged backgrounds, and in the Central Committee of more than 300, the percentage is even smaller. This is thanks to a body little known to Westerners — the Party’s Organization Department system that guides candidates through integrated career tracks for Chinese officials, recruiting college graduates into entry-level positions and promoting them through the ranks, including high officialdom — a process requiring up to three decades. While patronage plays a role, merit is the underlying driver, says Li. “Within this system,” Li says, “and this is not a put-down – merely a statement of fact: George W. Bush and Barack Obama, before running for president, would not have made small-county chief in China’s system.”

3. Legitimacy Westerners assume that multiparty elections with universal suffrage is the only source of legitimacy. When asked how the Party justifies legitimacy, Li asks, “How about competency?” He cites the fact that since 1949 when the Party took over, China was mired in civil war and foreign aggression, and its average life expectancy was 41. Today, it’s the second largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity. Pew Research polls of public attitudes suggest consistently that citizens are highly satisfied with how the country and nation are progressing. A Financial Times survey recently released suggests that 93% of China’s Generation Y are optimistic about their country’s future. Says Li: “If this isn’t legitimacy, I don’t know what is.” Contrast this, he suggests, to the dismal performance of many electoral democracies around the world: “Governments get elected and then fall below approval a few months later and stay there or fall until the next election. Democracy is becoming a perpetual cycle of ‘elect and regret.’”

Of course, Li concedes the country faces enormous challenges: pollution, population, food safety, and on the political front, corruption, which is widespread and undermines moral legitimacy. But the argument that the one-party system causes corruption doesn’t hold water. According to the Transparency International index of corruption, China has recently ranked between 70 and 80 among 170 countries and moving up, while India, the largest electoral democracy in the world, is at 95 and dropping.


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Li is not out to condemn democracy. He acknowledges its role in creating the modern world. He’s not speaking against its ideals but its universal claim — the hubris — at the heart of the West’s common ills, he says. He suggests that if the West spent less time pushing their meta-narrative on others and focusing more on political reform at home, democracy might have a better chance of success.

China’s system does not pretend to be universal — it cannot be exported, says Li. But that’s the point. Neither is an alternative to supplant the other, but simply a demonstration that alternatives exist. “Let us draw to a close this era of meta-narratives,” he says. “Let’s stop telling our children there is only one way. It’s wrong, it’s boring. Let’s let universality make way for plurality. Perhaps a more interesting age is upon us.”

Eric X. Li’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here »

Comments (14)

  • Eric Chang commented on Aug 25 2013

    I totally agree with Mr. Li that Chinese should remain as a slave society because it’s a superior system for existing Chinese slaves. For those who mentioned Taiwan’s democracy as an exception, I’d argue Taiwan should abandon its freedom and go back to being good Chinese slaves, just like Jewish people should return to Egypt as slaves.

    In fact, the burden of freedom is so great, that everyone in the world should be slaves of CCP.

  • Tomasz Sinczak commented on Aug 20 2013

    Dear Eric,
    I would like to suggest you to read about “In+Direct” Democracy that is a rough concept that combines one party political system with democracy. I hope we could work together and develop it further into let say “democratic one party political system”
    All Bests
    Tomasz Sinczak
    P.S. “In+Direct” Democracy can be found at

  • Jose E. Rodriguez commented on Jul 9 2013

    This is trolling of the worst kind, and very representative of the type of complacent thinking that has Chinese students flocking to British and American Universities. I am glad that Mr. Li has a large megaphone in his country, but perhaps he forgets that that is so because of his wealth.

    1. Democracy is not alien or foreign to Confucian societies. Just Ask Taiwan, Korea and Japan how ‘alien” civic engagement is to them.

    2. China needs to stop saying that their growth is solely theirs. Without Taiwanese investment they would not be where they are. Every major company we associate with the new China has TW, or HK, capital behind it.

    3. The one party system does nothing but hamper efficiency and creativity just ask Hu Zhicheng or the myriad company owners who constantly have to fight with party officers to maintain quality control or fight off cheap (and dangerous) knock-offs of their work made by relatives of Party Officers. In fact the types of bribery that you need to engage on in China in order to do business are Byzantine in scope.

    4. Every day you can find news in China of villagers revolting over the worst kinds of abuse, the stealing of their land, the killing of their citizens. When was the last time you heard of monks being shot for celebrating their leader’s birthday in the Netherlands? In England? In US? Right…

    5. Unfortunately he seems to be painting with the widest brush of all. Democracy takes place in a VARIETY of contexts. Get it? VARIETY. There are Constitutional Democracies, Parliamentary Democracies, There are even Democracies with Kings. So to say that “Democracy” is failing is as informed as saying that “Technology” is failing. Which technology? In what context? European party systems have as long a vetting process as any politburo and they are based on merit as well. To whatever degree Western countries are failing has more to do with the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, the subsequent dumbing-down of education, and the loss of colonies. Let’s face it for a long time the West benefited from abusing other societies directly, now the playing field is more even and the shock is being felt. But that has nothing to do with multi-party politics. Many of the woes of the US have to do in fact with the lack of political parties, not the abundance of them.

    6. For all its growth China is doing very little with that money because it’s all ending in very few hands. There is still no social security system in China. Rural life is decrepit and miserable in many parts of the country. higher education is mediocre despite the amazing potential of Chinese students In fact every major effort that the Communist Party has undertaken since it’s inception has been a dismal failure: the Great Leap F., the Cult. Rev., the One-Child Pol. The one thing that Deng Xiao-Ping got right was to tell the Party to back off from micro-economics and just worry about the large numbers.

    The basic fact is that every days millions of Chinese citizens get dispossessed, cheated, and abused out of basic health, education, and civil services, and there is nothing that the Communist Party remotely plans to do about it anytime soon, mostly because the one thing that is alien to them is trust in their own people.

    • 昊宇 杨 commented on Jul 15 2013

      1. Confucianism, in a political sense, barely exist anymore in neither the three countries you mentioned, nor China. Also, all three “countries” you mentioned are financially and politically connected to the US in a grand way.

      2. The investment came because the investors knew there would be profit. CCP government (mostly) made that possible beforehand.

      3. One example does not describe a whole picture. With that said, Li’s point is that the mono-party is not as inefficient as “the west” expects, not totally excluding the possibility of inefficiency.

      4. That, unfortunately, is the sacrifice a few has to made for the “big picture”. Efficiency over equality. With that said, it needs to be considered that media, as well as people’s focus, tend to focus on drama rather than peace. The portion of those who were unsatisfied or whose right were crossed may be very, very small.

      5. I tend to agree with you that he dramatized the “democracy faaaaaaaaail” part, but fact remains that there are democratic countries, regardless of forms, are performing nowhere as well as China’s behemoth single-party government. Besides, didn’t all economical/financial crisis began in a certain democratic country?

      6. “It’s all ending in very few hands.” I suggest you search on YouTube “Are the Poor Getting Poorer?”, which would explain why that idea is nonsense fundamentally. It is simply unfair to look solely at the things that needs to be done without considering the progress.

      And regards of your general impression of how screwed up China is…let me just say that things are nowhere close as bad over there. That’s where I live.

    • jack ma commented on Oct 11 2013

      As a Chinese Canadian who spent half of my life in China and half of my life here in Canada, I agree almost completely with Mr. Eric Li’s views. It is very sad that some people without the perspective of living in both sides are unable or unwilling to admit that so called “direct democracy” is not the only way forward.

      1. There is no such thing as Confucian society anymore. The overthrowing of Qing dynasty ended that. That’s beside the point. The point is, Japan and Taiwan are prime examples of elect and regret. Japan’s economy has not truly grown in decades, and Taiwan’s economy is only growing because its close economic relationship with China. The main election issue in Taiwan is sovereignty from China, which will never happen as both US and China will not allow this.

      2. Growth will not happen without the environment for growth to be there, why would so many capitalists choose to invest in a one-party country like China but not the largest democracy of India? By your argument, India should be a much more attractive to investors, but the opposite is true. Government policy and the political environment is a major factor in growth, if a country attracts investments and grows, they are doing something right.

      3. Unfortunately corruption is ripe in many countries. The recently arrest Montreal mayor and ex-mayor, the recently sentences Detroit mayor are prime examples. The difference being the bribes in China are called bribes, the bribes in North America are called campaign donations or consulting contracts after the politician leaves office. But unfortunately most would describe the Chinese market being the most competitive despite the rampant violation of copy rights. Some people have even said violation of copy rights some times spur innovation because the large companies cannot become complacent and rely on old copy rights to make money. Imagine what would happen if Apple has won all the copy right cases against Samsung and other major smart phone producers.

      4. This is something the government is working on. With modern technology it is harder and harder for local government to keep abuses under wrap. But the fact you hear about these things are an improvement because it shows it is not so bad that people are afraid to organize and protest. I would hope the spread of social media will curb this problem. By the way, nobody of Chinese decent likes the Dalai Lama, not even Tibetans inside the country. Under he’s rule Tibet was an aristocratic society with nobility and monks ruling over the people with absolute power. Please do not think a theocracy that impressed the Nazis with it’s ruthlessness as a good thing.

      5. The Chinese (at least the government) calls their system a democracy too, centralized democracy. The west call the Chinese system a dictatorship. But have you ever seen a dictatorship with term limits and limited power where the leader can be overruled by the Politburo? Giving it names does not change facts, elected politicians are inferior to career professional politician who worked their way up the ranks. Have you ever asked yourself why concentration of wealth into the hands of few? Let me tell you, this is not a new problem, China seen it at work over thousands of years with the rise and fall of dynasties. But let me tell you, a democracy that relies on “donations” and “contributions” from these few to be able to get elect will not solve this problem. Come on man… lack of political parties in USA? There are hundreds of them big and small. You must mean ruling parties. But this is the thing, for the elite few they do not want more choice, because it is easier to control with two dominant parties, both of which can be bought. How do you propose to increase the number of ruling parties when only these two gets billions to run campaigns? That is why, campaign donation is illegal in China.

      6. Were you listening to the same presentation as I was. Over the past three decades, 80% of poverty elimination are in China. You are just pulling crap out of your behind. The new social medicine program has just kicked in. My grandpa who live in a small rural town is getting 90% of his medical expenses cover by the government. So almost universal health care, I cannot say the same for the US. Education is something different, the old habits of micro managing from parents and stress on exam preparation has really negative side effects. But as you may note, some of the high ranking universities and colleges are hundreds of years old, the Chinese are decades at the most. Besides, look at the education system in India, it is worse by far and I cannot agree that this education system is the fault of the political system. One child policy is the one of the saving grace of China. If the population was not controlled. China would have population of over 1.8 billion and be even poorer and massive food problems. It is not implement perfectly and the enforcement is down right awful, but please, the policy is correct.

      LOL, as to your conclusion, I can say the same for the US. Please do not make these statements without first hand knowledge. Because my grandpa got free bypass surgery just weeks ago. The basic facts is The basic fact is that every days millions of US citizens get dispossessed, cheated, and abused out of basic health, education, and civil services, and there is nothing that the Democratic and Republican Parties remotely plans to do about it anytime soon, mostly because the one thing that is alien to them is trust in their own people.

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  • John Miroki commented on Jul 4 2013

    Many people (especially Chinese) fail to see is economic growth isn’t everything. It’s not even the most important thing. If you take human rights out the picture, we Chinese are now but a bunch of well fed pigs. And, we don’t owe the economic growth to the Party. It was the Party who held back China in its first 30 years of ruling (1949 – 1980). Had there not been the Party, China would be equally if not more successful.
    As far as Eric’s opinions on today’s China, I find many of them superficial and incorrect. For example, when asked how people get heard by the government, he replied that there are surveys. In fact, during my entire life (31 yo), I’ve never been surveyed, and never heard of a single family member or friend was surveyed. Quite the contrary, on many hearings on raising the price of public services (gas, bus, electricity and etc), there often appear to be some public representatives who vote in favor of such raise in price. Again, I don’t know how these representatives get chosen and why they have the right to speak on behalf of me.

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  • Xinle Yang commented on Jun 21 2013

    @E C: No country is perfect. As a Chinese, I feel very lucky that China did not fall down like Soviet Union in late 1980s and early 1990s. Because, as you can see, the living standard in Russia and Ukraine is much much worse than it was before Soviet broke up. Consider the US, a democracy fundamentalism country, still we can see PRISM. In this country, president will be killed if he failed to represent the interests of a certain group. In this country, if you are actively advocate for equal rights, you will be killed. Of course, afterwards, people start to learn what can be said and what cannot be said.

    I am not saying which country is better or what. I just want to say that we should open our mind.

  • E C commented on Jun 15 2013

    China’s one-party system may be adaptable, meritocratic, and legitimate, but in China, there is no debate. Nobody would be able to write an op-ed, or a blog, where they say it is NOT.

    In fact, many of the topics on TED wouldn’t be allowed: Human rights? Democracy? Nope. Go straight to a labor camp.

    Fine, let’s assume Chinese exceptionalism doesn’t partake of those ideals. I believe that some ideals are still better than others. If the Chinese are inherently unable to believe in those ideas, then it really sucks to be them. “My Chinese exceptionalism gives me a system of government where I’m not allowed to have a debate about whether democracy is part of Chinese exceptionalism. I’m exceptional!”

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  • Levi Crews commented on Jun 13 2013

    Reblogged this on Moleskine's Philology.