At a time when the U.S. and Europe are both beset by economic crises, it is natural that the Western model of economic development, including a democratic political system, should be viewed with some skepticism while China's growth model is greatly enhanced.
The Chinese government itself has not sought to promote China as a model for other countries. Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao said last spring that "China never sees its development as a model." Instead, he said, all countries have their own development paths that suit their national conditions and "we respect the choice of their people."
Nonetheless, heated debates have arisen in China and abroad on the viability of the "China model."
One of the greatest proponents of the China model is Zhang Wei-Wei of the Geneva School of Diplomacy. He has written: "As China rises, the influence of the Chinese model on the outside world will likely be greater and greater." He acknowledges that China's experience reflects its own circumstances and so will be difficult to emulate but, he says, some concepts, such as the idea that "good versus poor governance is far more important than democratic versus authoritarian government" might have an international impact.
This idea was also stressed by Han Zhu, whom the China Daily identified as a research fellow of the Sinolizing Research Center, when he wrote that one characteristic of the China model is "good governance, in which the political legitimacy of the ruling party and government does not come from one-time election but from long-term good governance."
A venture-capitalist in Shanghai, Eric X. Li, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times recently in which he argued that, despite the lack of elections, the Chinese government does enjoy the support of the people.
"According to the Pew Research Center," he wrote, "the Chinese government enjoys popular support that is among the highest in the world. The Chinese people's satisfaction with the direction of their country was at 87 per cent in 2010 and has been consistently above 80 per cent in recent years."
He asked: "How do most governments produced by election compare with these numbers?"
Francis Fukuyama, who two decades ago wrote that Western liberal democracy was the end point of mankind's ideological evolution, now acknowledges the quality of China's authoritarian government, especially its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly and relatively well. But while acknowledging the strength of the Chinese system, Mr. Fukuyama says he doubts whether its top-down system of accountability can be sustained and, in any event, the Chinese system is sui generis – "not up for export."
Without denying the remarkable progress China has made in recent decades and the support of the Chinese people, there is a logical problem with those who argue in favour of an authoritarian government.
What if, one day, the Chinese government should lose the support of the majority of China's people – as was certainly the case during a large part of Mao Zedong's quarter-century rule? Will it step down because of a Pew survey?
Unless the answer is yes, it seems pointless to say the government currently enjoys the support of the people.
And, if the answer is yes, how will a new government be chosen? Will there need to be another revolution?
In the absence of democracy, it seems a self-perpetuating authoritarian regime cannot convincingly argue not only that all is well, but that all will remain well indefinitely, with no mechanism for the resolution of problems if they arise, on the grounds that they will never arise.