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There's a widespread view in the West that China's great weakness is its system of governance. Above all, the absence of a Western-style democracy is seen as depriving government of legitimacy. It's certainly true that China lacks a Western-style democracy, but does that mean its government is shorn of legitimacy? According to Pew polls and other similar evidence, the Chinese government enjoys satisfaction ratings that are rather superior to those of their Western counterparts.

One reason, of course, is China's extraordinary economic performance. For more than three decades, the economy has grown about 10 per cent a year, matched by a not dissimilar rise in living standards. There's a deeper reason, though. The Chinese view government in a very different way from the West. In the latter, government is seen in a utilitarian context, of what it can deliver for the voter. In the Chinese tradition, government is regarded as an extension of the family; indeed, government was modelled on the family. Far from being perceived as a somewhat remote agency, the state is regarded as the head of the Chinese family.

There's another fascinating difference. Western countries are nation-states. China, in contrast, is primarily a civilization-state; it has only described itself as a nation-state for little more than a century. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese see themselves in civilizational terms – and they regard the state as the embodiment and defender of Chinese civilization.

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Finally, in the Western tradition, the most important political value is democracy. For the Chinese, it's meritocracy. While we give overwhelming emphasis to the way in which government is selected, the Chinese prioritize meritocracy, and the competence of government, its leaders and the bureaucracy.

So, the problem with the Western debate about the nature of Chinese governance is the refusal to understand and engage with Chinese culture, the insistence on making sense of China in solely Western terms. You can't. China is profoundly different and will remain so.

Does this mean China won't become more democratic? Not at all, if, by democracy, we mean greater representivity, accountability and transparency. But it's very unlikely that China will become a Western-style democracy. The American sinologist Lucian Pye observed that political cultures are fundamental in shaping political systems. And political cultures are very diverse, as we can see so vividly in the Chinese case.

Exactly what forms the process of democratization in China will take is impossible to predict. Certainly, there will be an increasingly open and vibrant media; the boundaries of discussion will widen; new movements will arise; debates in the Communist Party will become more accessible to society; voting will spread from the villages to the cities. But given Chinese history, it seems likely that state sovereignty will continue to take precedence over popular sovereignty.

Chinese governance will learn from the West while remaining profoundly different. But it won't be a case of one-way traffic. Given China's growing influence in the world, the West will be obliged to take a close interest in the Chinese traditions of meritocracy and competence. While the Chinese state is a remarkably competent institution, Western states leave much to be desired. Democratic they may be, but their governance remains singularly amateurish.

Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, will be speaking at the March 21-23 Global Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Fragility of Freedom at McGill University.

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