Does China Enjoy Greater Legitimacy Than Any Western State?

I was listening to the radio a little while ago, and heard Martin Jacques talking about China. I listened with renewed concentration. Jacques was formerly editor of Marxism Today, so he is a man who knows a thing or two about oppressive pseudo-socialist regimes. Much of what Jacques had to say was insightful, but one of his claims seemed surprising. Warning his audience he was about to shock them, Jacques asserted that ‘the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state’. This is, by any standards, a courageous claim to make. Jacques advanced three, connected, arguments to support it. First, he drew our attention to the support expressed by China’s people for their government. In recent surveys it seems that between 80 and 95% of Chinese citizens were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government. Secondly, he pointed to the stunning economic success that China has enjoyed over the last thirty years, enjoying a growth rate of about 10% per year. And this success has not just caused the rich to get richer: Jacques could also have pointed to China’s remarkable success in lifting its people out of poverty. Allied to these claims, Jacques argued that the Chinese have a different conception of the state to that found in the West: for the Chinese, the state is viewed in terms of the family. Under this conception of the state, the leadership stands as the head of the family, intimately connected to, and entitled to exercise authority over, the people.

Each of these three claims deserves further reflection.

Jacques’ first point, resting on statistics that quantified the satisfaction of the Chinese people with their state, may demonstrate rather less than he hopes. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman warns of a trick that our minds tend to play on us. When faced with a difficult question we are tempted to unknowingly substitute an easier question, and answer that instead ...

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