China teaches the value of political pluralism

When today’s middle-aged Chinese citizens were young, the People’s Republic was a gigantic experiment in egalitarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, and opposition to Western imperialism. One of its core values was unending “people’s war”: a “revolutionary struggle of the vast majority of people against the exploiting classes and their state structures.” Today, the same Communist Party still rules. There was never a specific economic crisis or meltdown, and China was never seriously threatened from overseas.  The Party’s leadership cadres have turned over with relatively little violence or stress. Yet the children of the heads of the still-ruling Party are now “princelings”:

Jiang Mianheng, the 61-year-old son of Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party leader and the most powerful political kingmaker of China’s last two decades [has undertaken] ventures with Microsoft and Nokia and [oversees] a clutch of state-backed investment vehicles that have major interests in telecommunications, semiconductors and construction projects. …

Wen Yunsong, the son of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, heads a state-owned company that boasts that it will soon be Asia’s largest satellite communications operator.

President Hu Jintao’s son, Hu Haifeng, once managed a state-controlled firm that held a monopoly on security scanners used in China’s airports, shipping ports and subway stations.

And in 2006, Feng Shaodong, the son-in-law of Wu Bangguo, the party’s second-ranking official, helped Merrill Lynch win a deal to arrange the $22 billion public listing of the giant state-run bank I.C.B.C., in what became the world’s largest initial public stock offering.

This is a powerful reminder that ideologies, laws, explicit principles, and cultural norms mean only so much. If one party rules and no one can challenge its political control, it is bound to turn into a kleptocracy. Even cynics might be taken aback by the speed and scale of this particular transformation, but the pattern is general. That’s why, even if your political opponents really outrage you, you should be glad they exist.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.