Does China pick better leaders than the US? Well, probably - but that's missing the point. During this period of leadership transition for two of the world's most powerful nations, the London-based Intelligence Squared organised a debate in Hong Kong on the motion, "China picks better leaders than the West". The US and Chinese political systems and national leaders were dissected, lambasted and praised, but when we consider selection versus election, the focus should be on those at the bottom of the pyramid - the people.
Despite the oddities of a form of government that elected Adolf Hitler in 1933 and rejected Winston Churchill in 1945, Westerners are conditioned from childhood to value democracy - indeed, never to question its merits. Many grow up to vote looking at their own bank balance and ignoring the interests of future generations, although others weigh factors such as the future burdens of national debt and environmental damage.
The US political system is as unusual and idiosyncratic as China's model. The candidate who wins the popular vote may not become president - this rarely happens but when it did in 2000, the difference was unusually stark: Al Gore won the popular vote, promising alternatives for oil, but the (Electoral College) victory went to George W.Bush, who delivered war for oil.
With varying effectiveness, liberal democracies are premised on the assumption that leaders may need restraining - therefore the legislative and legal apparatuses check and balance their power. American challengers campaign with promises of "change we can believe in" (Barack Obama, 2008) and "real change" (Mitt Romney, 2012), but when executive power is checked by legislative opposition, the compromises required to govern ensure considerable continuity.
Conversely, China's leaders promise stable continuity, while radically transforming the nation.
America benefits from the rule of law, minimal financial regulation and the creative space and incentives to stimulate innovation. The protection of individual rights is elevated above the People's Republic's prioritisation of collective rights.
China's leaders no longer derive their legitimacy from ideology but from results. The system allows for long-term planning. The few select their leaders on behalf of the many - as was the case for almost every nation at some stage of their development. But it is no longer a Social Darwinist matter of the strongest megalomaniac pushing his way to the top. There are constraints - such as the 10-year term limits for president and premier - and there is a filtering system for getting there.
Tsinghua University professor Daniel A. Bell caused academic waves in the West by praising "China's meritocracy" for producing the most competent and virtuous leadership. China's leadership elite has been filtered by highly competitive university examinations and through their performance at local and provincial levels. However, this argument ignores rampant corruption and the favouritism bestowed through familial and party connections.
American politicians rise up on top of a pile of money. The bombardment of TV ads in the US - the product of much of the US$6 billion that will be spent on this year's presidential and congressional campaigns - is a reminder that money talks. But in China, money walks. Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar, speaking at Chinese University last week, asked, "how do you cure [China's] corruption that's so widespread, that's from top to bottom?"
The headline on a recent Time Magazine cover, "The Next Leader of the Unfree World", was an attention-seeking conceit. But the article inside accurately highlighted a leadership struggling to maintain stability. Growing disparities in wealth, increasing public protest and demands for greater political freedom are stirred by scandals surrounding high-profile leaders.
The era of the smug one-party state avoiding facing the complaining masses is over in China and beyond. Indeed, the number of reported annual protests has been estimated at 180,000. While the issues and the targets of protest are usually local rather than national, it's no coincidence that the world's leading unfree nation is also the world's leading nation of protest: democratic channels are limited. In this respect, Hong Kong and the mainland have much in common.
Democratically elected leaders have long received copious criticism and we should be concerned when they don't - such as in Vladimir Putin's Russia. In fact, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has received so much criticism in his brief tenure so far, perhaps Hong Kong is closer to democracy than we thought.
The preference for election over selection is less about the elected and more about the electors, who must be heard.
Paul Letters is a political commentator and is writing a World War II novel. See www.paulletters.com Topics: Civil Society 18th Party Congress US Presidential Election 2012 Public Opinion Democracy Protest