In the world's oldest university, a cradle of the European Renaissance, one is reminded of a great Italian who lived at the onset of that Renaissance half a millennium ago - the first political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli. In one of his letters to his friend Francesco Vettori, the Florentine secretary talked about his days in exile in a village not far from Bologna.
After each long and uneventful day, when all were asleep, Machiavelli would put on his royal garment and enter his study. There, for many hours, he would read the ancients, converse with them. And in those long hours of the night he felt no hunger, no thirst, and he no longer feared death. It was there that he wrote his seminal work, Discourses on Livy. In it, Machiavelli classified all political systems into three types: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He wrote that each had its degraded form. Monarchy could degrade into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into licentiousness.
Machiavelli represented the fundamental spirit of the Renaissance, the spirit of inquisitiveness. It was that open-minded outlook that drove great discoveries in all spheres of human activities and created the modern world. But over time, as most sweeping cultural and philosophical movements do, the ideas of the Renaissance became abstract and absolute doctrines - a set of universal axioms that must be applied to organise human affairs across all times and places. Inquisitiveness gave way to moral and intellectual certitude. In the realm of political governance, it means that democracy alone, among all other possible systems of governance, is infallible. Election is the magical solution to all social, political and economic ills anywhere, at any time.
But we know from empirical evidence that it is not so. Yes, democratic institutions have been highly successful in delivering the industrialisation of the West; it allowed it to dominate the world in recent centuries. Yet, when it is implemented in non-Western cultures, the record is spotty at best, and miserable in many instances. Indeed, if we examine the contemporary West, one might argue that democracy in both Europe and America is edging dangerously towards what Machiavelli forewarned as its degraded form. It is interesting to note that arguably the most competent statesman in Europe today is also its only unelected leader (Mario Monti).
The problem, however, is that up until recent decades, there really has not been a counter example to electoral democracy. There have been many failures of democratic governance but not any notable success stories of other systems of governance either.
That brings us to China. The significance of the re-emergence and ascendancy of the Middle Kingdom can no longer be ignored. More than one billion people of a dismembered state have risen from abject poverty to make up the second- largest economy in the world. And it has happened without a single election.
Indeed, today's China, like Renaissance Europe, is an experimental society. Entrepreneurship drives its economy; political experiments are conducted at all levels of government; artistic creativity has made the contemporary Chinese art scene one of the most vibrant in the world. Many problems exist, some are severe, nevertheless we may very well be witnessing the formative stage of another renaissance.
As the Chinese renaissance unfolds, the world's political and intellectual elites have two options. One is to deny it. This is the easy route because, in the closed minds of many, any ideas that are counter to the accepted universal truths of democracy and human rights are rejected a priori. To them, there is no need to examine the Chinese case as for certain it cannot exist and it must be on its way to inevitable failure. For many years, they have predicted China's collapse. Such a collapse has not happened, so they simply postpone the projected date by another decade or two and sit and wait.
The other is to see it as an opportunity to reignite the inquisitive outlook that gave birth to the modern world. Perhaps it is high time that we study the Chinese phenomenon with an open mind. Perhaps there isn't a singular set of fundamental organising principles of human society that is effective and righteous. In the current political and intellectual discourses of the West, people no longer seem interested in testable propositions. Ideas are no longer posed as hypotheses, as they were at the beginning of the Renaissance, but as articles of faith. And, perhaps, with China's example, a healthy acceptance of plurality offers a chance for the West to rejuvenate its ossified intellectual ethos.
This brings to mind another great Italian, the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. In the early days of the Renaissance, Vico questioned the doctrine of timeless universal truths. He originated the notion of the uniqueness of cultures and advocated the acceptance of their plurality.
As the contemporary political scientist Isaiah Berlin noted, Vico's ideas directly challenged the notion of absolute truths and a perfect society founded on them, not merely in practice but in principle. Of course, the opposing ideas of Descartes, Rousseau and Kant came to dominate the Enlightenment. As the West led the world in what has been propagated as inexorable progress towards the universal ideal, those early voices of the Renaissance were silenced.
Perhaps the contemporary renaissance in the East could serve to reawaken the West.
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai. This is an excerpt from a recent speech given at the 10th Euro-China Forum held at the University of Bologna