China is an interesting study in politics. The Communist Party is a kind of dictatorship. Like any dictatorship, when the leaders are clever and constructive it can be a powerful engine for good. And when the leaders are bad, it can be horrific. The history of Communist China has shown both sides of this gamble, from some of the most terrible leaps backward with huge loss of life, to some of the most outstanding surges of prosperity and improvements in life the world has ever seen.
But whether the gamble is good or bad at the centers, dictatorships generally decay at their roots. Top down power is structurally ideal for corruption and nepotism. Reporting from China shows this is clearly happening there.
As China matures, the standard of living improves, the political system has to improve too. The system at the center needs to stabilize, to avoid wild fluctuations in the quality of the leadership. Perhaps it is doing that in ways rather different from western democracy. The Chinese people will need to judge that.
But the local governments in China by and large seem to be of poor quality and in many places openly corrupt and distanced from the people they should serve. This is where China should seriously consider its own failure and look to western democracy for something better. Local democracy, in the sense of accountability to the citizens and a model of service rather than rulership, is better at limiting and rooting out corruption and incompetence than top down appointment. People cannot serve two masters. It is theoretically possible for leaders to serve the people, since they can regard the people as their only master. However, a local politician appointed from above and serving at the whim of a superior cannot, even in theory, have a true position of service to the people. The service is owed to the superior, and if that superior is kept happy or unaware then the people can be, and are, forgotten.
Now, I can't say that I approve of the communist party. However, it is a fact of life and I do not see it disappearing any time soon. However, if it wants to continue making progress and being on balance a force for good it will need to reform its institutions. Fighting corruption in such an organization by top-down decree and police action is as futile as the USA "war on drugs". Form dictates function, and the form of the communist party currently dictates the corruption at its roots. The only way that can be countered is by reversing the flow of power. It is time that the local governments of of China become elected and answerable to the people of China.
China needs to develop healthy grassroots forms of government to prepare the foundations for its future as a mature egalitarian society. As we watch China over the next decade a key measure of the strength and durability of the Communist Party will be how it reforms itself to become locally answerable to the people. If we get to 2020 and we still see a top down party with increasingly corrupt roots separated from the people, then we know the mandate of heaven will be reaching its end and the Party's end inevitable. If this decade is wasted without reform they probably will never be able to do it.
But if they do reform and repair their roots we can expect China to succeed in its goals of becoming the strongest economy and society in the world. Probably not in a way that western democracies are entirely comfortable with. This next decade will be crucial.