How can it be that the Chinese government managed to achieve a high level of political legitimacy without adopting free and fair competitive elections for the country’s leaders? However paradoxical it may sound to Westerners, the Chinese government has succeeded by drawing upon sources of non-democratic legitimacy.
The first source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed performance legitimacy, meaning that the government’s first priority should be the material well-being of the people. This idea has deep roots in China – Confucius himself said the government should make the people prosperous – and the Chinese Communist Party has also put poverty alleviation at the top of its political agenda.
Hence, the government derives much, if not most, of its legitimacy from its ability to provide for the material welfare of Chinese citizens. It has substantially increased the life expectancy of Chinese people, and the reform era has seen perhaps the most impressive poverty alleviation achievement in history, with several hundred million people being lifted out of poverty.
The second source of non-democratic legitimacy can be termed political meritocracy: the idea that political leaders should have above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. It too has deep historical roots. In Imperial China, scholar-officials proved their ability in a fair and open examination system, and consequently they were granted uncommon (by Western standards) amounts of respect, authority, and legitimacy.
Political surveys have shown that Chinese still endorse the view that it is more important to have high-quality politicians who care about the people’s needs than to worry about procedural arrangements ensuring people’s rights to choose their leaders. In recent decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increased its legitimacy by transforming itself into a more meritocratic political organization, with renewed emphasis on examinations and education as criteria for political leadership.