How a Western-educated fund manager became a democracy basher

February 14, 2017 11:20
Li Xun says China's one-party system is so far the most successful model, especially for emerging economies with social conditions drastically different from those of the West. Photo: Our Hong Kong Foundation

“The Chinese Communist Party was established way ahead of the People’s Republic and it always comes ahead of the nation… The party is from the Chinese society but it is always superior to the society itself,” Eric Li Xun told a packed auditorium in Hong Kong.

Li, groomed in the University of California, Berkley, and Stanford, runs a venture fund called Chengwei Capital, founded in 1999 with offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

“I do deals from Monday to Friday and study socialism and the Communist Party on weekends,” he said.

When the world has seen in recent years more of the flaws of Western democracy vis-à-vis Beijing’s strengths in keeping its economic wheels turning, the lure of the so-called “China Model” or “Chinese characteristics” with one-party dictatorship may look more plausible to some observers.

Many ethnic Chinese, who graduated from top-notch universities overseas to become members of the intellectual and corporate elite, have become cheerleaders of the Beijing polity.

Li oversees some US$1 billion worth of investments but he is more well-known among political scientists and China experts for his views about the supremacy of the mandarins in Zhongnanhai and their ruling philosophy.

He first caused a stir with a controversial 2012 column in the New York Times on why China’s political model is superior, followed by another piece in Foreign Affairs called The Life of the Party: The Post-Democratic Future Begins in China.

His 2013 TED talk in which he reeled off the merits of China’s political system has received more than 2.3 million hits.

He is also a founding member of The Observer (, a Chinese political and social news portal that commands a cult following.

“I’m not a politician, an intellectual or a party member. Revolutionary songs and gunfire greeted me when I was born in Shanghai at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when my father, a university professor, was already jailed for spreading counter-revolutionary thoughts.

“But the Chinese Communist Party today, in my view, is a synonym for reform,” Li told a recent local forum hosted by Our Hong Kong Foundation, a pro-Beijing think tank headed by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

“The West has been preaching that democracy means good governance, market economy means economic prosperity and rule of law means justice. But in truth, bipartisanship, democratic elections and separation of powers, as a one-for-all formula, has failed to function well in numerous countries due to adaptability problems, and one recent disastrous example is the Arab Spring,” he told the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

Li is typical of the growing number of China’s crème de la crème, who had once longed for Western freedoms and gone to the United States or Britain for higher education but eventually ended up as detractors of democracy or universal values that the free world is promoting to other nations.

“Democracy should have more than one form and definition… There is no single system that can suit all places. The West cannot lecture on others or impose any particular model on any place. Democracy is an aim in the US, while authoritarianism and dictatorship are the means for Beijing to get things done,” he wrote in a 2012 commentary.

“Politicians and voters lack any long-term vision. That’s the weak underbelly of the system… People vote for anyone who promises to cut taxes or boost government spending, but one-party dictatorship guarantees continuity of policies. Democracy usually degenerates into a game of populism and kiting cheques for votes but the Communist Party meritocracy does not.

“The party is a unique hierarchy that has democratic elements in the grassroots, meritocracy at the top and room for experiments and maneuver in between.

“It normally takes two to three decades for a cadre to rise to the politburo, the party’s supreme decision-making body… Xi Jinping is usually labelled a princeling but he used some 30 years to climb the ladder to take over the helm of the party and the nation, although his father Xi Zhongxun was a respected party patriarch. He served in a number of provinces and municipalities, with a combined population of over 150 million, before he was anointed as general secretary in the party plenum in 2012.

“Xi started as deputy party secretary of a poverty-stricken county in northern China in 1982 and was later transferred to southeastern Fujian province where he spent 17 years. He became the party chief of Zhejiang province in 2002 and was subsequently promoted to lead Shanghai in 2007 before becoming a politburo standing member in the same year.

“But look at George Bush or Barack Obama when they became US President. Their experience and career history can’t bear comparison to that of a county chief in China.

“And Western scholars like to jump to the conclusion that the growth of China’s middle class and their political awakening bode ill for the party’s ruling status – The Economist calls it 225 million reasons for China’s leaders to worry, but the truth is quite the opposite: they have become the core advocates of the party.”

This article appeared in the February issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly

Yan Lee contributed to this story 

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Xi Jinping (third, left) is seen in a file photo. One of the merits of the "China Model" is that cadres have to spend decades rotating around different places before rising to the top of the politburo. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong Economic Journal