Martin Jacques is out to shock people by claiming that 'the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state'. Me, I'm not shocked. Given everything I've read in the past by Jacques on the subject of China... well, I'm not shocked.
The nub of his case is that, despite the lack of democracy, the Chinese state enjoys broad legitimacy with the Chinese people. This is because the state's most important responsibility in China is seen as being to act as the guardian of Chinese civilization by maintaining the unity of the country; and according to survey findings more than four-fifths of the population are satisfied with their government.
My argument here will be that: (a) Jacques is right in his supposition that political legitimacy can be based on something else than democratic elections and the other structures and norms of a democratic polity; but (b) his is a piece of anti-democratic apologia nonetheless.
(a) By accepting if we do - and we should - that nations and peoples have a right to self-determination, we accept that democracy may not be embraced by every country. A given populace may be contented with despotism or autocracy and if that is truly their will, then so be it.
(b) However, does Jacques really know that the Chinese people, either as a whole or in their majority, do not want democracy? Has the question been put to them in so many words, not of how satisfied they are with their government, but whether or not they want democracy? Quite apart from this, contrary to his own suggestion that there aren't universal standards in this matter ('the Chinese have a quite different attitude towards government to that universal in the West') it is in fact one of the clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Article 21.1) that:
Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
How would it be if we took some other fundamental human rights - the right to life, liberty and security of person (3), the right against torture (5), or against arbitrary arrest (9), the right to freedom of opinion and expression (19) - and made a case for the legitimacy of some state or other even though it was in the habit of widely violating these rights? You know: people are broadly satisfied with the government, more than 80 per cent of them, despite the torture, the disappearances, the constraints on the press etc. I don't know how many people in China want democracy, but some surely do and their moral claim to it is good notwithstanding the putative legitimacy of the Chinese state, one that doesn't have a glowing record on human rights generally. (Via Mick.)