Published: 11:07, March 18, 2024 | Updated: 11:08, March 18, 2024
PDF View
Do party interests always represent national interests?
By David Cottam

Being a party member is an essential prerequisite for anyone wishing to enter politics, both in China and in Western countries. Whether this has a positive or negative impact on the national interests of those countries varies widely according to their respective models of government and political philosophies.

In China, the overwhelming dominance of one party means that party and national interests are generally aligned. In contrast to the West, China’s political model is non-adversarial, rooted in the traditional Confucian and Taoist values of meritocracy, hierarchy and harmony. Adherents of Confucian ethics are wary of the confrontational aspects of the “I win, you lose” liberal democratic approach. They argue that competitive Western democratic practices such as party-political campaigns, debates and elections have a negative impact on harmonious relations in society. The constant, divisive attacks on government policy, which are a daily feature of Western multiparty political debate, are therefore absent in China. Instead of holding government to account by having opposition parties that attack it and offer alternative visions, the Confucian way is to ask how the political meritocracy can be improved, and its disadvantages minimized. Most notably, corruption and insufficient checks against abuses of power are obvious threats to political meritocracy and need guarding against. Notwithstanding this, the fundamental belief here is that leaders selected in a meritocratic rather than democratic system are better able to promote the well-being of the people and maintain a harmonious society. In such a system, the overriding purpose of the dominant party is seen as governing harmoniously in the interests of the people, so party interests and national interests are aligned. 

In the West, the alternative political systems of meritocracy (selecting leaders with superior ability) and democracy (electing leaders through the ballot box) have long been debated. Over 2,000 years ago, in his seminal work, The Republic, Plato famously criticized democracy and advocated a meritocratic political ideal. Although this was certainly influential in subsequent Western political thinking, the West was more strongly influenced by the concept of individualism arising from both its Christian and Age of Enlightenment heritage. This helps explain why democracy, with its emphasis on equality and individual rights, is the norm in the West, rather than meritocracy.

In Western democracies, in contrast with the single-party, non-adversarial, meritocratic and Confucian approach of China, there is always more than one significant party striving for power. This provides people with choices and facilitates the removal of unpopular governments. However, it also means that there isn’t the same connection between party interests and national interests that exists in China. Whereas party and national loyalties are generally viewed as synonymous in China, in Western countries this really isn’t the case. Politicians always have an eye on the next election and always want to undermine the other parties even when this means going against the national interest. Each party attacks the other rather than working together in the national interest. 

In the UK, the weekly parliamentary spectacle of Prime Minister’s Questions is the most obvious illustration of this phenomenon. At this televised, rowdy, confrontational fixture of British democracy, government policies and actions, irrespective of their merits, are always roundly condemned and ridiculed by the opposition parties. It is the very antithesis of the harmonious, cooperative approach of Confucian advocates in China. In Britain and other Western countries, national unity and pursuing the national interest at all times won’t happen until politicians stop obsessing about the next election, stop courting voters by pretending that all their party’s policies have been unfailingly successful, and stop attacking the other parties’ policies on principle, irrespective of their actual merits. 

In short, Western politicians need to abandon the practice of putting party interests over national interests. Only then will it be possible to achieve good government. In China, this is achieved by having only one significant party. Despite Western criticism that this system is “undemocratic” and fails to hold governments to account, it does mean that party and national interests generally coincide. A strong party in China means a strong national government. Ironically, for British, American or European two-party or multi-party states to achieve the same ends, the opposite needs to happen; the power of the parties needs to be weakened. In Britain, for example, this can be achieved by a raft of reforms, including power-sharing through proportional representation; the abolition of the whip system which compels MPs to support the party line irrespective of their own views; the reconfiguration of government and opposition benches in the legislature to make it less confrontational; and the selection of parliamentary candidates by open primary elections rather than through local party association patronage. Only then will a less adversarial legislature be created, enabling MPs to pursue national rather than party interests. 

Whether this will happen in the near future is doubtful. In most Western countries, there are too many vested interests within the powerful party machines for even moderate reform to be contemplated. This is a great pity as a number of Western democracies are in dire need of some Confucian wisdom if they are to improve the quality of their political leaders, increase harmony within the population, and ensure that national rather than party interests always take precedence.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.