Why does the Chinese government rule the country not phenomenally, but better than one would expect from unelected authorities? I think it's supposed to work the following way: the officials try to work well so that they are not kicked out next election, like in Europe. Otherwise, we get Russia where the government messes up everything (in my view) but still keeps its grip on power.

China, on the other hand, seems to be governed not as bad after all. For example, they managed the COVID epidemic quite well (aside from their initial attempts to shoot the messenger), they managed to dramatically increase incomes and reduce poverty in the last few decades, and so on.

So my question is: what are incentives for the authorities to do a good job other than regular and fair elections? Answers should include the ones that lead the undemocratic and repressive Chinese government to occasionally make good decisions which benefit the public.

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    "Fair" and "interest of their people" are subjective. It's certainly possible to come up with historic examples of monarchs and military dictators who arguably worked in the interest of their people, just as there are examples of "fair" elections that many people think had disastrous results. E.g. the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections, to different sets of people.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 4:39
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    I'm not sure why you would assume a democratic government is the only effective means of governing - civilizations managed to do it for centuries before democratic elections became popular enough to take for granted.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 14:12
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    I'll ask about the pink elephant in the room... are we to ignore how the Tibetans and Uyghurs feel about how the Chinese government is doing its job?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 18:04
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    We don't really know that they HAVE done a good job with covid. We have no reason to trust their numbers; we know they lied about their early numbers, why not their current numbers as well?
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 19:19
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    @CGCampbell I don't think anyone except the pretty obvious trolls and shills is defending the CCP in its entirety. A lot of their actions are indefensible and no one serious is actually ignoring your elephant. That doesn't change the fact that a huge reason that they're still in power is that they have a large backing from the general (Han) public, whose lives did noticeably get better in the last decade(s).
    – DonFusili
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 7:33

8 Answers 8


The CCP is in a strange position. They are nominally Communist, but they've largely jettisoned its economic prescriptions (because they don't work). They're a one-party state (more or less dictatorial depending on your viewpoint).

So they're in power but don't have Marxism to really fall back to as an ideology. They're also unable to rally people around a religion like Iran.

Their best bet to remain in power are thus:

  • appealing to nationalism

  • delivering some level of prosperity to most people.

Really badly managed, a la Venezuela, they'd have to use considerable coercion to remain in power. With their level of success in delivering material improvements, by encouraging nationalism, and by limiting access to information, they can convince most (Han) people, most of the time, to avoid making waves to get rid of the CCP.

That's also a big part of the reason Xi's reign started off with a big anti-corruption drive, again you want to remove reasons for political resentment (another is that it allowed Xi to sideline his political rivals).

So the incentive for them to manage competently is to avoid repeats of events like Tiananmen. When that fails to work, there's always the fallback to more coercive methods - ask Tibetans or Uighurs - but competence or its appearance is a big part of their appeal.

On the international stage, assuming they want China to be a world power - and remember, "selling" China's success to the Chinese people is also in their game plan - they also have every incentive to manage their economy and technology as efficiently as possible. Prevailing against the US and Western democracies requires that, as the USSR found out to its detriment.

China's leadership is reportedly extremely sensitive to the outcome of Perestroika in the USSR and wants no repeat of it but also know they can't compete by autarky or using military means alone.

If you assume that the CCP leadership are not just in it to steal from the state (unlike say Papa Doc in Haiti or Marcos in the Philippines), then other motivations come into play. They may either want to be admired as leaders, they want their political system to succeed or they have a vision for the country. In that case, running the country competently, if it is in their capacity seems better than just running it into the ground.

Plenty of dictators desire success at some level, not just lining their own pockets. Ceaușescu or Mussolini for example. Doesn't mean it's pleasant to live under them. Or that they run things well.

China is also starting out with considerable advantages, being a huge market and country, with a tradition of education and of looking up to central government (as well as a miserable period in the early 20th century without a functioning central government). The same methods, used in a different country with a smaller economic potential, less homogenous population or a different culture, may not work as well.

As far as Covid goes, they have managed it rather well. If Western countries had the power to impose mass quarantines on short notice or throw people in jail for not following medical guidance (and if we had uniformly competent political leadership wrt medical issues), I'm sure we'd be doing better too.

Thing is, when Covid's over, we will be as we usually are, but China will still be a dictatorship.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 9:07
  • "Thing is, when Covid's over, we will be as we usually are, but China will still be a dictatorship." Unless the Chinese government collapses for some reason (e.g. their economy finally imploding, like people have been predicting for years).
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 12:05
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    On your last point, it seems that competent government was a more influential factor than authoritarian government. There are democracies that have also fared quite well wrt Covid like South Korea, New Zealand. They had competency and people trusted them on their medical strategy so they complied, and Covid worked itself out. I guess this crisis is a bonus answer to why governments should strive for competency regardless of ideology.
    – csiz
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 18:19
  • @nick012000: It would be quite foolish to prognosticate about the long-term fate of any great power, regardless of its specific political system. But under the current circumstances, it seems improbable to me that the COVID pandemic will outlive the CCP.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 18:52
  • SK and NZ both had special advantages going into covid tho. China did not, quite the opposite, yet managed to muzzle it. Make no mistake, the CCP is going to trumpet its achievements for years to come. But combine competent government - which Xi certainly is - and the capacity to cajole/coerce your population into following what turned out to be a good strategy and you can indeed pull off results that governments forced to put up with anti-vax and sundry disinfo in the name of free speech (sometimes even peddled by elected officials) can only envy. Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 5:15

As another answer already states, a possible incentive for a dictator/dictatorship to govern a country might well be the fear of a coup or revolution. However I think it is also the case that a lot of dictators just are not content with eating caviar everyday and living in a big fancy palace. They have a vision of what their country should be like. Occasionally parts of those visions might actually be good ideas. Also I think a lot of dictator/dictatorships crave respect from other countries/the international community, this might also incentive them to make sound decisions (now and then).


After giving this question a night's sleep I felt the need to expand a little more about the first point. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith explain in their book The Dictator's Handbook that no dictator has a singular hold on power. There always is a certain class of people he/she needs to keep on good terms with, for example the army or certain elites. Those people might force the dictator to implement some good policies, or else he/she might be toppled.

  • I agree, I'll probably steal a bit of that (about the aspirational motivation side) later on. The part about not everyone being in it just for the caviar is spot on. Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 0:48
  • Good for whom? For them, not for the general public Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 23:45
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    "a lot of dictator/dictatorships crave respect from other countries/the international community" - being able to trade with other countries is also useful, and this is made more difficult by doing objectionable things.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 20:44

Not really. There are other potential end games besides losing an election, such as a violent overthrow or a military coup.

The last successful coup was in August this year in Mali, when the President dissolved Parliament and resigned after being captured by the military, and a military junta was installed to govern the country. I'm not going to get into how fair elections are there, as I don't claim to know much about Malian politics, but the BBC reports that there have been anti-corruption protests in the country ahead of the coup.


To the extent that "fair elections" include the possiblity of leaders being removed from power, it is a similar incentive for dictators to act in particular ways -- which just means doing what they can to avoid being taken out of power.

It is at best wildly controversial to claim that China acts in the "interest of its people." Given it is documented beyond reasonable dispute that it employs the largest system of concentration camps since Hitler, extensively uses slave labour thoughout the economy, engages in what itself describes as "wolf diplomacy" to intimidate its neighbours, enforces a censorship system that literally criminalizes the words "Winnie the Pooh" and blocks all Chinese citizens from freely accessing the global internet, and does so,so many other things that ultimately if not immediately result in harm to huge numbers of their people, it beggars the imagination that one could bracket them as an example of positive service absent democracy. They are in principle and practice the quintesssential modern fascist state, including the whole superior race theory but on behalf of Han Chinese rather than Aryans. This is not a rant, it is not hyperbole, it is well established, carefully reported by globally reputable independent news agencies.

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    modern fascist state, including the whole superior race theory but on behalf of Han Chinese rather than Aryans Hmmm, not sympathetic to China in the least bit but they are not Nazi-level in their perception, and application, of racial superiority. Lots of countries have superior perceptions of themselves. That's not to say they don't oppress minorities, they do. I'll rate this bit a rant and a hyperbole. Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 5:45
  • Let's not get carried away, please - you are in fact ranting and trying to appeal to emotions rather than facts. China is not beyond reproach, but even if you don't like their political system or some of their actions, there is every reason to believe that the Chinese government are sincere in their efforts to improve life for their citizens. And unlike America, they have not repeatedly invaded other countries across the globe.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 8:47
  • So what's so great about democracy anyway? It's long appeared to me that it's a concept broadcast by the USA, so that if it doesn't like the way a particular government behaves it can use its industrial might to bomb the Hell out of the electorate in revenge for putting them in charge. "Regime change? We can build a machine for that..." Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 11:42
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    @MarkMorganLloyd The USA is not a great example for democracy, but it's very nice to have the right to protest against corruption, pollution, or other problems, without risking a decade or more in jail alongside violent criminals.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 12:55
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    @j4nd3r53n "sincere in their efforts to improve life for their citizens" except the Uighurs and Tibetans.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 19:27

I would say no - but your question is hard to answer objectively. I think nearly all dictators have seen themselves as the good guys, who wanted to do what is best for 'the people', so subjectively, at least, they were driven by a sincere desire to do good. In some cases I think you will find that a dictator has actually managed to objectively improve conditions in their country.

As for whether democracy is the only or best way to incentivise a government to rule in the interest of the people - that raises so many hard questions, such as:

  • what do you mean by democracy? When I've discussed the subject in China, people mostly laugh and point to the US - asking 'Why would we want that?'. And they claim to have democracy, just not Western style democracy; do you know enough about it to say with authority, that they don't?

  • assuming we know what democracy is, is that sufficient to guarantee that the government will rule in the interest of the people? Again, look at the US where the two sides are so polarised that it is nearly impossible to rule for the whole of the people.

These things apart, I don't think the fundamental problem with dictators (or absolute monarchs and similar) is that they don't have a motivation for ruling in the interest of the whole people, because often they do; the problem is one of succession: what happens when a good and wise dictator dies? History tells us that the tendency is for that style of government to deteriorate into violent opression after a few generations and eventually revolution. With democracy there is chance to avoid this.


In light of the comment by @CGCampbell, I have reviewed my answer, but I can't honestly say that I feel this is 'US-bashing'. But why did I mention the US at all? Well, firstly, the ordinary Chinese (or at least the ones I know) are just as fiercely proud of China as the Americans are of America, and they feel that most criticism of China is unfair and comes from America, whether this is objectively correct or not. Secondly, it seems to me that the OP is American or writes from an American point of view, so it seemed reasonable at the time to refer to American failings.

I think my wording was quite gentle; I have American friends and colleagues, so I know that many Americans feel vulnerable to criticism, even when they know things are not right, or maybe because they know. From where I stand, this is not meant as a put-down, it is more something like "Hey, I know you guys can do so much better".

  • "do you know enough about it to say with authority, that they don't?" Freedom House says they don't: freedomhouse.org/country/china/freedom-world/2020 Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 9:35
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    Hmm, I don't know freedomhouse - Wikipedia says it is founded by the US govt and was founded in 1941; my guess (without prejudice) is that it at best represents American opinion, and at worst is tainted by the Communist scare attitudes that became prevalent after the war. However, what I was after was more along the lines of 'do you know what it is the Chinese call their version of democracy?' - also, keeping in mind that to many in Europe, American democracy looks not entirely clean.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 11:33
  • It is well-rated in Go-To Think Tank (p. 162, 253): repository.upenn.edu/cgi/… Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 23:47
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    My major issue with this answer, and why no upvote from me, is that while the question compares, or uses Europe (and Russia) you insist on US-bashing. Not saying we're perfect, far from it, but that is not what the OP did, so why have you?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 14:53
  • @CGCampbell I've given your comment a nudge upwards - your concern is valid, and I apologise - I will try to amend my answer. I think the points I make are valid enough, but as a European, I tend to forget that Americans can be a bit sensitive about criticism of their country.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 9:08

Democratically elected politicians do not have any direct incentive to make choices that are good for the country. They have an incentive to make popular choices, which can mean making good choices (hard) and working to make them popular (easy), but the same level of support can be achieved by making poor choices (easy) and working to make them popular (hard). Current US politics is a prime example.

On the other hand a dictator who has a solid control over a country essentially owns the country. Increasing the wealth and power of the country directly benefits the dictator.

A dictator who doesn't have solid control of the country (i.e. the vast majority of dictators) also benefits from the wealth and power of the country, but also needs to work to make themselves popular among the "right" people, and the general populace, to minimize the number of coups and armed insurrections.

The introduction of Big Brother will significantly change these incentives, but that isn't finished yet and change won't happen overnight due to inertia.


(I tried three times to write, this each time the length blew up because of the necessary examples and explanations and as you can see I failed yet a fourth time in this area. However, make no mistake, this is an answer. If you need more details or examples to justify the following arguments just let me know.)

TL:DR - There aren't any (even with "fair" elections) due to the huge differences in power held by the two groups. Under these circumstances, incentives cannot exist as I explain below.

The incentive to represent the Many and whether that incentive exists or can exist at all depends on the power structure of society NOT its method of implementation. In other words, if the balance of power in society is distributed unevenly you're going to have a harder time incentivizing those with relatively more in some proportion to the magnitude of that difference - a few have everything and the rest have nothing? - there will not exist an incentive. Now distribute things slightly more equal and incentives may start to reappear. Get rid of the imbalances all together - at least to some reasonable approximation provided appropriate organizational structures exist to maintain the more equal distribution and correct for imbalances should they grow significant. (What would something like that look like? Check out "Looking Forward."

However, the reason for this is what is important. Fundamentally, you are assuming a couple things that are not necessarily true. First, that elections and the threat of losing them is an incentive in the first place and second that "fair" elections imply some sort of less authoritarian structure to society. (Also, I would argue that the CCP is dramatically under performing what should be expected of them and that their apparent "success" is only relative to the total failures we compare them against - but i'll leave it alone).

Elections are only regular and fair if the the pool of potential candidates is large and varied enough to pose a significant oppositional threat. If, on the other hand, you had to choose from candidates that were exact copies of each other, the election wouldn't matter, as there would be actual choice to make. You may want to take a look at how many things our (American) "polarized, hyper-partisan" two parties actually agree on... then ask yourself how much of what they disagree on actually matters in comparison.

In a more equal society, you would expect a more healthy pool with a greater variance of interests. Right? Why? Because in such a society it would be much harder to a small group of people who share the same opposing interests, to "dominate" or "shut out" others. Given the greater equality, the two groups would share relatively more of the same general interests, but this is kind of another story. Look at America today, and how "easy" is it to present an actual opposition to those in power? Its virtually impossible and quite clear actually. The price of admission for the top spot (presidency) got pretty close to a half of a billion dollars this time around and while the current Georgia Senate elections have been something like 340 million dollars.

The final issue here is that when politicians lose an election they lose power (or you know life gets worse by an amount they would like to not experience). This does not happen in most of the countries in the world (especially the more powerful ones) and certainly not the US. In fact if you look around at what actually happens, it works exactly backward. The politician, subject to some impending election will actually stand to profit more the greater he opposes the interests of the people he is representing. So his power grows the greater he works against the Peoples interests.

Now I can hear it already because it actually is true. What about a politician that simply enjoys the job, and loves the gratification he gets from being his communities representative. The mistake here is that you have failed to see that the politician is indeed motivated to tend to the interests of those he represents. However if the power balances are to unequal this group may not overlap with the general voting public very much. But, when you get to levels we are at in America right now. Not only is there zero overlap, there is utter disdain held by the few against the interests of the "Many".

All I'm saying is that it might not be so bad losing an election if you could look forward to your constituents welcoming you with open loving arms and sharing their vast wealth and resources with you. (Yes, I'm way too slowly explaining Washington's "revolving door").

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    2 more for ya -- benevolence and the guillotine. but only in more classicly "authoritarian" structure because the Many have a target. contrast that to the US where elected officials are in an out or at least "tried" every 2 to 4 years. where the do we rise up and who do we rise up against? is it even our elected officials that are responsible? where the hell can we find all those bankers when you need em? will just any do? see, sheldon wolin's book "democracy incorporated: managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism" its wonderful
    – philrea
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 23:13


WHY: China's governing body has significant incentive as they have 1.2 billion people (the US has 0.33 Billion). China's governing principles is perhaps best summarized in the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven does not require a legitimate ruler to be of noble birth but how well that person can rule, depending on the just and able performance of the rulers and their heirs.

  • I fail to follow this line of reasoning. I read over the link you have provided and it does not indicate that the current government of China meets, or has stated they meet the "Mandate of Heaven".
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 15:17
  • To understand modern China, one must understand its past. A single link can provide only the first step to understanding.
    – gatorback
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 18:21

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