FOR ALL who believe that people are endowed with inalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that just governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, it was alarming to hear the loud applause and cheers that greeted Xi Jinping on July 1st, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party. Speaking at Tiananmen Square, China’s leader had just pledged that any foreigner who tried to bully China would “dash their heads against a Great Wall of steel, forged from the flesh and blood of over 1.4bn Chinese people”. The party crushes individual liberties with despotic ruthlessness. Yet its leaders are sure that they govern with the consent of the vast majority. As a result they claim to enjoy as much legitimacy as any democracy.

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It would be dangerous complacency to dismiss the cheering in the square as an empty show. True, the crowd was hand-picked and bused in hours ahead of Mr Xi’s arrival. Almost all details of the event were kept secret beforehand. But as often with Chinese officials’ paranoia, it was probably unnecessary. Without prompting, lots of ordinary people express sincere admiration for Mr Xi and would cheer him in person if given the chance.

The party sees lots of promising forces coming together. After 40 years of economic, technological and military progress, it is ready to take credit for being an indispensable source of wisdom, guiding China’s rise. At the same time, a crisis of confidence grips much of the democratic world. Officials delight in comparing their autocracy with what they portray as Western disarray. They like to point at America, mocking it as a hellhole of covid-19 deaths, racist policing, gun violence and partisan paralysis.

China’s leaders are, in effect, trying to take established definitions of representative government and redefine them to suit the party. Where America’s Declaration of Independence called for free men to pursue happiness as each saw fit, China’s media say the party seeks “happiness for the people”—an unabashedly top-down endeavour. Rather than echo Abraham Lincoln’s call for government of, by and for the people, party mouthpieces praise Mr Xi as a “people’s leader” whose years of selfless service led him to “people-centred development thinking” that focuses on “the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority”.

Western political systems devote much thought to how governments earn and keep the consent of the governed, whether through elections or under the continuous scrutiny of a free press, opposition parties and an independent judiciary. The party argues that it deserves to rule because of the impressive things that it does, and that it is held to account by its own self-discipline.

Chinese claims to performance legitimacy, to use the jargon of political scientists, are often strikingly detailed, and not especially ideological. All summer, party organs have praised Mr Xi for providing better education, more stable and satisfactory incomes, more reliable social-security payments, higher-quality medical services, more comfortable housing and a more beautiful environment. This focus on real-world problem-solving is called proof that “socialist democracy”, meaning rule by unelected technocrats, is more “authentic” than Western political systems. As Chinese officials tell it, Western politicians only worry about some people’s interests every few years at election time.

Though Mr Xi is an austere authoritarian, sternly demanding hard work, discipline, and sacrifice from party members and the masses alike, he also has a populist side. He and his advisers are careful to buttress dry lists of achievements with emotive stories about heroic party workers, including those who died as martyrs in battle or while serving in harsh and dangerous places. A centenary gala at the Olympic stadium in Beijing featured a series of elaborate mini-dramas, such as one depicting white-coated doctors and nurses battling covid-19.

When Chaguan was first posted to Beijing as a reporter, 23 years ago, officials were somewhat defensive about one-party rule. They described their political system as a work in progress, befitting a China that was still poor. The party could be hard to spot as reformist leaders wooed foreign businesspeople. Visiting bigwigs would often meet government ministers, city mayors and university presidents, rather than each institution’s real boss, its party secretary. Now senior officials openly talk of their faith in the party like priests describing a vocation. “East, west, south, north and centre; the party leads everything,” says Mr Xi.

Ahead of the anniversary Mr Xi has toured revolutionary sites and urged study of the party’s history. That does not include Mao-era cruelties, which have been largely omitted from centenary-year reflections. People who insist on remembering the millions of deaths caused by the party’s worst mistakes risk being accused of “historical nihilism”, or the crime of slandering party heroes.

When the majority falls silent

The party is increasingly unwilling to accept any principled criticism of its 21st-century autocracy, which it describes as the moral equal of any democracy. In truth, that claim is untested. For one thing, censors, propagandists and security agencies devote so much effort to hiding errors and silencing critics that it is not possible to say public consent is fully informed. For another, every political and economic system eventually makes mistakes that are too big to conceal, such as a financial crash or defeat in war.

As plenty of Western experts could attest, reputations for competence are powerful assets right up until they are not. China has avoided a grave, society-shaking crisis since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. But one will come and, at that point, other forms of legitimacy will be needed. Even the party’s focus on serving majority interests is a problem. It involves trampling on groups that are millions strong, from Muslims in Xinjiang to democrats in Hong Kong. At 100 years old, this remains a party to which not all are invited.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “It works until it doesn’t”