Chinese Democracy, Western Traps, and the End of History

Days after the 25th anniversary of the suppression of “pro-democracy” protests in Beijing, Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports on a People’s Daily article celebrating the stability brought by China’s political system:

President Xi Jinping’s ascendancy in a once-in-a-decade generational leadership transition had given many Chinese hope for political reform, mainly due to his folksy style and the legacy of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a former reformist vice-premier.

But the repeated message the party has given out since Xi became president last year is that there will be no political liberalization.

[…] In a lengthy commentary, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper said the country needed to be on guard against falling into the “trap” of Western-style democracy.

“Over the past few months, from Kiev to Bangkok, the politics of the street and public clashes have caused deep sorrow,” the newspaper said.

“Looking back at the ‘color revolutions’ which have occurred in recent years … how can we not say with deep feeling: rejoice that we have resolutely upheld socialism with Chinese characteristics. Otherwise, would China have peace?” [Source]

Xinhua produced an English summary of the article [Chinese]:

“Copying Western-style democracy would probably lead to disaster” and “‘street politics’ usually leads to domestic turmoil and even civil war,” according to the article by Mi Bohua.

The article acknowledged that democracy is good, but said it should be realized in different forms in different countries.

[…] For the United States and other Western countries, anything that accords with their interests and accepts their manipulation is democracy, while those that do not fit the norm are not, said the article.

[…] “In many circumstances, the so-called ‘value of democracy’ has become a big stick for certain countries to practice hegemony and new interventionism,” it said. [Source]

Last week, The Diplomat translated a 2011 blog post by Yang Hengjun, in which he agreed that the West uses human rights and democracy to promote its own interests, but warned that this should not blind Chinese to their genuine value. He noted also that “Beijing’s rhetoric has shifted from ‘democracy isn’t suitable for China’ to ‘China doesn’t need democracy’ and finally to ‘China is already democratic,’” albeit in a form distinct from those found elsewhere. Last month at The Huffington Post, for example, the Center for China Studies’ Hu Angang argued that because the Communist Party represents the combined interests of the Chinese people rather than those of particular segments of society as in the West, China is actually more democratic than the U.S..

People’s Daily warned, according to Xinhua, that “countries in western Asia and northern Africa, Ukraine and Thailand […] have been led astray to the wrong path of Western-style democracy, that is, ‘street politics,’” often with overt or covert Western involvement. Such “street politics” have also arisen closer to home in recent months. The three-week occupation of Taiwan’s legislature by students opposed to a cross-Strait trade pact prompted Red Guard comparisons on Weibo, together with lamentations that “this isn’t the democracy we want.” Beijing’s impatience with delays induced by protests has since led to a suspension of cooperation talks. “If politics simply means taking to the street and shouting out slogans as occurred in the past,” the state-run Global Times reported last week, “many young people said they feel politics has nothing to do with them.” (The article excluded China’s own frequent protests from the “street politics” category on the grounds that “participants were not giving out political prescriptions, but instead targeting specific problems they faced, such as an unwanted chemical plant near their community, or a factory that discharges pollutants to a local river.”)

Another instance of unruly “street politics” on China’s periphery is Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage. Days after 180,000 Hong Kongers attended a vigil for the victims of PLA actions in Beijing 25 years ago, former Xinhua official Zhou Nan warned that troops could also be deployed against unrest there. From Jeffie Lam at South China Morning Post:

His remarks to two Hong Kong broadcasters come as the civil disobedience movement is mobilising Hongkongers to participate in its June 20-22 “civil referendum” – intended to show the public’s preferences for electoral reform. A co-founder of the movement accused him of scare tactics.

[…] Zhou, who also served as a minister of foreign affairs and played a prominent role in the negotiations with Britain over Hong Kong’s future when Xinhua was Beijing’s de facto embassy in the city, warned the central government would intervene if riots broke out in Hong Kong.

Zhou said: “On the matter of the [PLA] garrison, [the late leader] Deng Xiaoping said that it has another function other than as a symbol of sovereignty – to handle possible riots.

“Would the central government get involved if there was something harmful to the country’s interests happening in Hong Kong? We could not allow Hong Kong to turn into a base to subvert China’s socialist regime under the guise of democracy.” [Source]

Another recent 25th anniversary is that of Francis Fukuyama’s essay in The National Interest, ‘The End of History,’ in which he argued that history “appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight.” This conclusion has since been battered by the collapse of some fledgling democracies, the stagnation of established ones, and the rise of a stubbornly authoritarian China. Last week, Fukuyama revisited his argument at The Wall Street Journal, maintaining that “the underlying idea remains essentially correct,” and that “when observing broad historical trends, it is important not to get carried away by short-term developments.”

In the realm of ideas […] liberal democracy still doesn’t have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the ayatollahs’ Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine? Some radicals in the Middle East may dream of restoring an Islamist caliphate, but this isn’t the choice of the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries. The only system out there that would appear to be at all competitive with liberal democracy is the so-called “China model,” which mixes authoritarian government with a partially market-based economy and a high level of technocratic and technological competence.

Yet if asked to bet whether, 50 years from now, the U.S. and Europe would look more like China politically or vice versa, I would pick the latter without hesitation. There are many reasons to think that the China model isn’t sustainable. The system’s legitimacy and the party’s ongoing rule rest on continued high levels of growth, which simply won’t be forthcoming as China seeks to make the transition from a middle-income country to a high-income one.

China has accumulated huge hidden liabilities by poisoning its soil and air, and while the government remains more responsive than most authoritarian systems, the country’s growing middle class likely won’t accept the current system of corrupt paternalism when times get tough. China no longer projects a universalistic ideal beyond its own borders, as it did in the revolutionary days of Mao. With its rising levels of inequality and the massive advantages enjoyed by the politically connected, the “Chinese dream” represents nothing more than a route for a relative few to get rich quickly. [Source]

China’s leaders now reject the very notion of “projecting universalistic ideals,” as comments by Xi Jinping at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum last week illustrate. From Xinhua:

“A person’s shoes don’t have to be identical to those of others but must fit the person’s feet; a country’s way of governance doesn’t have to be the same with that of others but must benefit its own people,” said Xi.

Only the people of a country can tell whether the country’s path of development suits them or not, he said.

“Just like we can not turn all flowers violet, we can not expect countries with different cultural traditions, historical experiences and national realities to follow the same mode of development. Otherwise the world will be too boring,” he said. [Source]

Responding to a recent state-media op-ed by Renmin University’s John Ross at China Law Prof blog, George Washington University’s Donald Clarke asked what it means for a country to choose its own form of government:

[… A]bstract words like “country” are just obfuscations here. The whole point is, who gets to speak and decide for “the country”? Does Ross mean “the citizens of each country”? If so, he must therefore be rejecting systems where citizens don’t get a choice. But then he seems to think absolute monarchy is OK if “the country” wants it, so apparently “the country” is something different from the people who live in it. I have never heard anyone say, “We must respect the choices this country has made” where it didn’t mean, “We must respect the choices the current configuration of political power has come up with”. The vapid language of respect for choice obscures critical distinctions about how that choice was made and whether it’s worth respecting – questions not susceptible to a single right answer, to be sure, but certainly questions that need to be asked. [Source]

In any case, Clarke also argued, the importance to China’s foreign critics of its adoption of Western-style democracy is often exaggerated:

It’s much simpler, really: for example, give people accused of crimes a fair hearing, which means, among other things, not kidnapping witnesses and lawyers; don’t beat up people like Ni Yulan until they are crippled, and then imprison them without crutches so they have to drag themselves around in the shit on their cell floor; etc. [Source]