This is a guest contribution to our debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?
MINXIN PEI and Kishore Mahbubani’s separate statements are elegant summaries of opposing attitudes. Taken together, however, along with the fact they are appearing as part of a debate organised by one of the great proponents of liberal values, The Economist, there is one incontrovertible conclusion to be drawn from them: China has rattled the outside world in ways which were never expected before.
And it has managed to do this at a time when the travails of democracies in Europe, and the painful changes occurring in the US under Trump, fill even the most fervent believers in multiparty democratic values with doubt. That only compounds the problem of thinking through what the meaning of China’s rise might be. Maybe, we are all starting to wonder, just maybe the dystopian visions of people like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis or Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which authoritarianism claims the human future, are starting to come true.
If we want to think about how a China that is economically so successful while making no changes to its one-party model challenges the democratic world then we may as well be clear about what we can, and can’t, impute to the People’s Republic.
First up, though Beijing’s use of technology has been horribly effective in infiltrating and controlling public discourse in China, and seeps into our own virtual worlds, that’s a generic outcome of technology. We need to share the blame: look at how uncontrolled the empires of Facebook and other Western companies have been.
We created this particular monster. China has been opportunistic in developing it. And as the Chinese proverb said, when you want to get rid of the bell round the tiger’s throat you may as well ask whoever put it on to take it off. The West needs to create a more effective regime to deal with the threat to personal liberty—and that means combating our own companies, not just those in China.
We created this particular monster. China has been opportunistic in developing it.
And before agonising about the days when mandatory study of Xi Jinping’s works becomes part of the British, French or Australian curriculum, we need to see things in a different context. The extraordinary thing is not how successful the promotion of China’s values to the outside world has been, but how clumsy and inept.
To take an example, if Confucius Institutes are indeed trying to channel messages favourable to the Chinese government into the consciousness of Western publics, they have done a dismal job. Far from being stand-alone organisations that proclaim the values of China with bravado and verve, they are largely parasitical on long-established universities, symbolic more of diffidence and defensiveness, and under almost constant critical attack.
The same can be said for the China Daily which is often not sold alone, but inserted free into Western magazines and papers. All of this just raises a question: if this is the era of an emboldened, brave new China coming to conquer our hearts, why is it doing it in such a hesitant way?
For me, this can only be explained by an underlying truth—that unlike in the era of Mao Zedong when, paradoxically, an isolated, marginalised China still tried to commit funds to the outside world in support of Maoist insurrection movements in places as far-flung as Bhutan and Paris, the unhappy and contentious outcomes of that era mean that, on the whole, China today is not interested in changing our minds about our own systems.
If China succeeds in creating a future with no political reform, but a fully modernised economy, then theories of development will need to be rewritten.
Its greatest characteristic is a relentless focus on its own self-interest. Where it suits it, it wants to change Western thinking about things that matter to it—Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea. The audience for that is currently a relatively small one. It wants sympathy and space. But it long since worked out that the attractions of Sinified Marxism were limited among those living beyond the second ring road in Beijing.
In this context, China is a threat to the liberal world order not because it has anything close to a set of ideas and attitudes that the outside world might be easily able to adopt, and that compete with enlightenment universalist liberal values, but because of its clear stance under Xi of allowing non-Chinese to hold these values, while resolutely rejecting them for itself. Its exceptionalism of course offends Western desires for modernisation universalism. If China succeeds in creating a future with no political reform, but a fully modernised economy, then theories of development will need to be rewritten.
In that sense, China is a threat to an intellectual consensus. We still need to reserve judgement on this. Much could happen in China that means, after all, it does need to undertake political reform that ends up taking it to a place much more like our own pluralistic worlds. But so far, we have to tolerate an excruciating ambiguity. The game is not over yet—not by a long way.
Kerry Brown is the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, an associate fellow at Chatham House and the co-editor of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. From 1998 to 2005 he worked at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, including as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing. He is the author of almost 20 books on modern Chinese politics and history, most recently ”The World According to Xi,” (I B Tauris, 2018).
Debate: Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise? (June 2018)