Sunday, 19 July 2009

China: an ideolological alternative?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.

First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China's current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated "6 Whys" saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:

"The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history"

The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.

Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the 'democratic centralism' of the 'revolutionary vanguard party', or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China's political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.

Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country 'India', since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as "the nearest thing China has to a national religion") has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.

A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?


Rinchen said...

Your pointing out the anachronism in the communist rule is well said.
Its the sheer obstinacy that boggles me when it comes to thinking that the communist party would be able to control the minorities and that military strength and discriminatory policies will resolve the problems.

The idea of acutally integrating Xinjiang, Tibet and others into mainland China by problematic policies will hardly bear fruit. Its time the party leaders realise this and at least pave the way for real change.

Thomas Paine Jr. said...

Visiting from The question is, how does China get to a more open and democratic system from here? How do we in the West encourage a freer flow of information and a more rapid transformation to accomplish this, if possible?

justrecently said...

Something off-topic, the white text on a blue gackground isn't exactly user-friendly...

Gilman Grundy said...

@Justrecently - "I can see, I can see perfectly . . ."

Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape

Anonymous said...

Good and interesting point in your article. I agree that Chinese political system is more a consequences of economic and historical situations, and is not an attractive model for democracy advocates as you are.

Nevertheless, your assumed "anachronism" is completely irrelevant because, Chinese system exists, works and lives. Of course you can ask "for how long ?". I can't tell. My personal view is that fundamental freedoms, state of law are essentials to a rock solid nation development.

But what we learn studying Chinese's regime is its capacity to adapt : see how they managed the internet phenomenon. See how they changed media policy during Sichuan earthquake and Xinjiang's deadly riots.
So my (optimistic) bet is that the Chinese system will continue to evolve in the direction of more freedom, less censorship, more justice. I am not sure it will attain full democracy as in western countries, but at some point, it may become an attractive model for other developing countries.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Anonymous - The problem comes when you try to explain how another country could reproduce the Chinese political model without going through what China has gone through.

Anonymous said...

How do we in the West encourage a freer flow of information

Instant answer: They should stop making such a mockery of democracy with all the terrible leaders they are electing.