The Fallacy of ‘Chinese Characteristics’: Critique of Liberal Democracy Misplaced and Premature

Chinese Characteristics: Night view of the city around Hejiang Tower, Huizhou City, Guangdong Province, China

Night view of the city around Hejiang Tower, Huizhou City, Guangdong Province, China

Amongst political philosophers, it has of late become fashionable to hail China as a model of effective governance. The country’s rapid development – according to the World Bank the fastest sustained growth of a major economy ever in world history – seems to imply that it has found an alternative, and much more efficient, way of government that assures both strong growth and political stability — Chinese Characteristics. Western liberal democracy, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, is being eagerly dismissed as worn-out and tired: a has-been no longer fit for purpose in an age of dynamic technological – and societal – change.

Writing in The Economist, Chinese venture-capitalist and political scientist Eric Li, merrily hops on the bandwagon with an essay as fascinating as it is contradictory – and dead wrong besides – in an attempt to showcase the marvels of the ‘Chinese Way’ – and expound on the countless perceived failings and disappointing outcomes of the West’s ‘inferior’ ways.

Li, and with him most Chinese political scientists whose thoughts mostly matured at universities that discourage a truly free exchange of ideas, argues that democracy and liberalism are, in fact, not inextricably linked. Through the ‘liberal’ use of empirical data and a peculiar interpretation of history, Li tries to convince his readers that Western liberalism in fact smothers democracy and is ‘hostile’ to it.

Li is an alumnus of the prestigious Fudan University. The alma mater of many of China’s leaders, Fudan University last year suddenly revoked academic freedom from its governing charter and agreed to “adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, fully implement the party’s education policy, and adhere to the guiding position of Marxism.”

Honest Abe

In a passage that may cause some offense to those slightly better versed than the writer in the basic tenets of democracy, Li bravely quotes Abraham Lincoln’s famous and concise definition of the term: ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Rather preposterously, he goes on to state that the current Chinese government outperforms ‘America’ on all three counts. There is no mention of China’s one-party state, the cliques and cabals that run the country, and the staggering levels of income inequality which is amongst the worst amongst the world’s major economies. No mention either of the country’s appalling human rights record, its repression of ethnic minorities, its aversion to cultural diversity, its paranoid fear of free thought and expression, or its belligerence towards nearly all its neighbours, including unarmed Bhutan – arguably the world’s most inoffensive country.

Different forms of democracy, Li writes, need to be judged on their outcomes. However, that is not quite how it works. People the world over live by more than bread alone. If that were not true, cries for liberty would not have resonated and pragmatism would be firmly in charge. Most failed states are, in fact, the far-from-perfect product of a popular yearning for freedom – and not a widely-shared demand for good governance.

Democracy and liberalism are two sides of the same coin. Any attempt to shackle a nation by, say, restricting its voting options or access to information or judiciary independence is undemocratic for it stifles debate and renders useless any checks and balances in place.

It is also rather rich for Chinese political scientists to express grave concerns over the concentration of media ownership in the West when their own country lacks independent media altogether, keeps its citizens digitally locked up behind a firewall, and regards booksellers as enemies of the state to be imprisoned and re-educated.

Grateful for Life and Peace

If, as Li states, most Chinese are quite happy with their form of government, it is more likely that they are unfamiliar with the individual and collective freedoms guaranteed by liberal democracies. China may be illiberal, at least its present government doesn’t kill untold millions by great leaps forward and other severely misguided and deadly adventures. Mao’s 1958 epiphany led to the death of an estimated 45 million Chinese – a horror of unequalled magnitude in world history and one well within living memory of survivors and their first- and second-generation descendants.

After the cataclysmic events of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it may be considered but a small wonder that most Chinese profess a certain gratitude to their present leaders for keeping them alive and introducing a measure of prosperity and stability: when hell is the point of reference, purgatory seems a comfortable place to dwell.

One may well wonder why illiberal democracies – an oxymoron of note – insist on restricting access to information. The Great Chinese Firewall prevents internet users to access YouTube and other Google services, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Snapchat, and even non-social media sites such as Foursquare, Dropbox, and Wikipedia. After all, a leadership afraid of booksellers is not one that exudes self-confidence.

Whenever a Western media organization publishes something that the Chinese leadership considers offensive to the country’s easily bruised honour, its website gets promptly blocked as happened to the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times, amongst a great many others. According to The Beijing News, a newspaper owned by the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the government employs more than two million fulltime censors to monitor social media and microblogs for any sign of dissident thought.

Chinese characteristics

In his essay, Li cites and celebrates China’s handling of the Corona Pandemic as a prime example of the country’s efficiency in public governance, blissfully ignoring the fact that the country also hosted the first outbreak, browbeat the World Health Organization into downplaying this fact, silenced independent reporting on the matter, and prevented experts from investigating the origins of the disease. In fact, nobody can verify any data of any sort coming out of China which expects the world to believe whatever the powers-that-be in Beijing claim to be the truth.

The democracy with ‘Chinese characteristics’ that so enamours Li and others includes a long list of coverups, outright lies, corruption, and even war and the annexation and colonisation of neighbouring countries – in whole or in part.

Under President-for-life Xi Jinping, the liberal economic and legal system erected after Mao’s death in 1976 by Deng Xiaoping – and based on the ideas of US philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) who considered law a restraint on arbitrary power – is rapidly being dismantled and replaced by a system more like that envisioned by the unapologetic Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) who justified arbitrary uses of power by the existence of ‘enemies of the political order.’ Schmitt and his teachings have been rescued from obscurity by a number of Chinese scholars.

The new political order that President Jinping is busy installing also shows disconcerting parallels with the Hobbesian observation that laws are not derived from an indisputable truth but imposed by Leviathan – the sovereign power. In this view, justice is always based on political choice and thus, by its very essence, polemic. Carrying this a little further: justice is ultimately based on the distinction between friend and foe – us and them.

Cult of Personality

The curtailing of academic freedom and the almost frantic search for people whose thoughts deviate from the party line are complemented by a series of much smaller tell-tale signs that China may no longer even be classified as an ‘illiberal democracy’. In November, the Ministry of Public Security, whose vice-minister Sun Lijun was ‘purged’ over allegations that he had formed a ‘political clique’ (note the return of Maoist phraseology), revealed the new oath all police recruits must take before receiving their commission. The pledge now includes a promise to ‘resolutely support the absolute leadership of the party’ and to ‘defend political security.’ The new oath also omits the previous requirement to ‘promote social fairness and justice.’ The ministry helpfully explained that the changes aim to ensure that the police force remains ‘ideologically, politically, and operationally consistent with President Jinping.’ The party, it seems, no longer enjoys political primacy whilst President Jinping emulates Louis XIV: “L’État c’est moi”

And it is this model of governance – one that imposes absolute loyalty, not to an idea or party, but to an absolutist leader – that China wishes to use as the blueprint for its new world order. However, what President Jinping and his acolytes seem to forget, conveniently or otherwise, is that China’s remarkable ascendancy is not so much the outcome of a wisely guided economic policy or, indeed, effective governance as the result of the decidedly liberal reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping which prominently featured economic freedom – and the oft-spoken-about expectation that gradual political openings would naturally follow.

The difference, of course, is that Deng Xiaoping was a pragmatist (“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”) whereas Xi Jinping is an ideologue quite convinced of his own brilliance and impeccable credentials. But to maintain that China, in its present form, meets Abraham Lincoln’s three criteria for democracy is rather ludicrous and merely serves to illustrate a monumental, perhaps even malicious, misunderstanding of liberalism and its conjoined twin democracy. Much as it may try, it is unlikely that President Jinping’s China will succeed in reverting the end of history.


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