Friday, April 18, 2014
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Chinese Values?

BERLIN – There can be little reasonable doubt today that the People’s Republic of China will dominate the world of the twenty-first century. The country’s rapid economic growth, strategic potential, huge internal market, and enormous investment in infrastructure, education, and research and development, as well as its massive military buildup, will see to that. This means that, in political and economic terms, we are entering an East and Southeast Asian century.

Lest we forget, the outcome for the world would have been far worse if China’s ascent had failed. But what will this world look like? We can foresee the power that will shape its geopolitics, but what values will underlie the exercise of that power?

The official policy of “Four Modernizations” (industrial, agricultural, military, and scientific-technological) that has underpinned China’s rise since the late 1970’s has failed to provide an answer to that question, because the “fifth modernization” – the emergence of democracy and the rule of law – is still missing. Indeed, political modernization faces massive opposition from the Chinese Communist Party, which has no interest in surrendering its monopoly of power. Moreover, the transition to a pluralist system that channels, rather than suppresses, political conflict would indeed be risky, though the risk will grow the longer one-party rule (and the endemic corruption that accompanies it) persists.

Ideologically, Chinese leadership’s rejection of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law is based on the contention that these supposedly universal values are a mere stalking horse for Western interests, and that repudiating them should thus be viewed as a matter of self-respect. China will never again submit to the West militarily, so it should not submit to the West normatively either.

And here we return to the concept of “Asian values,” originally developed in Singapore and Malaysia. But until this day, three decades later, its meaning remains unclear. Essentially, the concept has served to justify collectivist-authoritarian rule by aligning it with local tradition and culture, with autonomy defined in terms of otherness – that is, differentiation from the West and its values. Thus, “Asian values” are not universal norms, but rather a self-preservation strategy harnessed to identity politics.

Given the history of Western colonialism in Asia, the desire to maintain a distinct identity is both legitimate and understandable, as is the belief in many Asian countries – first and foremost China – that the time has come to settle old scores. But the effort to preserve one’s power, the need for a distinct “Asian” identity, and the desire to settle historical scores will not solve the normative question raised by China’s emergence as the century’s dominant power.

How that question is answered is crucially important, because it will determine the character of a global power, and thus how it deals with other, weaker countries. A state becomes a world power when its strategic significance and potential give it global reach. And, as a rule, such states then try to safeguard their interests by imposing their predominance (hegemony), which is a recipe for dangerous conflict if based on coercion rather than cooperation.

The world’s acclimation to a global hegemonic structure – in which world powers guarantee an international order – survived the Cold War. The Soviet Union wasn’t ideologically anti-Western, because Communism and Socialism were Western inventions, but it was anti-Western in political terms. And it failed not only for economic reasons, but also because its internal and external behavior was based on compulsion, not consent.

By contrast, the United States’ economic and political model, and that of the West, with its individual rights and open society, proved to be its sharpest weapon in the Cold War. The US prevailed not because of its military superiority, but because of its soft power, and because its hegemony was based not on coercion (though there was some of that, too), but largely on consent.

Which path will China choose? While China will not change its ancient and admirable civilization, it owes its re-emergence to its embrace of the contemporary Western model of modernization – the huge achievement of Deng Xiaoping, who put the country on its current path more than three decades ago. But the decisive question of political modernization remains unanswered.

Clearly, national interests, and sometimes pure power, play a part in how the US and other Western countries apply values like human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and pluralism. But these values are not mere ideological window dressing for Western interests; in fact, they are not that to any significant extent. They are indeed universal, and all the more so in an era of comprehensive globalization.

The contribution of Asia – and of China, in particular – to the development of this universal set of values is not yet foreseeable, but it will surely come if the “fifth modernization” leads to China’s political transformation. China’s course as a world power will be determined to a significant extent by the way it confronts this question.

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  1. CommentedJakub Słowiński

    Starting with human rights and the rule of law, as early as in the Han dynasty period, in its first phase, sometime before the begining of Christian era in Europe, there was a set of laws developed, which couldn't be changed even by the emperor, of course it applied only to upper classes, but comparing to where was Western civilization in accordance to human rights and the rule of law at that time, Chinese are pioneers. Democracy was actually invented much earlier, in the Warring States period, by Mencius, who said that the emperor should be choosed by the people. Of course, by the people Mencius meant upper classes, but Western democracy started in the same point, chronologically hunreds of years later. And lastly, pluralism, China was always marked by existence of many cliques and parties, struggling with each other in order to achieve more power. Are they not there, because we don't see them in the evening debates? Actually, political establishment in Western countries is more uniform than Chinese, the difference is that Chinese establishment is united in terms of holding power, but divided in terms of views on certain issues, and Western is divided in struggle to gain power, but every time more and more uniform in views in order to be as electable (sorry for a word) as possible.
    Don't blame China it don't want to follow patterns it already checked, because you claim them as universal.

  2. CommentedStephen Pain

    I believe that many of the problems facing China - and there are problems undoubtedly has been due to the country being effectively divided by manufacturing for and against itself. We see today an enormous trade imbalance between China and other countries. Obviously the subprime fiasco and hedging helped to bring about this imbalance. The demand for goods shot up as the apparent liquidity rose. People were using the property equity to buy as if there were no tomorrow. The financial institutions were pumped up to massive bubbles through the repackaging of debt into credit – and their wealth led to an increase of expenditure in the service industry. Added value philosophy reigned supreme as cheap imports were bought from China. So much of manufacturing was now carried out in China – even Veblen goods. The consequence of the speculation in the West was that China had managed to catch up quickly. She was becoming increasingly more technologically advanced. The West had become dependent upon China – a dependency that would be costly to both partners. In the boom years China overheated and her factories were overworked. They were manufacturing for the West and manufacturing their own cheaper products too. In some insane way China was competing against herself. On the one hand she had the Western companies demanding quality (Veblen goods), while on the other hand she sought to manufacture domestic products (Giffen goods) that could in quantity match the quality. In other words you can buy five pair of socks for the price of one quality pair – and in terms of utility, durability, longevity they would be the same, however if we were to examine the corporate social responsibility and green issues, then they are far more costly. Unfortunately, after the economic paradigm shifted from the “added value” philosophy of Starbucks to the Wal-Mart discount approach, there has been a tendency to seek to reduce costs in the Veblen goods, which means that they are being manufactured more like Giffen goods with cheaper materials and their utility, durability and longevity have been effectively compromised, this tying in with the built-in obsolescence of electronic products which have today due to neophilic drives very short lives. The fact the top-end Veblen goods producers have with those in the middle quality range opted to go down the quantitative road has led to a deplorable state of affairs for all concerned.
    The only remedy to help both the West and China is to bring into effect stringent quality controls through taxation. Often pollution taxes had been placed on the manufacturers. Here we can place taxes on products themselves. The idea would be that products which are Giffen goods would not be bought if they were taxed on grounds of utility, durability, longevity as well as CSR and Green factors. This would restore craft into products, ensuring that all involved in manufacture would be of a higher quality. It would also reduce the trade deficit and motivate the West and others to return to manufacturing – and as a result decreasing dependency on China . China for her part would need to reform its manufacturing and the context of production, leading to a better environment and healthier and happier population.

  3. CommentedWalter, asg Benjamin

    I admire Joschka Fischer's articles. However most of the comments on this article and this article itself make a fundamental mistake: China is not "outside" the World History. China belongs to the World History. It is not a country which is different by essence from us. There "Western values" don't exist per se, in opposition of "Chinese values". It is absolutely childish to speak like that. Chinese Revolution in the XXth Century is a Marxist Revolution - the Chinese Marxism is part of the Marxism movement - a way to answer to the problems created by the Industrial Evolution of the XIXth century. A way to re-unify China after one century of diverse foreign occupations. It is a non-sense not to consider the contemporary China as a Marxist state and to pretend that China will be like a "Confucian state" - with an unique nationalistic ideology . Then if it is a Marxist state - it is impossible not to consider China as part of our own History. If we accept that Chinese Communist Party is the center of the power in China, it is risible to think that the discussion about democracy is not central in the Chinese politic. What means "democracy" in the context of the developments of Communist Parties around the World during the last 150 years that is the first question to ask. Second what is the weigh of the Chinese State History in the development of the contemporary Chinese Marxist state? Democracy is not a definition , it is a complex political movement. Of course China has also many parts of her political developments which are often more democratic than many countries in the World which pretend to be democratic. The question is more: is it possible to have a democratic state with one party rule? If this one party represents a large part of the Chinese society - why not? A party of 80 millions member plus their family relations is equivalent of 400 millions people connected to this Party - it is a significant part of the Chinese society. The real question is then: are these 400 millions of Chinese involved in the discussions on the solving Chinese political problems? Probably yes - in a way or another. Are they able to influence the political decisions? Probably yes. Are they able to criticize the wrong decisions, to correct them? Probably yes too. Have we - as Europeans - to learn from the Chinese democracy? Of course we have to learn how they have succeeded during centuries to unify their country when we, Europeans, we have failed to maintain the Roman Empire and we have created during centuries wars and barbaric societies. The Chinese Marxism is a lesson for us to meditate because it forces us to consider that the Capitalism as a destructive and creative force is the main question that our "European democracies " need to manage if we want to avoid that new barbaric political movements will appear and push away our weak civilization.

  4. Commentedlt lee

    It is odd that Westerners keep talking about "these supposedly universal values" while they are not embraced by the Chinese people except a handful of dissidents. If Westerners really believe certain values are universal, why can't they let the Chinese people come to the same conclusion without reminding them constantly? To the extent that they don't have sufficient confidence concerning the universality of these values, Chinese leaders and Chinese people are correct in seeing these values as a mere stalking horse for Western interests promoted to harm China's interest.

  5. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

    It may pause there for sometime. China's rapid ascent is lifting quite a lot more than its own out of dire economic conditions and these can now experience many* of these universal values that they definitely would not have previously experienced. If foreign lands in which China remain open, their people may have more freedoms than the Chinese themselves, but the Chinese are likely to be better with their more limited set, because of this immense focus on development.

    In summary, we're still imposing conditions on China, on what it will achieve and how it will come to achieve.