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.