The Historical Legitimacy of the Chinese Path

—Interview with Zhang Weiwei, Professor of International Relations at Fudan University and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Asian Studies, Geneva

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-08-20 14:51
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Using China’s rise to abandon the small country mentality 

Ma Ya: There is an argument that while China is likely to surpass the US to become the world’s largest economy at some point over the next 10 to 20 years, there is no chance that it will catch up with the US in terms of soft power.

Zhang Weiwei: Well, that all depends on how you make the comparison. The key to comparing soft power is the standard that you are using. If you only identify with Western standards and Western forms, then China will never be able to catch up with the US. But the problem is that there are too many problems with Western standards. In fact, China has long surpassed Western standards in terms of its insight and actions in a number of regards. When American liberal scholar Francis Fukuyama visited Shanghai in June 2011, the two of us engaged in a dialogue. Fukuyama thinks that though China has made tremendous achievements, it also has a number of problems, such as a lack of true accountability and genuine rule of law. The example he gave was that in Chinese history, the country would enjoy peace and prosperity when it had a good emperor, but would fall into decline when it had a bad emperor. He said, “Look at the chaos in the Middle East right now. Does China not face the same danger?” I responded to his questions with some of my views.

The Fifth World Forum on China Studies was convened in Shanghai on March 23, 2013. With the theme “China’s Modernization: Road and Prospect,” the event saw almost 300 China experts and opinion leaders from China and abroad come together to discuss topics such as China’s future integration and development cooperation with the rest of the world./ Photo by Xinhua reporter Pei Xin

As for accountability and rule of law, I told him how the chief editor of a German magazine had once asked me, “Shanghai is becoming more and more like New York. Can we say that there is no Chinese model, but only the American model?” I responded, “Your observations are not keen enough. In many ways, Shanghai has already overtaken New York. You can put it like this: What China is doing on its own land amounts to a kind of experiment. China has learnt a lot from the West, and will continue to do so in the future. But in many ways, China’s vision has already surpassed that of the Western world.” I went on to give him a few examples. I said that Shanghai’s Jing’an district, the place our meeting was being held, was better than Manhattan in many ways. When a fire in Jing’an caused major loss of life and damage to property in 2011, the government stepped in and punished those responsible. This resulted in certain officials being subject to legal and administrative penalization. In contrast, the financial crisis in America has persisted for years, causing ordinary people’s assets to shrink by considerable margins. But no one has been held accountable, legally or politically. What’s more, the financial tycoons who caused the financial crisis still received their huge bonuses. Why? Because America is a country where the rule of law is absolute. Legally speaking, those financial tycoons had signed contracts which entitled them to that money. Of course, neither the American people nor President Obama was happy with this, but there is nothing they could do about it. To avoid such problems, China is working to establish a new legal system, one which gives consideration to the core interests of the entire nation as well as social conscience. Without compromising the rule of law, China will consider using political means to deal with a small number of serious cases that involve core national interests and social conscience, in a bid to avoid the potential hazards that legalism may present. So in China, there is no chance that financial tycoons are going to walk away from a crisis of their causing with huge bonuses in their pockets.  

As for the “bad emperor” problem, I told Mr. Fukuyama that a solution to this issue had already been found. China has learned its lessons from history, and from the Cultural Revolution. Its most senior leaders are subject to strict terms of office, and to a system of collective leadership. China has an age-old tradition of selecting and appointing virtuous and talented people. Some of China’s provinces are as large as five or six European countries combined. So it’s not easy running a province in China. China’s system still needs further improvement, but it is unlikely that China will elect a leader like George W. Bush, the reason being that he falls far short of the requirements that Chinese people have of their national leaders. But under the American system, however, there is no way of guaranteeing that the next president is going to be any better than George W. Bush. In other words, China’s model of selecting and appointing capable people constitutes a challenge to the American democratic model. Although China’s model still has room for improvement, it is already in a position to compete with the American model. 

Ma Ya: Fukuyama has his doubts towards China’s political system, and believes that an Arab Spring might occur in China as well. Is the implication here still the end of history?

Zhang Weiwei: Mr. Fukuyama talks about the end of history. I say this isn’t the end of history. What we are seeing is different peoples exploring different systems. China is engaging in its own explorations. I am quite pessimistic about the prospects of the Western model. It might be OK for small countries like Switzerland to go along with this kind of system, but it is much more difficult for the large economies. We are seeing that they are finding it increasingly difficult to sustain this model. Greece is the birthplace of Western democracy, but now the country is on the verge of bankruptcy. I went to Greece some 20 years ago. Even then the Greek government ran a deficit.

The UK, the birthplace of modern parliamentary democracy, is stuck in a serious fiscal crisis, with its debt-to-GDP ratio exceeding 90%. So the British are overjoyed when the Chinese government considers investing in Britain. The US, the most energetic player in promoting Western democracy globally, has become the source of a global financial crisis. According to my rough calculations, if the US dollar wasn’t the world’s reserve currency, the US would have actually gone bankrupt by now. If we divide the national debt of the US by its total population, the per capita debt of the US would be US$50,000, and that is excluding private debt. If the Chinese were to borrow like this, then China would be a developed country by now. 

So I said to Fukuyama, at a time when the Western system is obviously waning, if you want to convince me, you will need to come up with some decent examples to prove that this system works better in non-Western countries than the Chinese system does in China. But the fact of the matter is, not only does the Western system fail to work well in non-Western countries, it fails to work well even in countries that are located on the edge of Western culture. So, I think that China has a basic idea for its political reform, which I refer to as “selection plus a certain form of election.” This model surpasses the Western model, which relies solely on elections.

I only use two concepts to judge whether a political system is good or bad: good governance and bad governance. If a political system is unable to bring about good governance, then it is a bad system. Good governance can exist in both Western and non-Western systems. Singapore is a typical example of a country where governance is done pretty well. Generally speaking, China, despite having many problems, has done a much better job in national governance than most other developing countries. Bad governance can also exist in the Western system. There are far too many examples to list here.

Ma Ya: Your book China Wave created shockwaves after its release. But it has also attracted some criticism. Certain reviews of the book say that China needs another kind of wave, a shockwave with regard to the problems that exist in the country. They say this kind of shock is needed more than the first kind. How do you view the problems that China faces?

Zhang Weiwei: I have never denied that China has problems. In fact, some of China’s problems are quite severe, and will require serious efforts if they are to be resolved. In my book, I discussed a few of the major problems, such as the income gap, pollution, corruption, unbalanced urban and rural development, and so on. I will not go into detail here. What I would like to point out is that when we are talking about problems inside China, we need to apply the “zonal” concept. This is the only way we can define these problems accurately. Some people attempt to deny the achievements that China has made by making very biased generalizations. Taking isolated issues and blowing them way out of proportion in order to negate China’s mode of development is not a smart thing to do. China has a population four times greater than that of the US. It would therefore be normal for China to have four times as many problems as the US does, provided you think the US is a normal country. In fact, the US has no fewer problems than China does. The prison population in the US is bigger than that of China. So we need to take a wider approach when viewing China; grasping at certain problems in an attempt to deny the tremendous achievements of the whole is not a viable approach. Let’s take government performance as an example. According to my observations, corruption in Italy and Greece is far worse than it is in Shanghai. The standard of city governance in Shanghai is much higher than that of Rome, and is comparable to that of New York. Standards of governance in Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang are significantly higher than those of Greece, despite the fact that Greece and Italy are both members of the developed-countries club, and the fact that New York is a pioneering city in the developed world. So, China’s achievements in this regard are amazing. China’s developed zone (mainly developed coastal areas) is as large as over 30 medium-sized European countries combined, and has a population close to that of the US. Any achievement coming out of such a large area will be able to set an example for other areas of China to follow, and will send shockwaves throughout the world. 

China attracted global attention when it surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010. This was reported throughout the Western media the moment the news broke. In contrast, Chinese media’s coverage of the event was relatively low-key. Most reports emphasized that China was still a developing country, and that with a mere one-tenth of Japan’s GDP per capita, being the second largest economy was not as great as it appeared. Some of the people that held this view did so in the Chinese tradition of being modest and keeping a low profile. Noting the gap that still existed between China and developed nations, they had apprehensions that the rapid growth of China’s GDP would result in China being overburdened with international responsibilities. Others, however, held this view because they failed to see or were unwilling to see China’s rapid development. Not only did they see nothing special in the fact that China’s GDP had surpassed Japan, they also recalled how China was pushed around in 1840, even when its GDP was the largest in the world. 

Regardless of whether we are being modest or trying to keep a low profile, the important thing is that we treat China objectively and have a clear idea of the size of China’s economy today. Keeping a low profile can be dangerous if it means that we belittle ourselves, as that will cause the people to lose faith in their country and in China’s mode of development. Those who are unwilling to see the success of the Chinese model often use this approach to mislead the public, and to hail the decline of China, thereby causing the spread of the small country mentality among some Chinese people. In order to rectify this deviation, we need to tell the people about the rise of China as it is. For more than three decades, China has undoubtedly witnessed more rapid progress and greater rises in living standards than any other country in the world. All of the problems that China is confronting now were encountered at some point before by the other major countries as they rose to prominence. Ultimately, these problems can be gradually solved through the course of development. On the basis of this new recognition, China will definitely be able to forge a new social consensus on the Chinese path of development, and establish a new approach to the way it keeps a low profile, one that allows for confidence, pride, and progress, as opposed to the kind that dampens the spirit and discourages confidence. Only by doing so will China be able to meet various challenges at home and abroad, and create new prospects for a more glorious future.  

Americans have stopped dreaming the American dream, and the Chinese people should have firm faith in the historical legitimacy of their own path

Ma Ya: At the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC last November, the Party stated that China must keep to the socialist path of political advancement with Chinese characteristics, and never embark on the ill-fated path of abandoning socialism in favor of Western systems. But what makes Chinese politics unique? And why must we keep to our own path of political advancement?

Zhang Weiwei: China’s super large population, super vast territory, super long history, and super ancient culture dictate the uniqueness of Chinese politics. They dictate that only our own ideas and methods will work in the governance of this country. All governments in Chinese history have had to address the wellbeing of the people, effectively respond to disasters, both natural and man-made, and meet special challenges posed by the scale of China’s population and territory, or risk losing their “Mandate of Heaven,” the source of their legitimacy. Over China’s long history, the Chinese people have developed their own unique political culture. They have always attached particular importance to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country. It is hard to imagine that the majority of Chinese people could ever accept a change of central government every four or five years, a practice which belongs to the so-called multi-party democratic political system of the West. The prosperous dynasties in Chinese history were always the ones that had a strong and enlightened government behind them.

The political parties that we now see in China are not political parties in the Western sense. The ruling party in China is not like the political party of the West, who competes in elections on behalf of the interest group it represents. The most salient feature of the civilizational state is harmony between its various comprising parts. If this kind of country were to adopt the competitive multi-party system of the West, the likelihood is that it would fall apart amidst contention between rivaling political parties. During the Revolution of 1911, China established a constitutional government under which executive, legislative, and judicial powers were separated; however, the entire nation rapidly disintegrated, resulting in chaos. This profound historical lesson should never be forgotten. This is the very reason why it would be ill-advised for China to abandon its current political system.

Many Westerners originally assumed that with the growth of the middle class, China would come to embrace the confrontational political model of the West. However, they have come to discover that China’s contemporary middle class cherishes the country’s political stability more than any other class. China’s predominantly well-educated middle class is aware of the repeated suffering that China has endured due to war and chaos in history. They are aware of the chaos and turmoil that Western “democratization” has brought to many developing countries. And they are aware that they have more than 30 years of political stability in China to thank for their hard-won wealth. Therefore, the cultural genes passed down over several millennia of Chinese history have more or less dictated the overall direction in which Chinese society will develop. This trend will not be one in which a high level of confrontation exists between society and the state, as some Western countries have anticipated. Instead, it will more likely be a model in which society and the state interact with each other and complement each other. This model will make China a more cohesive and competitive society than Western societies. 

Ma Ya: China’s new central leadership has emphasized the need to deepen reform. This has been taken by some as meaning the deepening of political reform, the direction of which they see is Western democracy.

Zhang Weiwei: The report to the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC clearly states that we need to “have confidence in our path, in our theories, and in our system.” That is the final word, a statement to end the political fantasies of those who have blind faith in the Western model, and to totally shatter their dreams of a Chinese Gorbachev. Anyone unable to recognize this is too naive. There are always some people who think that China’s political reforms have lagged behind the great advances that have been made in economic reform, and that this is the reason for the emergence of many problems in China. But let’s look at this problem from a different perspective: With just a few minor adjustments to tap into the potential of its political system, China has been able to rise rapidly and score achievements that most other countries could only dream of attaining. In other words, despite its imperfect system and “lagging political reform,” China has been able to compete with and outperform all non-Western countries that have practiced the Western model, in the process sending shockwaves through the Western world. Of course, China will not denounce its political system in its future reform, as Gorbachev did. Instead, the first thing it will do is to affirm the role of its system in bringing about the country’s success. Then, on that basis, it will continue to improve its system by drawing on the greater wisdom. Finally, it will completely surpass the Western model, just as Shanghai has surpassed New York. 

Ma Ya: Many Westerners and Chinese fail to take China’s history and reality into account when they are viewing China’s issues, particularly the issue of the political system. They believe that without multi-party competition and elections, a government has no legitimacy. 

Zhang Weiwei: This is an extremely superficial argument. Looking at human history as a whole, the most common type of legitimacy is historical legitimacy. The political philosophy and historical traditions that develop in a country over thousands of years are the single greatest source of legitimacy. Government legitimacy had formed in China before many Western countries even existed. The most salient features of China’s historical legitimacy are its political tradition of selecting and appointing virtuous and talented people, and the political principle of popular support. These are the reasons why China has been way ahead of Western countries during the vast majority of its several millennia of history. They are a striking manifestation of the political wisdom of the Chinese nation. And they also constitute one of the core areas of competitiveness that is allowing the Chinese model to surpass the Western model today.

We are definitely in a position to question the source of government legitimacy in Western countries: Without the principle of selecting and appointing virtuous and talented people to take public office, how can a government be qualified to run a country? Can such a government be accountable to its citizens, and to the rest of the world? During his eight years in office, George W. Bush brought recession to America, disaster to Iraq, and a financial crisis to the world. This is a clear case in point. 

Following the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, some scholars from the US and other Western countries attempted to thoroughly negate the “Eastern Asian model,” and with it the Chinese model. At that time, certain American scholars provided Asian nations with two solutions: one was to promote a full market economy without government intervention to save the economy—just the opposite of what the US is doing now—and the other was to promote full democratization in a bid to address the problem of “crony capitalism.” Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, even stated that the Asian financial crisis was a series of punishments for countries that did not practice democracy. 

Ironically, the international financial crisis we are facing today, which is many times worse than the Asian financial crisis, started in the US, a “model of democracy.” What’s more, its “superior” democratic system not only totally failed to see the crisis coming, but on numerous occasions has also failed to respond appropriately. I am wondering how Mr. Amartya Sen would explain all this. As I see it, the major cause of this crisis has been the excessive power and influence of capital under American democracy. I can even mimic Amartya Sen’s statement: this crisis is a series of punishments for those who believe in market fundamentalism and democratic fundamentalism. In fact, as products of human civilization, both the market and democracy can be practiced in all countries in light of their own national conditions. However, should a certain model of democracy or a certain system of market be taken to an extreme, thereby becoming the sole criterion, then this is no different from fundamentalism. Under such circumstances, the believers of that system lose their sense of reason, and nothing good can come from that. This is the deep-rooted cause behind many of the problems in the world today, from the financial crisis in America to the defeat of George W. Bush’s “Greater Middle East Initiative” for democracy.

The financial crisis in the US, together with the crisis of confidence among American people in their own system, demonstrates that the US still has a long way to go in the reform of its political system. However, some people make the wildest exaggerations about how good the US system is. They even want China to copy it, in spite of the fact that it displays such a low level of public trust. How can this be convincing? China’s system also has its defects, but it is undergoing a constant process of reform. This is the reason why you can travel over all 9.6 million square meters of China’s territory, and you won’t find a single place where employment, incomes, and the stock market have seen zero growth over the last decade. There is an old Chinese saying that basically goes, “If you want to achieve the average, you need to set your goals high.” What I mean by that is, if you take the US, a country whose political and economic systems have numerous defects, as your standard, you will end up achieving less than half of what it has achieved, and at the same time you also risk losing your own advantages entirely. From this perspective, we can say that the tasks China faces in economic and political reforms should be to surpass the American model by drawing on the advantages of various countries, giving full play to its own advantages, and constantly promoting institutional innovations that are suited to China’s national conditions.

Ma Ya: A new book entitled Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East was recently published in the US. In the book, the authors state that the US must breach its taboos and learn from China’s political experiences. 

Zhang Weiwei: Frankly speaking, a 5,000-year uninterrupted civilization is itself the greatest material and cultural heritage in human history. We should, therefore, revere this civilization. Chinese civilization is the world’s only living ancient civilization. Old as it is, it is still thriving. What this civilization displays today cannot possibly be summarized in a few simple and even crude concepts such as “advanced” or “backward,” “democracy” or “autocracy,” and “high human rights” or “low human rights.” The connotations of Chinese civilization are a thousand times, even ten thousand times, richer than these concepts. The rapid rise of an ancient civilization in the form of a modern country is something that has never been seen before in human history. In a sense, we may even say that China’s reform and opening up over the past three decades has been an attempt to push Chinese civilization into the global arena, to see whether it can stand on its own feet amidst the competition. The result has been that Chinese civilization has not only been able to stand on its own feet and withstand various tests, but has also seen many of its elements quickly become active. By learning from others and adopting an inclusive approach, China has become the fastest-growing and most dynamic country in the world. What’s more, it has begun to exert a profound impact on the future direction of the entire world.

Casting out Western neo-obscurantism and constructing Chinese discourse in a post-Western discourse era

Ma Ya: In your book you talk about the fascinating notion of “competing political standards.” In this sense, you point out that the rise of China is not just the rise of a country or a model, but the rise of an independent political discourse.

Zhang Weiwei: Before answering your question, I would like to talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed for a number of reasons, both economic and political. But a major reason was the fact that it lacked convincing discourse.

I once read the memoirs of Anatoly Adamishin, a senior diplomat of the former Soviet Union who was in charge of human rights dialogue between the Soviet Union and the US in the later stages of the Cold War. As Adamishin was engaging in dialogue with the US, in his heart he agreed with what the Americans were saying. He reported what he felt to Gorbachev, only to find out that Gorbachev agreed with him almost entirely. They both believed that with the help of the US, the Soviet Union would be able to improve its human rights situation, and thereby integrate itself quickly into the mainstream of Western civilization. However, the events that eventually unfolded were far from anything they had anticipated: their country disintegrated, and their economy collapsed. At that time, Gorbachev asked the US for a loan of 20 billion dollars to help the country out of trouble, but his request was refused. After this rejection came the collapse of the Soviet Union. But even then Russia’s leadership continued their blind belief in the US, implementing “shock therapy” under the instruction of American experts. The result was the onset of economic and social havoc the likes of which have rarely been seen in modern world history, with the rampage of corruption in Russia becoming more hopeless.

It seems to me that some of China’s elite intellectuals at present, much like Gorbachev and Adamishin 20 years ago, are infatuated by Western political discourse, believing that the Western standard actually represents the end of history. To them, what China needs to do is to keep learning from Western countries, get closer to them, and eventually meet their standards. They refuse to admit that the rise of China has both changed China and the rest of the world, and that the rise of China and other emerging countries has already spelled the end for the end of history theory. Interestingly enough, Fukuyama, the man who created the end of history theory, is also revising his theory, and beginning to admit that the rise of China and its political advancement must have their own cultural roots.

Ma Ya: But some people in China are still adhering rigidly to outdated Western conventions. These so-called liberal Chinese elites are actually “political romantics” who share a belief of the Western model.

Zhang Weiwei: That’s why I think what these people need most is to free their minds, from the fetters of rigid Western political discourse.

The failure of the Soviet Union tells us that if we implement the Western model in a country like China, we will end up losing all our own advantages, and the country will ultimately move towards collapse.

Western civilization has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Its most serious weakness is conceit, and a lack of the “harmony and the middle way” philosophy that is seen in Chinese values. Certain Westerners really believe that the Western model will declare an end to the evolution of human history, and that Western countries will absolutely dominate the future of the world. But how can the evolution of world history possibly end with the Western model? I have visited over 100 countries, and my conclusion is that the Western model has failed in almost every non-Western country that has tried to copy it. This is the very reason why I believe that Western democracy is not a universal value. At the same time, I also believe that it is not enough to say that “democracy is a good thing”; more needs to be added, “only good democracy is truly a good thing,” if we are to gain an in-depth and more comprehensive understanding of democracy. The kind of democracy that the Chinese people want is high-quality democracy that can bring prosperity to the country and wellbeing to the people, as opposed to the bad democracy that causes national division and misery.  

The efforts of various nations to explore their own developmental paths are still in full swing. The human exploration of political systems has not nearly come to an end, and even Western countries have a long way to go in reforming their own systems. The political system can be found lurking behind each of the crises that the West is experiencing at present. The US promotes “democracy” around the world, but its own level of democracy is far from ideal. This is exemplified by the huge cost of its elections—the US general election in 2012 cost about US$ 6 billion, to have no substantial change at all. Why does democracy cost so much? Can it still be called democracy if it costs so much? Hasn’t the rule of the people become the rule of money? Hasn’t it become capital-driven “electocracy?” Isn’t this the institutional cause behind the American financial crisis? The inability of the US political system to constrain the influence of capital is the deep-seated cause of the international financial crisis. Capital leads the way, and everything else has to make way for it. How can there be any credibility for democracy of such quality? It is stunning to see how commercialized, debased, and monetized American democracy is, as it is engulfed by endless commercials, constant efforts to please voters, and elections whose cost exceeds the imagination of most ordinary people. Even Barack Obama admits this in his book The Audacity of Hope, in which he says how raising the money needed for election ads is a process that gives rise to corruption. In other words, candidates have to take care of their contributors. Often, when such a model of election is implemented elsewhere, it quickly evolves into black gold politics. We have seen this in South Korea and Taiwan, not to mention Third World countries. 

This leads me to the Era of Enlightenment in Europe. Replacing obscurantism and absolutism with rationalism, the Enlightenment was a step forward in history, and it helped bring about the Industrial Revolution. However, with the passage of time, the Western world has absolutized its political and economic models, as well as the discourse associated with them, thereby giving rise to a new form of obscurantism and absolutism. These models are then sold to non-Western countries. The failure of their attempts is, of course, to be expected. After seeing how the West struggled in the Iraq War and “the color revolutions,” and now that the defects of the Western system have been exposed by the financial crisis, we can say that Western discourse is in a predicament, and that the era of post-Western discourse has begun.

China’s rise has hit a sensitive nerve with many people around the world. China’s rise is also far beyond the interpretation of Western political discourse. Under the backdrop of profound changes in the international arena, China’s role has become a decisive one. Rather than continuing to listen to Western discourse, Chinese intellectuals need to think on their own. Relying on their good conscience, extensive knowledge, and patriotic spirit, they must abandon new Western obscurantism while drawing world wisdom, work together to explore and establish Chinese discourse in a post-Western discourse era, and make their due contributions to the creation of a new world order. 

(Originally appeared in Red Flag Manuscript, No.6, 2013)

The interviewer is Ma Ya, the Executive Editor of Phoenix Weekly.

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