Some more thoughts on China’s governance, and ours

Professor Kerry Brown, who writes regularly on Asia and who has written before on the topic of power in an age of illusion, says, in an new article in the South China Morning Post, that “One of the remarkable aspects of China’s presence today is the way it has combined supreme confidence and under Xi, and exposed doubts in particular countries and communities newly exposed to it and engaging with it. In Australia, Europe and the United States, this plays alongside rising self-doubt about the values and systems that these countries have been operating for decades (even centuries). Their self-induced confusion contrasts with the image of coherent power that Xi’s leadership projects. China, many suspect, might not be quite as together and robust as it appears. But few cracks are appearing on the surface for now. Its politicians speak a uniform language. Its military seems mechanical in its loyalty. Businesspeople and academics, openly at least, mostly deliver the language of unified commitment. China is rising and soon will be risen. This is its right, a moment of justice and retribution. This is not about Communism or political values per se. It is a matter of a nation’s right.” Put simply: Part of China’s strength lies in Western self-doubt.

Professor Brown introduces the piece by describing the recent Chinese Navy exercises in Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 13.11.28the South China Sea: “We look to power,” he says, “to be visible. We seek signs and clues about it. Xi Jinping standing surveying the vast, new naval fleet in April affirmed something many in the Pacific region suspected; this is a country that means to have impact. It was a great performance. Dressed in military gear with the grand panorama of different vessels in the water around him, his statement was simple. A great power needs a strong military, the ability to project its will, the assets to enforce its desire on the world around it … [meanwhile] … in Washington, it is clear the counter-attack has started. Donald Trump’s threatened trade wars are proxies for the power play underneath them. China has been winning too much. It has skewed the global trading system. This is an iniquitous outcome. The deal, made during the era of engagement in the past, was for it to do this but also to change – to become rich and like the West, a liberal, multi-party democratic country. Frustration at the failure of this grand Western gambit with China was the essence of a long complaint made in TheEconomist earlier this year. How did things get to such a pass? Economic development was meant to lead China closer to the West, to become more like the West, not so it could surround it, dictate to it, start to threaten it and still remain the same – a one-party state.” See, also, my recent comments about Xi Jinping’s worldview and the centrality of the (misnamed) Chinese Communist Party‘s role in the state. In fact, economic development did bring China much closer to the West in many, many areas, but the Chinese leadership does not believe that Western liberal democracy, with all of its Anglo-Saxon baggage, has any role in China. They remain fascinated with the Singaporean model of a conservative democracy in which one party manages to maintain control by giving the people good, stable, responsive government. I said, back then, two years ago, that I thought that the Chinese leaders found even the Singaporean model too risky and that they are looking for a way ~ maybe involving extensive use of polling and referenda ~ to give the people more voice in government without surrendering any real control.

The problem for the West,” Kerry Brown suggests, “is that this is no cold war. In that era, at least it knew where the shadows were. There was a neat iron curtain, a line of demarcation. The Soviet Union was a more straightforward antagonist – one that clearly wanted a zero sum outcome. It got it in the end, but alas, as the defeated not the conqueror. China does not fit this template. There are no neat lines of demarcation. It operates in a capitalist mode, with a communist mentality. As a power that regards itself as exceptional, it does not want to win, not at least in the neat wars that America and its allies might like to imagine fighting. Its influence is subtle, subliminal, a shadow beneath even the shadows. It operates, so it is said, in the depths of the dark web and in the underbelly of the global system, supporting but also contesting it, playing to the rules of the game as set by entities like the World Trade Organisation, but incrementally and slowly changing them by making them almost irrelevant.

I would make only one very slight change to Professor Brown’s statement: China “operates in a capitalist mode with a communist Stalinist mentality.” While it is true that Zhou Enlai was a communist (inexplicable, to me, for a man who, in every other respect I admire as a first rate manager) and that he and Dr. Sun Yat-sen believed that only the Russian (Leninist) model of central administration would work for China, the Chinese, even under Mao remained a highly entrepreneurial society. Mao wasn’t much of a communist, he was a true revolutionary who didn’t seem to care very much how Zhou and the officials managed China as long as everything that came before him was upended if not destroyed. Deng Xiaoping more or less redefined communism to mean capitalism for the Chinese people. The Stalinist mentality means that the Party operates, in many ways, like an ancient Chinese dynasty. When a dynasty was getting old and tired it was common, when an emperor was wise (which wasn’t always the case), to try to renew the dynastic family by adopting fresh blood from other families ~ from nobles and scholars ~ and through the judicious use of marriages, assassinations, poisonings, exile and so on to clear a path for a new, better successor to the throne. The modern Chinese Communist Party is one big adoption scheme ~ likely candidates are recruited, frequently in universities, and then groomed through appointments to increasingly challenging posts; those who reach the higher levels but are found to be ‘unworthy’ are shuffled out into graceful retirement, ceremonial sinecures, or, sometimes, something much worse. In this way the Party hopes to perpetuate itself by providing good, solid management at the top, for the whole country. They are not Stalinists because they paranoid, they are Stalinists because the model seems to work for them. But the model is a bit frightening and, as The Economist notes, “Under an authoritarian government such as China’s, digital monitoring is turning a nasty police state into a terrifying, all-knowing one. Especially in the western region of Xinjiang, China is applying artificial intelligence (AI) and mass surveillance to create a 21st-century panopticon and impose total control over millions.”

One other factor that makes the Chinese very different from us is the coherence of Chinese history: “In the era of a grand psychological struggle, where most battles are virtual and in our minds rather than the physical world,” Kerry Brown writes, “we can look to the strategic thinking in Chinese texts – from the Warring States period two and a half millennia ago to the Han era that ended almost a thousand years later – to understand where we are. Everyone knows Sun Tzu and the much-translated Art of War. But there are many other works from the same era, some far darker. The stern legalist philosophy of Han Fei, for instance, with its strict injunctions to trust no one. Or the Secret Teachings of T’ai Kung with its primitive demands for complete revolution. Wei Liao-tzu’s eponymous work from the fourth century BC is striking though for its focus on two aspects of struggle in a time of crisis – the necessity of preserving and fortifying a nation’s chi or life force, and the need to win through finding, and then playing, on the doubts of your opponent.” I doubt that the tales of Alfred the Great or the text of Magna Carta or the outcomes of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 often enter the minds of e.g. Theresa May or Malcolm Turnbull … I doubt that Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau have even heard of two of the three. But Chinese leaders are ALL schooled in the thoughts of Sun Tzu and the others … Chinese literature and enormously long (and well produced) TV series keep The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dreams of Red Mansions and the other great Chinese classics fresh in everyone’s minds. (These TV series were, I have been told, quite popular and were used, extensively, as high school assignments.) How many of us can read Beowulf in Old English? Most Chinese can read and understand the tests from 2,000+ years ago without ‘Coles’ Notes‘ to guide them. The men and women who advise Xi Jinping are, like him, well schooled in the Chinese classics and they believe that the system of government that they are trying to implement is better, for China, at least, than any other …


… the Chinese are, I think, trying to invent a new form of government that they think will be better for them.

Under Xi,” Professor Brown says, “as never before, China has proved good at reading the doubts of Western societies and politicians. After all, these are open societies where vulnerabilities, scepticism and questions are not buried away, but discussed and dealt with in the open. That is part of their values and identities. These polities believe that weaknesses, self-criticisms and challenges have to be faced and exposed to public scrutiny. But for a country enjoying, at least at the moment, an era of uniformity and highly focused strategic purposefulness, as China under Xi is, the openness and self-doubting nature of democratic societies is a vulnerability – a space to exploit and question. The Chinese delegation to Washington in May proved this – pitting experienced negotiators against novices, securing a reprieve for ZTE despite domestic American pressure and departing with ambiguous outcomes where China on the trade front lives to fight another day.” Although self criticism was often a feature of Chinese communist indoctrination, self doubt or doubt about the value and centrality of the Party is never voiced amongst Chinese officials. That sense of “strategic purposefulness” seems, to me, to permeate Chinese officialdom today. In contrast, we, in the US led West, are racked with doubts, even about the nature and future of democracy.

Kerry Brown concludes, and I agree, that “This is the essential clash, to which no one knows the final outcome: will the open societies which articulate their doubts prove resilient, or will the true resilience lie in the sort of strict, disciplined, enforced unity that we see embodied under Xi. The current doubts of the West are its weaknesses and China is showing that every day. But in the end, it will boil down to just how much the West is certain that doubts are a source of strength. That is the highly paradoxical situation the West finds itself in – an age in which conviction in the need to doubt and be critical and sceptical is being tested as never before. And where Western societies have to believe passionately doubt will make them not weaker, but stronger.” t’s not a clash of civilizations nor even a clash of ideas, it is rather a clash of purposes and we, in the US led West must reaffirm our purpose.

Our purpose, the US led Wrest’s purpose, is NOT to impose democracy on (or even just export it to) the Arabs or the Bantu or the Chinese. Our purpose must be to preserve, protect and enhance liberal democracy for all those who want it, and to encourage everyone to join in a rules based global system that aims to guarantee peace and prosperity for the greatest number, regardless of which political system they use. Our manifest doubts about liberal democracy are, as Professor Brown says, a source of strength. Only democracy allows such public doubts … It is only by asking hard questions that we will arrive at a consensus that will say that our system, despite all its flaws, is best for us. Western liberal democracy is far from perfect ~ Canada, for example, still has an unelected legislative chambre (the Senate) which, I would argue, is an abomination, being a holdover from the 19th century when many people thought that unbridled democracy ~ one person, one vote ~ would lead to ruin.

Liberal democracy is not the only system that works. Liberal democracy was not born in ancient Greece, it’s origins are in far harsher places where when people had to cherish individualism ~ in Northern Europe, among the peoples of iron age Scandinavia who had to find ways to make small communities work in a time and place of scarcity and hardship and they had to figure out how to make communities coexist in an age when 855330raiding was a common practice. Somehow, almost 2,000 years ago they began to make it work … slowly to be sure but, by the year 930 there as, in Iceland, the Alþingi, (pictured at left) the oldest existing parliament in the world. Liberal democracy evolved slowly; the basic idea of democracy was common throughout Europe, at least, by the iron age, but marrying it to (relatively) liberal values involved balancing the need for ‘peace, order and good government‘ with the desire for governments to be established that derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Absolute monarchies, even with effective council (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon Witan), did not work well enough and the model of the Athenian Agora was, in fact, something little better than mob rule in which any skilled demagogue could incite the crowd to support one course of action or another. Gradually parliaments represented communities were established and the power of the state was contained by controlling the right to tax.

One of the great strengths of a democracy is that the governors are, generally, pretty well aware of what issues matter most to the governed. Their job is to balance the peoples’ wants with the realities of good, honest administrative and financial management. Conversely, the great weakness of any tyrannical form of government, like China’s, is that while the government, itself, may have what Professor Brown calls a “highly focused strategic purposefulness,” but it often lacks any real sense about what matters to the man and woman on the street. Lee Kwan Yew and his successors in Singapore have made one party rule by the centre-right People’s Action Party work since 1959, which is before Singapore became independent in 1965. They do so offering a suite of policies that attract broad, general support, especially in the majority Chinese community, and which have, thus far resulted in remarkable prosperity and stability. But the People’s Action Party is kept wall appraised of public desires through a free press and an active legislature and regular election campaigns. The Chinese Communist Party has none of those tools and losing “contact” with the people is, I believe, one of the major threats to a one party dictatorship.

The Chinese are, I believe, riding high …. for the moment, but it may be a long ‘moment‘ before America (and some other countries) come to their political senses. The US led West is, right now, in disarray, as even the G7 looks to become a G6+1 because American leadership is totally absent. But the Chinese do not have a ‘pat hand;’ their system of governance ~ a one party dictatorship ~ is weak and they have yet to demonstrate that they have a formula to establish what they want: a functioning meritocracy based on ‘Asian values‘ and communitarianism, both of which are rooted in Confucian thought.

We are not and should not be too vocal critics of Chinese governance … Lee Kwan Yew may have been right: liberal democracy may not meet the needs of East Asia or even of Eastern Europe. It works for us but it might be a bit of a “hot house flower” that will not thrive in other socio-cultural climates.

2 thoughts on “Some more thoughts on China’s governance, and ours”

  1. Ted, a very thoughtful and sobering essay. Thank you for all the work you put into it. I’ll have to read it again once or twice to really hoist it in.

  2. The text that you emphasise by colouring the typeface yellow is almost impossible for me to read.

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