Remember, back in 2013, well before the Liberals won the 2015 election, when Justin Trudeau said: “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China, because [of] their basic dictatorship.” He doubled down on those remarks, explaining that “his comment was a reflection on a growing economy.” In fact, he wasn’t alone in that view. Many people, including some world leaders, turned a blind eye to China’s governance as they were dazzled by its fast-growing wealth and power. But, it had always seemed to me, that when Deng Xiaoping said, in 1984, years before it regained sovereignty over Hong Kong, that: “We are pursuing a policy of “one country, two systems.” More specifically, this means that within the People’s Republic of China, the mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system … [but Deng had, already, in the mid to late 1970s, unleashed the entrepreneurial, capitalist instincts of the Chinese people and made capitalism the de facto model for his “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and he said] … In recent years, China has worked hard to overcome “Left” mistakes and has formulated its policies concerning all fields of endeavor in line with the principle of proceeding from reality and seeking truth from facts. After five and a half years things are beginning to pick up. It is against this background that we have proposed to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems by allowing two systems to coexist in one country,” that he was planning for China’s future as some sort of one-party quasi-democracy. It appeared to me, and to many others, that Deng understood the importance of sound, trusted institutions ~ the rule of law, basically ~ in enabling and sustaining social harmony and economic growth over generations and centuries. He seemed to listen most carefully to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and I and others expected that Chinese leaders, from Mao to Xi Jinping would listen to Prime Minister Lee’s council and, steadily, over the life of the “one country, two systems” regime that China would build better institutions, learning from Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan that a one-party democracy is possible and, even, highly compatible with a very conservative (Confucian) society.
Somehow, sometime in the 35 years since Deng Xiaoping’s carefully crafted remarks about “one country, two systems” and needing to overcome “Left mistakes” and 40 years after Deng unleashed capitalism (euphemistically called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics) the hopes that I and others had for China’s progress towards some form of conservative democracy seem to have been dashed.
Now I see an essay in Foreign Affairs by Professor Jiwei Ci (University of Hong Kong) in which he says that “Observers of Chinese affairs have generally concluded that democratization has lost the momentum it once had, and that the wait for its resurgence—along with the policy of engagement that the United States once based on it—can be declared over.“
But, Jiwei Ci says, “take a closer look. Focus not on China’s recent political trajectory but on the dynamic of its society. There one clearly discerns the shape of what Alexis de Tocqueville called a democratic social state—an entity distinct from a democratic political regime, but arguably as important … [and he explains that] … A democratic social state is one in which a historically fixed hierarchy has given way to formal equality of status and opportunity. Four decades of reform since the late 1970s have achieved something close to this in China. No longer is class a basis for the exclusion of masses of people (“class enemies”) from rights and benefits. Relations are growing ever more equal between men and women, parents and children, city and countryside—even, to a lesser degree, between rulers and ruled, although this last relation lies outside the strictest scope of “society.” None of these relations has yet become even nearly fully equal, but a passionate push to make them so is clearly driving social change.“
He says that “Such change has brought de facto freedoms in the private sphere—one of the most powerful engines of China’s rise—and a formal equality of opportunity that are characteristically modern and bourgeois. Today’s virtually unlimited freedom of private enterprise, for example, would have been unimaginable in the 1970s, as would have been the exercise of consumer agency for which today’s middle-class Chinese are famous. At the same time, gender discrimination in education and employment is increasingly hard to practice openly and even harder to justify in terms admissible in public discourse.“
He uses the famous French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s ‘Democracy in America‘ (1835, 1840) to explain what seems, to him, to be happening in China, today, and he says that “Chinese authorities are already paying a gargantuan material and psychological price just to keep the country stable and governable. That the present leadership encounters little resistance to its increased repression and blunt propaganda may indicate that it occupies a position of strength. But, equally, its willingness to use repression, even at the risk of encountering resistance, is a clear sign of its heightened anxiety. For an undemocratic political regime to manage a democratic society without compromise is an unnervingly tall order … [and] … Some scholars argue that there is little reason to fear for the legitimacy of a ruling regime under such circumstances. They claim that with economic prowess and national rejuvenation, an atrophying communist system can sustain its legitimacy even when it governs an ever more bourgeois, democratic society. They are mistaken. Performance by itself does not confer legitimacy on a regime, so much as it helps to make its relative absence matter less. Such is increasingly the case in China today.“
“How much longer can the CCP hold on without democratizing?” he asks, and he replies that “The short answer is: only as long as the current leadership is in charge, at best. Xi Jinping is an extraordinary leader in that he effectively keeps in check contradictions that would otherwise produce irresistible momentum toward fundamental change or collapse. Xi is able to do this not merely because he possesses special personal attributes but because he belongs to the last generation of leaders who can draw legitimacy from the communist revolutionary legacy. That legacy is one both of doctrine and of exceptional determination to keep the CCP in power at all costs, including the kind of cost incurred in June 1989.” (June 1989 was, of course, the massacre at Tienanmen Square.
“When Xi’s generation departs the political scene,” Jiwei Ci says “the CCP will mark a watershed in its political evolution. Those who come after will be a different breed of leaders. They will not be able to maintain Xi’s level of control of the party, the military, the media, and the private sector. And what they will lack is exactly what will be necessary—what is now necessary—to keep the party united, the country stable, and democratizing forces at bay … [and] … There is no reason to believe that political affairs will not resume their ordinary course in a post-Xi China. And an ordinary course entails, above all, that democracy reappear on the list of things that ordinary citizens can openly care about and peacefully strive for. The idea that the democracy project is dead and buried in China is as far-fetched as earlier expectations of a smooth-sailing democratic evolution. Indeed, the present leadership may be the last one capable of governing China with a reasonable degree of authority and stability in the absence of democratization.“
But, Professor Jiwei Ci opines, “China is far from ready for a democratic political system, even after four decades of profound democratic change within its society. The country does not have a democratic tradition that it can organically draw on as its own. Moreover, even in the reform era, Chinese citizens have never had the chance to develop the kinds of habits and civic skills that give a newly created democracy a reasonable chance of success: among these are respect for the rule of law, the willingness to compromise, and the capacity for self-restraint. China will need a substantial period of preparation for democracy—and it will need this well before dire necessity precipitates a democratic transition. Preparation of this sort requires strong leadership, for, as is well known, an autocratic system is liable to make itself dangerously vulnerable precisely when it undertakes reform … [and] … For the current CCP leadership to assume such a responsibility would require both that it be aware that such preparation is necessary, and that it be willing to act. Even then, the process of democratic preparation and transition will not be easy. The party will therefore deserve encouragement and support, just as it will need persuasion and pressure if the requisite awareness and willingness are not forthcoming. Moreover, the CCP must somehow be persuaded and pressured to leave enough space for reasoned persuasion and peaceful pressure in the first place.” My personal view is that Xi Jinping, who, I think, sees himself as a transformative leader à la some combination of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, has a huge blindspot when it comes to this key point. I suspect that he believes that his various big-ticket economic initiatives will be enough to sustain growth for two generations and that sustained economic growth ~ the jobs! Jobs! JOBS! think that animates so much of politics ~ will be enough to stifle the urge for democracy. I believe, in fact, I’m quite certain that he’s wrong.
But, he says, for the reasons outlined above, those who advocate democracy in China “must not pit their political cause against the CCP. If democracy alone can save the Chinese government, providing it with a new legitimacy to replace the no longer plausible communist one, then only the CCP is capable of steering China toward democracy. That the CCP is indispensable because it has not allowed any other group to acquire the political capacity and experience necessary for governing a country as large and complex as China is not to its credit. All the same, this indispensability is now an objective constraint that cannot be circumvented.” There’s the dilemma:
- China needs to become a democracy with strong institutions ~ something akin to Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan; and
- Because of the current state of governance, only the Chinese Communist Party can steer China towards democracy; buy
- In my opinion, Xi Jinping is the wrong leader to effect the needed change.
I believe that, after 1976, China’s rise was inevitable. Not even Mao could stifle the Chinese people’s innate entrepreneurial nature for too long. Deng Xiaoping set China on the right course and it held that course for 40 years. Now Xi Jinping wants to change course. Xi Jinping is not infallible nor is his leadership unchallenged. He might be the paramount leader for life now … but that can change is he is perceived to be weak …
… and this of a Hong Kong protester walking on his image makes him look very weak indeed, and these things have a habit of becoming public even in a country, like China, with strict censorship. But if Xi Jinping lashes out at Hong Kong he will look strong inside China but he will be weakened on the world’s stage.
I know he doesn’t read my blog, but my best advice to Xi Jinping is that he needs to go back to the fount of knowledge, to Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister of Singapore, a true friend of China, and one of the world’s preeminent strategic thinkers, and to real Chinese patriots like Anson Chan of Hong Kong, to discuss with them and with the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, how to put China on the road to establishing, over, say, the next quarter-century, the strong, law-abiding institutions that are the key to long-term prosperity and social harmony.
Oh, and Canadians need to remember that it was our ill-informed, man-child prime minister who said that he admires what Professor Jiwei Ci tells us China’s greatest weakness: it’s “basic dictatorship.” As with so many things we have proof, yet again that Justin Trudeau is just not fit for the office he holds and we need new, adult leadership in Ottawa next week.