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Not the End of History: Why China Won’t Liberalise

09 Jul 2020
By Louis Devine
18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Source: Dong Fang

Predicting the impending liberalisation of China’s authoritarian regime is a popular pastime among some Western analysts. But it’s foolish to assume that China’s political development will mirror the West.

A common argument is that as Chinese people experience increased economic freedom, they will demand political freedom as well. With time and resources to spare, China’s middle-class will seek greater say over the political decisions that affect their futures. Such thinking is steeped in liberal assumptions. It presupposes, as per the European experience, that wealthy individuals become stakeholders in their system of government. Limited-government, individualism, and political pluralism are seen as universal end-goals of human development. Convergence on these goals will mark “the end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama infamously wrote.

To be fair, many within China itself argue that authoritarian one-party rule is just a transitory phase in China’s political development. Authoritarianism is needed to stabilise Chinese society as it undergoes the most rapid economic development in human history. But what comes next? It would be foolish to assume that Western-style liberal democracy is just around the corner. Foolishness notwithstanding, much of US foreign policy is designed to forcibly liberalise China. Writing in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Minxin Pei argues that the United States should apply pressure forcing China to reform and liberalise. Pei’s reasoning is symptomatic of the view that the United States has a moral duty to spread liberalism across the globe.

Regrettably, predictions of Chinese liberalisation are based more on wishful thinking than sober analysis. This is because a liberal China is in the United States’ economic interest. The US has long complained about China’s failure to further liberalise its economy after joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. For example, Chinese state-owned banks provide cheap loans to Chinese state-owned businesses, such as the telecommunications giant ZTE, which competes in the Chinese domestic market against American alternatives. Many might sincerely argue that economic reforms beget political reforms, but it’s hard to ignore the reality that Chinese liberalisation would be an economic boon to the United States. From Beijing’s perspective, ending state subsidies would prevent China ascending the value ladder in international trade, forever condemning it to manufacture low-end products such as clothing and toys.

China’s thus far successful economic development undermines the notion that non-Western societies must adopt Western cultural, political, and economic norms to succeed. Because Western universalism is threatened, it is better to deny China’s success altogether.

China’s success reveals the historical contingency of liberalism – much of what we thought was universal is, in fact, particular to the Western experience. This doesn’t mean individual rights aren’t desirable, or that we should collapse into some sort of moribund moral relativism. Let me issue an immediate disclaimer: China’s treatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and dissidents is undeniably reprehensible. One doesn’t need to be a classical liberal to find genocide distasteful.

Nevertheless, those confidently predicting China will collapse under the weight of its own repression need to be wary of their own assumptions. It is not a universal law that prosperous middle classes will seek liberalising political reforms – this is merely the European experience. It was the excesses of absolute monarchs and experiences of civil war that lead to Europeans gradually circumscribing the role of the state. The philosophical basis for modern individualism, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, was a direct response to the chaos of the English Civil War. By contrast, China was relatively politically stable during this time. When China did experience political upheaval, philosophers such as Confucius extolled the virtues of harmony and order, rather than limiting the state.

As a result, political individualism has no historical antecedents in China. Confucianism, the most directly political of Chinese philosophies (and currently experiencing a comeback) is deeply collectivist. If a Confucian state of nature were to exist, it would be populated by families, not freely associating rational individuals. Property rights, for example, are generally regarded as belonging to the entire family, rather than just one individual.

More importantly, whereas centuries of repressive absolute monarchism have created distrust of the state in Western political cultures, Chinese historically tend to view the state as a means of delivering social goods, rather than a force to be constrained. China developed a sophisticated, centralised civil service bureaucracy centuries before Europe. This partially explains the strength of the contemporary Chinese social contract: in exchange for foregoing political rights, the Communist regime will deliver increasing living standards. For China, the presence of an active state is a feature, not a bug. Limited government has never been a goal for a polity including over a billion people.

So, what does this mean for the West? Gone are the days when it was hoped China would emerge as a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal international order. Martin Jacques, author of “When China Rules the World,” argues that China’s rise destroys Western claims to universalism and “relativises everything.” It’s easy to overstate this argument. While China’s success disproves the view there is only one path towards development, it does not devalue the concept of human rights. Indeed, Confucians have their own human rights discourse. We need to be careful to distinguish between Western (liberal) and Confucian notions of human rights. For liberals, humans are essentially autonomous rational individuals. For Confucians, humans are essentially members of a community. This explains their difference in emphasis. Liberals emphasise negative rights (freedom from something), whereas Confucians emphasise positive rights (the right to something). It is much easier to sustain the argument that Chinese citizens must forego political rights in the interests of economic development when communities, not individuals, are the basic unit of moral analysis.

In a world shaped by Chinese power, Western thinkers will need to be more sensitive to China’s own intellectual traditions. Going forward, a dialogue should occur between Western and Chinese philosophies, allowing for a mutually beneficial exchange. For the West, Confucianism’s emphasis on communal ties may help redress some of the socially destructive effects of individualism such as loneliness and declining rates of social participation, as famously observed by Robert Putnam. For China, liberalism is a powerful force for protecting individual rights against the state. China has every right to political stability and economic growth, but even these should not permit the repressive behaviour directed towards Uyghurs and other minorities.

So, what then for the end of history? Defending his claim, Fukuyama later wrote he was referring to history in its Hegelian sense, that liberalism is the normative synthesis of all historical experience. I find this sort of philosophical and cultural parochialism difficult to swallow. Going forward, a synthesis of Chinese and Western philosophy could lay the normative groundwork for a new, peaceful international order. We in the West should not fear this. Our intellectual and moral lives will be enhanced by considering a wider range of views on what it means to be human. History may yet end, but it will be more pluralistic than originally thought.

Louis Devine holds an Honours degree from the University of Melbourne in International Relations and Philosophy. His thesis looked at the geo-strategic ambitions and maritime strategy driving China’s naval modernisation. He currently sits on the national committee of the Australian Republic Movement. Follow him on twitter @LouisDevine13.

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