What now?

From a western liberal democracy perspective that values individual liberty and freedom of speech as universal and absolute, China is an oppressive state, its citizens brainwashed into obedience or silenced through fear. However, “compared to Western societies, China places much less emphasis on individual rights and significantly more emphasis on the value of the individual in terms of his or her contribution to harmony in society”[1]. Given such divergence in values that underpin the foundations of a society what can we do?

Perhaps the starting point is to acknowledge that neither East nor West is perfect and each view the other dimly through the lens of their own history, culture, values and ambitions.

From a Chinese Perspective

When China opened up, the prevailing belief was that as China develops it will naturally adopt liberal democratic values and systems. As this did not happen, various reasons have been put forward to explain the differences in values and outlooks between East and West. In the ‘Geography of Thought’ [2],the social psychologist Richard Nisbett ascribed the differences to how environmental conditions

However, China as a “family’ state draws its legitimacy from “maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of Chinese civilisation … (and) the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family”[3].

The importance of the ‘unity of the land’ in China in contrast to the West can be seen in two popular movies. In the Hollywood movie, Braveheart (1995), William Wallace led a Scottish uprising against the English king. He was captured and, at the moment of his execution, he shouted one word ‘freedom’. In the Chinese movie, Hero (2002), the protagonist led a plot to assassinate the Qin emperor, who was successfully conquering one state after another during the Warring States period. When he reached his target, he stopped and sacrificed himself believing that when the emperor succeeds in uniting the land the wars and killings would stop.

No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination”.

The Chinese State recognises five major religions for practice in China — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism — and comes down hard on any religious group that do not conform. Some people view this as enforced sinicisation of religion. Certainly, there are parallels with the myriad ways China has responded to religious influences throughout its history.

Sinophobia

Sinophobia began in the 19th century during the Opium Wars, when Chinese culture was perceived as backward and uncivilised, and continued into the 20th century. The Yellow Peril became popular as a racist metaphor. In Australia and New Zealand, in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants were described as dirty and disease ridden. There were protests against Asians and Chinese for taking away jobs and legislation was passed to exclude all further Chinese immigration. In Canada, Chinese migrants were subjected to special taxes, not allowed to vote and unable to apply for citizenship until 1947.

“In the early decades of the 20th century, Britain buzzed with Sinophobia. Respectable middle-class magazines, tabloids and comics, alike, spread stories of ruthless Chinese ambitions to destroy the West. The Chinese master-criminal (with his ‘crafty yellow face twisted by a thin-lipped grin’, dreaming of world domination) had become a staple of children’s publications.”

In 1911, “The Chinese in England: A Growing National Problem”, an article distributed around the Home Office, warned of “a vast and convulsive Armageddon to determine who is to be the master of the world, the white or yellow man.” After the First World War, cinemas, theatre, novels, and newspapers broadcast visions of the “Yellow Peril” machinating to corrupt white society. In March 1929, the Chinese chargé d’affaires complained that no fewer than five plays in the West End depicted Chinese people in objectionable forms. The popular press warned of the dangers of Chinese men marrying British women as a racial threat to white Britain, and that Triad gangsters kidnapped British women into white slavery.

A You-Gov poll conducted in June 2020 found that people from Chinese backgrounds in the UK are more exposed to racist comments than other minority ethnic groups. 76% of Chinese had a racial slur directed at them compared with 64% for all the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) respondents[11]. Besides being blamed for Covid-19, the general negativity concerning China arising from geo-political posturing has led to an increase in Sinophobia and hate crime, not just in the UK but also in Australia, Canada, the United States and in Europe.

A common refrain amongst Western politicians critical of China is that they differentiate between the Chinese people, the Chinese State and the Communist Party of China. However, the racists in the street do not. They cannot even distinguish between Chinese and other East and Southeast Asians. Historically, Sinophobia has been expressed as a danger to Western civilisation from the influence of East Asian countries, and as a threat to Western living standards from East Asian migrants. The parallels today can be seen in the clash of civilisations, accusations of genocide and human right abuses, blaming China for the Covid-19 pandemic and the fear of China dominating the world as economic power shifts eastwards. These narratives have a pernicious effect, as public opinions in most Western countries shifted from favourable to unfavourable in recent years concerning China.

So, what now?

When the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Francis Fukuyama wrote the ‘The End of History and the Last Man’[12]. Western liberal democracy has proven to be fundamentally better and triumphed as the pinnacle of human governance, social advancement and economic development. Globalisation and international rules of conduct, such as trade and human rights, together with agreed global sustainable development goals to control diseases, fight climate change and eradicate poverty, will surely promote the spread of liberal democracy.

“We always say, we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia.”[13].

Western fears of China’s power appear to be based on their own colonial past, expecting China to do unto others what they have done to others before.

“The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people”[14].

From this perspective, democratic governance is understood not as having a system of multi-party elections but of how well the people’s needs and interests are met. Perhaps, we should be more mindful of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, putting physical and social needs first before appealing to aspirational desires.

“We had tremendous progress on the freedom front and the political front despite all the crises,” said Fadhel Kaboub, an associate professor of economics at Denison University in Ohio. “But what you have kept almost intact is the exact same economic development model that produced inequality, that produced the debt crisis, that produced the social economic exclusion, that the population rebelled against.”[17]

So, what now? If past efforts at constructive engagement with China are deemed as not fruitful and cold war 2.0 risks real war, misery and chaos, what can we do?

Bringing China into the international order is not about replacing the West with the East, nor about absorbing the East into the West.

In the early years when China was developing, it was right that the West gave China a helping hand. However, now that China is a superpower, China has responsibilities to help build a more diverse, fair and representative international order. Freezing out China and decoupling the world into two warring blocs should not be the way forward. True, the engagement must be reciprocal but not in a transactional win or lose way. If each can learn from the other, transformational change can happen that enables the world (locally and globally) to better deal with the social and economic disruptions of pandemics, climate change and technology advancement.

Liberal Democracy

The rise of China does pose challenges to liberal democracy. But, it need not be a zero sum struggle, whereby if China triumphs, liberal democracy loses. Instead, we ought to enrich our understanding of liberal democracy by taking in non-Western perspectives. We have to acknowledge our own hubris. Why? Because the ideas, values and practice of liberal democracy as we know it today grew out of a specific set of conditions in Europe about 300 years ago during the Enlightenment.

Nobody would quibble over the fundamental principles of liberal democracy such as reason, liberty, equality, openness and rule of law. However, the ways these principles have been understood and applied are coloured by Western eyes, values, culture and religious beliefs.

We need to practise what we preach. The shenanigan over Huawei is a case in point. Huawei was not a threat to national security until the US decided it was based on the possibility that the Chinese government may demand access. Then Huawei was accused of violating sanctions against Iran (unilaterally imposed with extraterritorial enforcement powers that override international rules). When the decisions regarding Huawei are political rather than commercial, when the UK (for example) ignored the ruling of the International Court of Justice over the Chagos islands, our credibility is diminished and our insistence that others follow the rules are hypocritical.

Liberal democracy in the West is almost like the air we breathe. We are so used to it, take it so much for granted that we assume Western understanding and functioning of liberal democracy is exceptional and universal. We forget that there are other people from other parts of the world, from the developing South or from the East! each with their own history, cultures and philosophies, who see some things and value some things differently from the West.

The 21st Century no longer belongs only to the West. Not just because of the reawakening of China who succeeded in lifting itself out of poverty and becoming a superpower in a short period of time based on values and beliefs that appear alien to Western eyes. There are also India, Japan, Latin America and Africa, all jostling for their place on the world stage. Hence, for liberal democracy to go forward and accommodate a multi polar world it will need to adapt to new realities, accept other viewpoints and be willing to share power.

If we can better see ourselves through the eyes of others, perhaps we can transcend current understanding of liberal democracy to create new thinking, ideas and paradigms to solve the challenges of the 21st Century. We must learn, despite our differences, to develop a shared humanity that co-exists with each other and with our planet.

Selected Bibliography

Chapter 2

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Yeow Poon

Yeow Poon

Exploring social cohesion, cross culture mutuality and a sustainable, collaborative and peaceful multi-polar world. https://www.linkedin.com/in/yeowpoon/