The world’s most powerful authoritarian state is about to assume global leadership, according to international public opinion. The recent Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey finds that 47% of respondents in 22 nations believe China has replaced or will replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower.
Whether or not that transpires, it is an appropriate time to examine what China wantsand to consider whether a democratic state would be a less aggressive international player?
The forthcoming change in the leadership of the ruling Communist party is more likely to generate a shift in foreign policy than any meaningful domestic reform, says Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and a contributor to the Journal of Democracy.
“Conventional wisdom puts too much emphasis on the lengthy time it takes for new leaders to consolidate power and on the power struggle at the top, he argues. But the party’s elite can initiate foreign policy changes relatively quickly because “unlike domestic policy change, which tends to encounter resistance from entrenched interest groups benefiting from the status quo, foreign policy shift faces much less opposition.”
Henry Kissinger represents an accommodating approach to China’s rise which concedes too much to its supposed singularity and is too prepared to accept Beijing’s argument that U.S. insistence on human rights impedes constructive relations, writes Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan.
Kissinger’s position, outlined in his recent book, combines three fallacies, he writes: “that the universality of international human rights is a matter of opinion rather than international law, that human rights equals American principles of governance, and that promoting human rights means holding hostage progress in all other areas.”
A more realistic approach to China’s rising power can be found in another recent book, by Aaron Friedberg, who appreciates that “if China’s power continues to grow, and if it continues to be ruled by a one-party authoritarian regime, its relations with the United States are going to become increasingly tense and competitive.”
Friction need not entail conflict, notes Nathan, who suggests that an audit of China’s capability to project it power would reveal that the regime “is bogged down” both domestically and in its Asian neighborhood. At home, it is forced to expend huge resources on suppressing dissent and restive ethnic minorities; internationally, its neighbors present two set of problems:
Around its borders, it is surrounded chiefly by two kinds of countries: unstable ones where almost any conceivable change will make life more difficult for Chinese strategists (such as Myanmar, North Korea, and the weak states of Central Asia) and strong ones that are likely to get stronger in the future and compete with China (such as India, Japan, Russia, and Vietnam). And everywhere on its periphery, on land and at sea, China faces the powerful presence of the United States.
Rather than passively accepting or accommodating China’s foreign policy aims, the US would be better advised to copy Chinese strategists’ game of “combative coexistence,” says Nathan, “seeking to improve their relative power position amid the ever-changing forces of world politics.”
“It is likely that a more democratic China would ultimately create a more peaceful, less war-prone environment in Asia,” Friedberg recently argued.“In the long run, the United States can learn to live with a democratic China as the dominant power in East Asia, much as Great Britain came to accept America as the preponderant power in the Western Hemisphere.”
To the contrary, other analysts suggest, finding it….
….highly unlikely that China will become a truly democratic political system, and moreover a democratizing Middle Kingdom may well be overwhelmed by the nationalistic sentiments that are part of China’s contemporary political culture, and that the present Communist government has deliberately cultivated. Even if we arbitrarily and optimistically assign a 50 percent probability to each of these outcomes, over the next decade or so, that means that the chances of a Chinese regime that is both democratic and cooperative would be no more than 25 percent.
Contrary to Kissinger’s claims, the China model has worked precisely because “it embraces both universal norms and unique Chinese characteristics,” writes analyst Jinghao Zhou. The country’s impressive economic growth “demonstrates that universal norms, including globalization, marketization and privatization, are the right direction for China to take.”
But, he notes, with rising social unrest and endemic corruption symptomatic of an unaccountable leadership, an undemocratic China can’t rule the world.
The party has tried to fill the ideological vacuum left by the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism by blending neo-Maoism and neo-Confucianism but neither can provide the basis for maintaining a modernization inevitably rooted in globalization.
“China will have to choose between the two: resist globalization or introduce democracy. If China fails to take a crucial step toward democratization, it may remain a self-confined and self-centered country despite its strong economic muscle,” but at the cost of international leadership.
The neo-Maoist and neo-Confucian traditions “are being promoted as alternatives to democracy,” writes Frances Fukuyama, because the ruling party is “eager to find alternative sources of legitimacy for itself in a world where liberal democracy is the default ideology.”
Leading intellectuals and party ideologists insist that “China is not a democracy manqué, but rather a separate civilization founded on different but equally valid principles from the west,” he notes.
But the neo-Maoism and neo-Confucianism that Fukuyama describes “both need to be taken with a substantial dose of salt – or Sichuan pepper in the case of the former,” writes Jonathan Fenby, head of China research at Trusted Sources.
Bo Xilai’s neo-Maoist “red” campaign is a crude attempt to burnish his ideological credentials, and as for neo-Confucianism …
…the basic appeal of the Confucian creed to rulers down the centuries remains – it is they who define the benevolence, in return for which the population owes them loyalty and obedience. Everybody knows their place and had better keep to it. Hardly a model likely to be embraced by today’s upwardly mobile society. The much tougher practice of Legalism lies behind the mask, as can be seen from the way in which a number of dissidents and human rights lawyers have “disappeared” in recent months.
Would a democratic China be a less aggressive, more peaceful international player? Freedberg, Nathan and Pei debate the issue here.
Andrew Nathan and Frances Fukuyama are both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy.