Over the past few years, Western politicians and media have frequently condemned China for its political values, accusing it of being “authoritarian”, “repressive” and “anti-democratic”. There is a deep-seated belief in the West that the only form of government to which countries should aspire is that of liberal democracy. Indeed, the constant proselytizing of Western democracy is now pursued with the same passion and self-righteousness that characterized the Crusades in the Middle Ages.
At the heart of the West’s condemnation of China is a fundamental misconception. This is the belief that the vast majority of Chinese people are desperate to throw off the yoke of the Communist Party of China and embrace Western liberal democracy. The reality is that many Chinese people are not only skeptical about Western democracy, but also believe that China’s form of government is more effective, more attuned to recent Chinese history, and more in keeping with Chinese values. The West will never understand modern China until it appreciates these three strands legitimizing and underpinning its form of government in the eyes of Chinese people.
The first strand underpinning support for China’s system of government is that of effectiveness. Chinese people are very conscious that central government policies, supported by political and social stability, have facilitated the remarkable economic growth experienced in China over the past few decades. GDP has increased more than tenfold since 1990, making China the world’s second-largest economy after the US. This has lifted millions of people out of poverty, with the World Bank estimating that China’s poverty rate has fallen from 88 percent in 1981 to less than 1 percent in 2020. This has been accompanied by remarkable technological and scientific advances; infrastructure development, including airports, ports and high-speed railways; and the rapid development of large, vibrant cities, providing further opportunities for economic growth as well as social progress in areas such as education, housing and healthcare. In addition to these internal achievements, China has become an increasingly important player on the world stage, both politically and economically. In this context, it isn’t surprising that Chinese people regard their system of government as being more effective than those in the West.
The second strand underpinning people’s support for China’s system of government is firmly rooted in Chinese history. In the second half of the 19th century, following the so-called Opium Wars, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties that restricted its economic sovereignty, imposed unfavorable terms of foreign trade, and ceded territories, including Hong Kong, to Western powers. The popular anti-Western resentment that these humiliating treaties engendered was widespread, reflected in the unsuccessful Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Foreign exploitation of China continued into the first half of the 20th century, with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan carving up the country into different “spheres of influence”. The resentment and mistrust of foreign powers created by this quasi-colonialism became even more entrenched when China was invaded by Japanese forces in 1931. The eventual defeat of Japan by combined Chinese Communist and Nationalist troops in 1945 was soon followed by the victory of Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army over the Kuomintang Nationalists in 1949. This left the government of the newly formed People’s Republic of China in the enviable position of being a successful party that had liberated China from both foreign domination and civil war. In the eyes of the Chinese people, this legitimized the authority of the Party, especially as its declared policy was to assert China’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Seventy years later, this history of liberation from a century of humiliation is still engrained in the Chinese psyche. It helps explain why many Chinese people trust the political party that effected this liberation, and are wary of the Western democracies that had previously exploited them. This is not to imply that the CPC has never made mistakes. The failure of the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) were undoubtedly dark periods for China, but have not had the same long-term psychological impact as the century of humiliation by foreign powers.
Finally, the third strand underpinning people’s support for China’s system of government is that it is more in keeping with Chinese values than are Western democratic systems. Chinese and Western values are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there are significant areas of overlap and common ground between the two traditions. The traditional Chinese cultural values are harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty and filial piety. No one in the West would argue against these qualities. Similarly, no one in China would argue against the Western concept of individual responsibility. However, there are significant differences in emphasis between the two cultural and philosophical traditions. Chinese values have been strongly influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, which emphasize social harmony, cooperation, hierarchy and respect for authority. Western values, on the other hand, have been shaped by Christianity, Judaism and the Enlightenment, with a greater emphasis on the individual, human rights and personal freedom. These cultural differences have had a huge impact on the different political values and governmental systems of China and the West. China’s collectivist model of government is firmly rooted in Chinese cultural traditions, just as the West’s libertarian model is rooted in Western traditions.
The two approaches have been described as common interest versus “the cult of the individual”. In China, the emphasis is on harmony, consensus, cooperation, meritocracy, hierarchy and stability. In the West, the emphasis is on individual rights, democratic freedoms, equality, competition, and an adversarial political framework. Neither system is perfect, and neither should try to proselytize the superiority of their system. In particular, the West needs to understand why the Chinese don’t regard Western democracy as an ideal fit for them. Chinese people know that China’s government is not perfect (no government is) but they also know that it is effective, grounded in Chinese history, and rooted in traditional Chinese values. Only after appreciating this reality will the West’s relations with China improve. At the very least, hostility, criticism and condemnation need to give way to understanding, acceptance of differences and the willingness to coexist peacefully.
Hong Kong has a role here, as its amalgam of Chinese and Western values effectively bridges the divide. Hong Kong is undoubtedly a rich blend of Chinese and Western cultural influences. It has been shaped by Chinese philosophical traditions, including Confucianism’s respect for social harmony and authority. Equally, it has been influenced by the West’s respect for individual rights and freedoms. Over the past few years, this juxtaposition of cultural traditions has led to an identity crisis in the city, but pragmatism and normality have now returned. The West needs to acknowledge this, stop crusading, and try to be more empathetic. Hong Kong is striving to build on its Chinese and Western traditions, combining both communal and individual values to establish a unique political identity. Rather than condemning this as an anti-democratic compromise, the West should see it as a positive and realistic attempt to bring together the best of both traditions.
The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.