China bides its time with political model

Posted on August 27, 2012


BEIJING – The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama is an important book that for the first time deals systematically with the most important ideological issue of the West since the fall of communism: democracy and the difficulties in spreading it throughout the world.

In fact, since the fall of communism in 1989, no country or ideology has openly challenged democracy or claimed a universal role. That is, even the remaining communist countries do not claim to want or fight for communism to become the dominant ideology in the world. Yet democracy fails to stick in countries where it had no tradition.

It failed miserably in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the initial enthusiasm after the American intervention. In other Muslim countries, it hasn’t fared much better. In China, it receives a mixed reception, and India, despite having democratic forms, it is not really felt among the population.

Why is that? Fukuyama takes a long route to answer this question, and he does, to my mind, in most cases very successfully. However, at least in the Chinese case, he fails to see some important aspects that compromise his analysis.

I must present an apology: this article is long and perhaps a little complicated, but it is necessary, as Fukuyama’s argument deserves a full-fledged approach.

The issue of political systems, their evolution, the reasons for their changes, and the apparent current convergence toward democracy are at the heart of the concept of history and the destiny of the West and of the world, which has been dominated by Western ideas in the last century and in this one. The 20th century was governed by a bitter struggle between democracy, a child of the 17th century English Revolution and the 18th century American and French revolutions, and two of its totalitarian spin-offs, fascism and communism.

Yet, after the triumph of democracy over communism at the end of the “brief 20th century”, as historian Eric Hobsbawm called it, a different, more subtle and insidious challenge has arisen – that of political systems with a veneer of modernity (named communism or democracy) but actually rooted in deeper and more complex traditions completely different from the Western institutions that spawn democracy in Europe.

The fact that countries like China or India, ruled by these systems, are rising and threaten to defy the economic supremacy of the West poses a great jeopardy to the West.

The West can wonder whether its democratic system is still the best when “best” is measured by the economic performance it delivers, according to the standard that worked for the defeat the Soviet system.

Then, the USSR claimed it could grant a better life to its people through equality and free access to welfare, but actually its economy collapsed because it could not sustain the welfare system and economic and military competition with the West. The Soviet welfare system actually might still be better than the American one, but it was just not sustainable. Therefore the whole Soviet system may have been worse than the American one and was bound to fail in political and economic competition.

The China issue is very different. If, for instance, China – thanks also to its political system – outperforms the West for 30 years, it raises the possibility that its system is perhaps better than the Western one, at least in delivering growth in a moment when development is necessary. This also poses the issue that the West is no longer the only “owner” of a political system that can deliver growth and the practical standard by which policies are judged worldwide. China owns a different formula that is equally or even better suited to growth.

To this challenge, the simple reply could be for the West to consider separate patterns of growth and of political development: democracy in the West, “Confucianism” (for lack of better word) in the East, or the partial or total adoption of “Confucianism” in the West.

These are the same questions that were raised by the growth and initial success of the Soviet system in the 1920s. Then they were exacerbated as both the capitalist and communist systems had an ambition to universality: the US wanted capitalism in Russia, and the USSR wanted communism in America. Now these questions are toned down, as “Confucianism” has no pretension of universality, and Western capitalism thinks it can spread naturally, not through militant propaganda.

Nevertheless, the political clash still exists, although not in a very stark manner, and political leaders in both China and the US are well aware of this. Western countries know that China’s economic success poses much wider political and ideological issues.

In its 72-year history, the economic success of the Soviet system was always patchy. In the 1920s, it grew; in the 1930s, it crashed; in the 1950s and 1960s, it moved up; in and after the 1970s, it came to a standstill.

China is different: for the past 34 years, since economic reforms were launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China has grown continuously at an average of 10% a year. Moreover, earlier hopes that China’s growth would massively slow down and stop have so far proven false.

In his latest book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama is the first to broach this very complex and sensitive subject in a comprehensive manner, by analyzing one by one the different political systems from a historical perspective, leading to the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the creation of systems that spread from France to the rest of the world.

He knows that the threat to Western democracy does not come only from China. There are India and Islam, both knocking at the gates, but none has the apparent strength and potential of China. For this reason, Fukuyama first delves into China. He recognizes that China was the first country to create a modern state, one that incidentally, through the work of the Jesuits in China, also inspired the Enlightenment and thus the rise of the modern Western state.

Fukuyama says:

China was the first world civilization to create a modern state. But it created a modern state that was not restrained by a rule of law or by institutions of accountability to limit the power of the sovereign. The only accountability in the Chinese system was moral. A strong state without rule of law or accountability amounts to dictatorship, and the more modern and institutionalized that state is, the more effective its dictatorship will be. The Qin state that unified China embarked on an ambitious effort to reorder Chinese society that amounted to a form of proto-totalitarianism. This project ultimately failed because the state did not have the tools or technology to carry out its ambitions. It had no broadly motivating ideology to justify itself, nor did it organize a party to carry out its wishes. The communications technology of the time did not permit it to reach very far into Chinese society. Where it was able to exercise power, its dictatorship was so harsh that it provoked a rebellion that led to its quick demise. [1]

The point is extremely important as Fukuyama almost reaches the heart of the matter about China’s political system, but fails to grasp it.

If, as Fukuyama says, the Chinese imperial system was a dictatorship, it would sway power by the use of terror, and the system, once toppled, would never go back to its former self. Yet we see that in more than 2,000 years, with each revolution that brought down the Chinese dynasties, the Chinese always rebuilt similar political systems.

Was it ignorance? Stupidity?

Perhaps, but these seem poor explanations, especially since we know that Chinese emperors and intellectuals were exposed to different political ideas in the late Ming and early Qing periods by the Jesuits. They tried to convert the Qing emperor and offered to promote his power with the strong ideological motivation of the divine right. This was something that could not be challenged by any revolutionary attempt, and could have been stronger that the flimsy Mandate of Heaven (tian ming), subject to wide interpretation. Yet, as we know, the Jesuits did not succeed for many reasons, including that the Chinese state was based on very different ideological foundations.

A more fitting answer to which ideology and system was sustainable and worked in China comes from a book notable for its historical reconstruction of the philosophical debate in China up to the Han dynasty, Disputers of the Tao by Angus C Graham.

The Han first tried to combine the Qin administrative system with a restoration of the fiefs inside the commanderies [A system that would combine both Qin centralized system and a “feudal” system in other states before the Qin unification. – my note], but after a succession of rebellions the fiefs were effectively eliminated under Emperor Wu (141-87 BC). The Prince of Huainan (executed after rebellion in 122 BC) was the last of the territorial lords inviting philosophers in his court in the manner of the rulers of the pre-Qin states.

From now on it was no longer a matter of travelling from state to state offering a new theory of government, which might give an advantage to a ruler over his rivals. Competition was now for the ear of a single ruler, and adapted to the lowest denominator of rulers, with the aim of distracting them from the realities of political power by frightening them with omens or promising them an elixir of life.

Chinese society was now settling into that equilibrium which in spite of all changes it was never quite to lose, and its philosophies into that synthesis which we proposed to formulate as “the Chinese secret of social immortality”:
From Confucianism – An ethic rooted, below the conscious reflection, in the most fundamental social bonds, kinship and custom, which models the community and the family, relates ruler/subject to father/son and past/present to ancestor/descendant.
From Legalism – A rational statecraft with the techniques to organize an empire of unprecedented size and partially homogenize custom throughout it.
From Yin-Yang – A proto science which models the cosmos of the community.
From Taoism (reinforced from the Later Han Buddhism) – Personal philosophies relating the individual directly to the cosmos, allowing room within the social order for the inassimilable which might disrupt the community.
From Mozi (through the argumentation of the competing schools – A rationality confined to the useful, which leaves the fundamental questions outside its range. [2]

This is what Graham calls the secret of the “immortal empire embracing nearly a quarter of the human race, defeating the destiny by which all things come and go”.

In fact, Graham explains that up to the establishment of the Han dynasty, the Chinese built the foundation of an extremely well organized state. This state, which drew on the experience of all the main traditions of thought in China before its political unification, had the ultimate goal of maintaining a balance and equilibrium with the social body of the people and with the nature. Therefore, for instance, this state underscored the importance of agriculture but not that of trade or industry, which were to be cut down if their success were to cast a shadow over the power and influence of the state or the local mandarin. That is, the perceived stability of the state was more important than economic performance.

This old Chinese state imperative is very different from the state born out of the Industrial Revolution, which believes in infinite growth and development. In fact, the modern state of the Industrial Revolution thinks that the success of a state is measured by the speed of its economic development. In other words, economic development is more important than state stability, and if one is to choose between the two, development will come first, state stability second.

This creates a highly unstable atmosphere socially and politically, that has to be dealt with by institutions very different from the ones in place before the Industrial Revolution. In fact the need to manage this new social and economic instability has created the need to have different institutions, more flexible, able to better adapt and cope with this atmosphere. The new institutions, like the political institutions holding America together, have ultimately proved more stable than the rigid old ones. This has also created states that are enormously rich and powerful, have come to dominate the whole world, and have spread out of Europe.

The Chinese state’s goal of stability worked up until modern times, but now the necessities of economic performance trump those of state stability. This is proven by the political, economic, and military success of the West over the rest of the world in the 19th century, and it is further confirmed by the Soviet experience, where the system decided to stifle economic dynamism to uphold the structure of the state. This attempt eventually brought down the whole system.

Here is the crucial point: the Chinese system had its own vast merits, it was not a simple or complex, soft or hard dictatorship, and it commanded true loyalty, as was proven by the demise of the Qing dynasty, which took over 70 years, three massive domestic uprisings killing about 20% of the population (some 70 million people, more than the death toll of World Wars I and II, which were global and not just limited in China), massive territorial mutilations, and several defeats by foreign countries.

Yet, the system was destroyed because it refused to modernize – that is, to prioritize economic growth over political and social stability. When Deng Xiaoping embarked China on the path of economic reforms, he set the history and tradition of the country on a very different route, one that for the first time since Qin unification in 220 BC would clearly put economic performance BEFORE state stability.

This was something that has occurred in the West since the 17th and 18th centuries, when philosophers in France (the physiocrats) and Great Britain (David Hume or Adam Smith) stressed the importance of economic growth guaranteed through measures that limited state intervention in the economy. That is, the power of the state was limited and put in service of growth generated by private enterprises.

The well-being of these enterprises came before state stability, although it required the state to create the best possible situation for the enterprises that would best develop. Possibly the success of these philosophers was due to the necessities of the two states, Great Britain and France, constantly at war with one another and thus driven to find new ways to fund their rivalry by boosting domestic economic performance.

In this sense, we can see that Fukuyama’s otherwise wonderful analysis failed to see two crucial issues.

Firstly, as we said, it did not see the fundamental reasons behind the traditional Chinese state and its logic of stability. Due to the size of the Chinese state, much larger than any of its neighbors, stability was also guaranteed enough against any external threat. As long as it was stable and thus solid, nobody would attack and defeat it.

Conversely, any threat to domestic stability, by an ambitious rich merchant or restive landowner, could break the internal unity, breed restive rebellions, and create an opportunity for external enemies to attack.

This situation no longer exists now that China is fully embedded in the global world. There, China, despite its territory and its massive population is a small part. This is true globally – it has only some 20% of the world’s population – and regionally, where India plus all other neighboring countries have wealth and population larger than that of China. This was not true for the past 20 centuries of Chinese history. Now China’s size alone cannot guarantee its national safety. It must grow economically or it is at risk.

Secondly, Fukuyama did not see the break with the traditional state that Deng enacted with his reforms. It is likely that Deng, a pragmatist, did not consider the far-reaching consequences of his move, and possibly he might have also considered the reforms not a permanent feature of China, but just some kind of temporary, stop-gap measure to cope with the present difficulties.

Or he could have deeply understood the reasons for and consequences of his decision and set out to really revolutionize Chinese history. In any case, the reforms did break a pattern that lasted 2,000 years. Moreover, Deng further broke the old political mold, when he brought down the idea of a ruling emperor and introduced the revolutionary concept of “collective leadership”.

It is worth looking at this with a little more attention, as in the late 1970s he was the first to break the imperial concept in the Sinic world. Back then, Taiwan, the separate nationalist part of China, was ruled by what de facto was the emperor – Chiang Ching-kuo, son of “emperor” Chiang Kai-shek. Japan never removed its emperor. The Meji reform in the middle of the 19th century gave power to generals who replaced the former shoguns, and then its ruling elite was hired from the ancient class of aristocraticsamurais who came and went in the government. Even Korea, north and south, had their powerful small emperors.

In China, conversely, Jiang Zemin further enhanced the introduction of collective leadership. He, with his rule, created a whole new ideological framework for the country and the way by which it was supposed to be run and managed. He ideologically promoted the role of entrepreneurs with his theory of the “Three Represents”, and thus cast a complex shadow on the meritocratic bureaucracy, the backbone of the imperial state.

“Merit” is a not a simple concept. Other ruling concepts are much simpler.

Feudal kings in Europe ruled because God wanted them to, as they were born from royal loins. To openly challenge this, one had to challenge the truth of the king’s birth and the truth about God (without a true God, there is no true king). Or, if one breaks the link between God and king, then it raises the question: why you are a king, and why am I not? This needs then new justifications.

In China, the theory of the Mandate of Heaven, in a nutshell, proved that the emperor took power and held power because a set of circumstances caused him to do so. His success in staying in power, against numerous threats, proved the Mandate of Heaven was with him. His failure proved that the Mandate of Heaven had abandoned him, and it had moved to a different man and dynasty.

In other words: the emperor is the emperor, and he is justified in being so as long as he maintains power and successfully cracks down on adversaries. It puts the onus of challenge to the political order entirely on the enemy, who must be de facto a fanatic in believing that the present stability is not actually stable.

But it is very hard to pass that sentiment on to a majority of people whose interest is in not changing the world or the emperor but in quietly living their own lives.

Merit implies the presence of a supreme authority, choosing what is merit and how to evaluate it. Merit in China needed an emperor who would decide the answers to these issues. Then the questions are:
1. What is merit? Skill at archery? Compassion? Or management skills? In different times, imperial China decided differently.
2. How does one decide on the merit? By examination? With ad hoc tests or simply by cooption? Again, in different times, imperial China decided differently.
3. Then the most crucial question: who decides? In imperial times, the clear answer is that it was the emperor. But now? It is not President Hu Jintao, by an absolute arbitrary act, and it is not a popular vote. Then who decides exactly?

The reality is that in imperial times, including with Mao, this meritocracy had a clear standard: I, the emperor, choose the best people, according to the kinds of merits I deem necessary for my own ends and in the manner I deem fit. The emperor owned the empire, therefore his personal interests and those of the state were in line, and thus it was in his best interest to keep the state safe and move in the best direction. He could make mistakes, but his mistakes were in good faith.

Without an emperor who has (or represents) the supreme interests of the state, who sets the rules to define merit? Whose interests are objectively in line with those of the state and not tainted by private, selfish aims?

In ancient China, the emperor owned the country and its people, and thus should have had an interest in running the country in the best way because, in theory, his private, selfish interests were perfectly coinciding with those of the state. Failures came when emperors were “stealing from themselves” – that is, when an emperor de facto took money and wealth from the state and its people and hoarded it in his coffers, which were considered different from those of the state.

The emperor, by drawing a line between his own property and his property of the state, then was corrupt and lost his Mandate of Heaven.

When Europe adopted the system of civil service (meritocracy) inspired by China, it answered these questions in various manners. It was the king and parliament (once only made up of the rich and powerful, and later representing all people over 18 years old) who selected the meritorious officials in different manners. The will of the people (voting) was considered the closest thing to having an objective standard for the state interests.

The concrete problem with China now is that the old model is gone, and these three concrete and practical questions are not clearly answered.

Perhaps at the moment China can’t answer. There is no emperor and no transparent group of “voters”. There is indeed a group of “voters” in China, and there are various systems, but they are not clear. This is good and bad. It is good because it can change, and it is changing, since nobody is openly committed to the present system. It is bad because nobody knows how it works, and thus it is open to all kinds of unhealthy interference and corruption.

The issue also exists within the Western system because when we devolve the ultimate power to the faceless entity of the “people”, we know this entity can’t be entirely trusted, and we have to keep a balance. Therefore we have the tradition of a balance of power. Even without democratic Athens, Sparta had two kings who ruled in turns of one day each. Rome had two consuls who also ruled one day each, and even when Rome had the emperor, the senate checked his power.

China had a different system. The emperor owned the country, and the ministers ruled for him. The emperor controlled the ministers and replaced them if he thought they did not perform. Once Deng did away with the concept of emperor (Mao was really the last emperor), the country gave up its old traditional system.

China can now either revert to the tradition (but who would be the next emperor?) or it will have to adapt some form of Western “democracy”, as it has been doing already with rule by the vote of a group of people.

Any other outcome would be simply illogical and impractical. History is full of illogical choices, for sure, but many times the strength of logic and practice has its own way.

We have some indications also that China is set to follow logic.

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin has written a preface for theConcise History of China, compiled by the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences [3], where he calls on all party members, particularly top party leaders, to learn from the successes and failures in history.

I once said, if a leader was not good at drawing nutrition from history, he could not be a wise leader; if a political party was not good at recognizing and grasping patterns of social developments from history, it could not be a political party that conscientiously responded to the trends of history; if a nation was not good at inheriting and developing excellent achievements of civilization of her own and those from other nations, it could not exist among the group of advanced nations in the world.

There seems to be a consensus in China that “excellent achievements of civilization … of other nations” refers to liberty, human rights and democracy. [4]

In the following days, Xinhua issued a report [5] that makes three important points.
1. It pledges that the party will proceed with democratization, as it is a historical law. (The concept of historical law is very strong in the party rhetoric, and it means something necessary will happen, like it or not.)
2. The report originated from, of all places, Chongqing, formerly home of the now-heretical neo-Maoist doctrine of the toppled Bo Xilai.
3. It calls Hu Jintao the core of the leadership, a title formerly used for Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Will this democracy be like American democracy? It is unlikely. It will be Chinese, although it will have to incorporate many Western concerns. We do not know how it will work and how efficient or inefficient it will be. Yet, by itself it could change the rules of the game in which the West and America will engage with China. It could open new and different ways for America to cope with China, which is already challenging the simple or complex misperceptions the West has had about it.

1. Fukuyama, Francis. The Origins of Political Order, p150.
2. Graham, A C. Disputers of the Tao, London, 1989, p372.
3 See
4. Thanks to Liu Yawei for pointing that out.
5. See “The CCP Steadily Pushing Forward the Buildup of Political Democracy Answers the Historical Rules”, July 31, 2012. Thanks to Lu Xiang for pointing that out to me.

Francesco Sisci