Beginning with Marco Polo (1254–1324), Western missionaries, travelers, traders, and philosophers marveled at China’s size and wealth, and probed the mysteries of the worldview and the form of governance that produced such riches. Some were fascinated by Chinese morals, others by the country’s long-standing system of civil service. In 1792, for example, Lord George Macartney sailed to China to negotiate more favorable trading terms for British merchants. Because China had become the largest, most powerful political entity in East Asia, trade with it was crucial for British merchants and the British Empire at large. Macartney failed to achieve his goals, but he was struck by the material wealth he encountered and by the strength and efficacy of China’s imperial government, which he said had “performed with wonderful ability and unparalleled success.” And yet, he also acutely observed that the Qing Empire might not be as stable as it seemed. By the mid-19th century, Britain had defeated Qing China in the Opium War.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the combination of Western imperialism and domestic uprisings reversed the older power relationship, and China was increasingly perceived as the sick man of Asia. Now it was China that turned its gaze outward in search of wealth and power, seeking models to emulate. This search resulted in Chinese thinkers examining different systems from liberalism to Leninist-Marxism. By the time of Mao Zedong’s rule in the mid-20th century, China saw itself as taking part in the world’s modernization, possibly even leading it.
Today, some 230 years after Macartney’s mission, China once again presents a model of governance that others seek to emulate. To be sure, politicians around the world are not yet calling for the adoption of a one-party system, nor are they carefully studying the tenets of Chinese politics. But now that China has again become a global economic power and traditional Western institutions are being tested, certain characteristics of the Chinese system of governance are increasingly surfacing in other regimes.
China’s modern trajectory as a nation cannot be disconnected from the trajectories of the rest of the world, including Western Europe and North America. This interconnectedness is reflected in moments when global movements took place almost synchronously. In 1919, for example, the Paris Peace Conference, which drafted a new world order following World War I, ignited movements of national liberation in India, Korea, Egypt, and China, among other countries. During World War II, China became a valuable member of the Allies in their fight against Japan and the Axis powers. After the war, China emerged as a Communist regime, initially allied with the Soviet Union and then as an independent great power. Maoism appealed to liberation movements worldwide, and the Red Guards of China’s Cultural Revolution may well be seen alongside the youthful protest movements that erupted across the globe in the late 1960s, such as the Summer of Love, Prague Spring, May ’68 in France, and movements in Italy, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and elsewhere.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a slew of new leaders led their countries to policies embracing free-market principles, ushering in the neoliberal era. The leaders that come to mind most immediately are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but they should be viewed alongside Deng Xiaoping in their advocacy of market policies and global trade. The construction of a global economy increased overall wealth in many countries, including China, while also widening gaps between rich and poor. These changes rocked a number of societies. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the policies of reform and restructuring, while in China, the pains of economic reform together with cultural fermentation led to the unprecedented mass movement of the spring of 1989. The movement culminated in huge protests across the country, most notably in Tiananmen Square, and threatened the regime’s stability until it was violently suppressed on June 4. But China’s mass movement in turn contributed to the crumbling of regimes in Eastern Europe and eventually the Soviet Union. The great ideological rivalry of the 20th century—the struggle of socialism and capitalism—seemed to have been decided.
With this “end of history” came the belief that all states would inevitably adopt the trinity of liberal-capitalist-democracy. This view led to the re-ignition of business with China after the repression of the 1989 protests. The prevailing idea was that engaging China economically would gradually erode ideological differences and liberalize the country, first economically and then politically. As Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, many observers hoped and believed that Communist China might ultimately, rather than absorbing Hong Kong, itself be liberalized by Hong Kong.
That view of a world guided by shared ideological orientation reigned supreme in the West, certainly in popular discourse and among decision-makers. But two events in the first decade of the new century shook the confidence of Western elites in this new world order: the attacks of 9/11, which signaled in an indelible way that not everyone believed in the ideological tenets of the liberal-democratic-capitalist trinity, and the financial crisis of 2008, which suggested to many advocates of capitalism that even without external threats the reigning model of neoliberal capitalism might be unsustainable.
By this point, China had become a major force in the global economy. Recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 was propelled in large part by the wealth that China had accumulated in the course of the reform era of the previous three decades. Shortly thereafter, China overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world, with many forecasting it would replace the United States as the world’s largest in the subsequent decade.
Emblematic of China’s new position in the world were signs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 that called for dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down—not in English, as many other placards seeking foreign attention were, but rather in Chinese, in what seemed to be an attempt to recruit Chinese support for the movement. Indeed, the revolts of the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and shaking the Arab world from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, were closely followed in China. Rumors of a “jasmine revolution” that might erupt in the People’s Republic circulated on the Chinese Internet, causing China to police the virtual and physical space to ensure that no such uprising would happen. These fears contributed to the rise of Xi Jinping and his authoritarian approach.
Xi, China’s paramount leader since late 2012, emerged as the most powerful, centralist, authoritarian ruler since Mao Zedong. Deng Xiaoping (who effectively ruled from 1978 until his death in 1997) took care to distance himself from the legacy of Mao and to erect barriers between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state to prevent any leader from attaining the kind of power that Mao wielded. But under Xi, these barriers have been dismantled, and he has concentrated more strength for himself than ever. Xi gained legitimacy and accumulated power by means of a severe anticorruption campaign (responding to a serious problem), which purged the party. Xi’s authority grew in his second term, which began in late 2017, when term limits on his tenure as president were removed and “Xi Jinping thought” was enshrined in the party’s constitution. This concentration of political and legal strength has been accompanied by an ever-growing personality cult.
Xi’s rise augured the rise of populist, authoritarian leaders in many countries. Just as Deng Xiaoping’s policies joined those of Thatcher and Reagan to create an economically globalized world, so should Xi’s China be seen along Narendra Modi’s India, Shinzō Abe’s Japan, Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, the Hungary of Viktor Orban (who coined the oxymoronic phrase “illiberal democracy”), and many others, crowned of course by Donald Trump’s United States. What these regimes have in common at the most fundamental level is the distrust of state institutions that preceded them and attempts to refashion their respective states. Their leaders concentrated power and authority while stoking brash nationalism.
China’s regime is now based on a powerful combination of state-controlled capitalism, consumerism, ideology, and nationalism. Leadership and the state have become increasingly centralized, a trend facilitated by technology. Capital has become concentrated in ever-fewer hands, as it has elsewhere, and political elites are, as always, close to economic elites. The media are strictly controlled by the party-government, despite the demands of an ever-globalizing world. (Juggernaut corporations like Facebook and Google are blocked in China, where Chinese-developed counterparts like WeChat and Weibo dominate.) China promotes jingoistic nationalism and rejects political values such as constitutionalism, separation of powers, civil society, universalism, freedom of the press, and critical scholarship (sometimes dubbed “historical nihilism”). The party and the party-state-controlled media present an equation whereby Xi is equivalent to the party (its present and past), which represents the Chinese people, who together are equivalent to a single Chinese ethnicity. This equation permits little or no space for multiple views, for disagreement and debate, or for distinct ethnic identities that might pose an alternative to those sanctioned by the state. Most egregious in this regard is the concerted effort to suppress Uyghurs and Tibetans, leading some scholars and activists to argue that China’s policies are a form of genocide.
China has emerged as a pioneer in the large-scale implementation of innovative methods of population surveillance and control, such as facial recognition software, tracking by cell phone, and predictive policing, in which algorithms constantly collect data and project the likelihood of preferences, thoughts, and behaviors, with the intent of engineering behavior and preventing crime, including political dissent and collective action. Liberal countries have become accustomed to computerized systems that collect data and attempt to influence choices of products and, we now know, of political candidates. In China, similar techniques don’t merely sway consumer choices but can determine geographic mobility and access to rights and services.
The rise outside China of views that advocate a strong state, coupled with the growing capabilities of technology, is contributing to the export and adoption of surveillance technologies developed by the Chinese state. Mongolia, Malaysia, Singapore, Egypt, Serbia, Ecuador, and other nations are purchasing and employing surveillance equipment and policing software developed in China. (Other countries are also developing, adopting, and selling such technologies.) As China’s power and influence grow, its concepts and terminology are increasingly embraced. A case in point might be the policy of Internet or cyber sovereignty—the right of a government to control Internet use within its borders—an idea first promoted by China in 2010. Since then, the concept has been advocated by governments seeking to control online political speech in their own countries, among them Russia, India, Brazil, and Turkey. The Edward Snowden affair revealed the extent to which liberal regimes were also monitoring their citizens. In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed many nations to further concentrate power and monitor citizens in an effort to control the illness—steps that critics argue will be difficult to reverse.
How can we explain the erosion of liberal democracy and the adoption of policies and notions similar to those of the Chinese state? Is it possible that the growing world population together with the proliferation of communication has rendered current liberal political institutions obsolete? These institutions and their accompanying norms were formed in a vastly different world.
Modern liberal regimes and their institutions evolved over several centuries (one might trace them to the European Enlightenment and arguably even earlier) and assumed the forms with which we are familiar only at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The huge transformations of this period created tensions that led to World War I. In that war’s aftermath, as voting rights expanded and decolonization began, politics based on the masses became widespread in Europe and beyond.
Since then, the world’s population has grown dramatically. At the turn of the 20th century, the world had approximately 1.65 billion people. Today, China alone has more than 1.4 billion people, and the total world population is approximately 7.7 billion.
In addition, the number of people who take part in discussions about the shape of the state and society has grown exponentially. According to estimates, at the beginning of the 20th century, only around 21 percent of people over age 15 were literate. Today, roughly 86 percent of the world’s population is literate. Moreover, in the early 20th century, even among the literate, few people could write, publish, and circulate their ideas. Today, the proliferation of computers, smartphones, and social networks has made every “netizen” an author with an audience. Only minimal literacy is needed to photograph, upload, and disseminate images. Thus, the public that was envisioned when many current state and democratic institutions were created has utterly changed.
The Chinese government has long argued that its notions of just and efficient government are a viable alternative to the liberal-capitalist-democratic model trumpeted by the United States and its allies. As U.S. power diminished—including its retreat, now reversed, under President Trump from institutions of global governance, such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord—the legitimacy of the Chinese model grew. China’s leaders now flaunt their response to the Covid-19 pandemic (according to them, slightly more than 4,800 dead at the time of this writing) in contrast with that of the United States (more than 462,000 dead) and Western Europe as demonstrating the merits of its model of governance.
Just as in the time following World War I, we have reached a point where the reigning social order has become less attractive to the political elites, state officials, and citizens of many nations. As the liberal world order of capitalism and democracy wanes and nationalist authoritarianism waxes, other alternatives to liberal capitalism are emerging as well. In northeastern Syria, amid the destruction of the civil war, a Kurdish revolutionary autonomous area has emerged that has been hailed by observers as a successful example of a libertarian socialist regime. In countries as diverse as China, Israel, and Germany, experiments in communal and rural living based on principles of social justice have enjoyed a certain revival. At the same time, some thinkers point to the city-state as a model for governance that can preserve the tenets of democracy. Still others are advocating new forms of economic governance, calling for reforms to capitalism, advocating “conscious capitalism” or universal basic income—all of which can fundamentally change the relations between individuals, societies, and the state. And let us remember that Donald Trump’s astonishing rise in the United States was rivaled in both 2016 and 2020 by widespread support for Bernie Sanders, who in Europe would be labeled a social democrat.
Institutions, occupations, and entire ways of living are struggling to adapt to the dizzying and accelerating pace at which the world is changing. It seems naïve or detached to expect our political institutions to remain static or to imagine they can adopt new technologies in order to work more efficiently but within the confines of old paradigms. The future world order will likely result in regimes we cannot yet foresee, shaped by technology but also by our imagination. If we wish to preserve human rights, equality, and freedom, we must imagine how such values may be implemented in new realities.
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