Why China’s developmental state says no to liberalism



Modern history is the story of how liberal democracy, originating in Britain and America, spread around the world. This may sound like an absurd fantasy. In actuality, this Whiggish narrative of progress underpins most newspaper editorials, political commentary and speeches in the West, and frames larger views of political developments in the non-West.

It accounts for the gloomy undertone to Freedom House’s latest report, which records the shrinking of liberal democracy worldwide. Even countries with regular elections, such as India, are far from upholding the notion of liberalism, which advocates the maximizing of individual rights for the fullest realization of human potential.

Perhaps we should discard the ideological prejudice that assumes the universalization of liberal democracy. We might then be able to see dispassionately the true multiplicity of political forms, how they came into being and what they portend.

The specific socioeconomic conditions that enabled both liberalism and democracy, such as the Reformation’s stress on individual responsibility or industrial capitalism, were particular to Western Europe and America.

They couldn’t be recreated elsewhere easily, especially among countries trying to catch up to the West. Japan, the first non-Western country to try to become modern, became an economic and military power without enshrining liberal concerns for individual rights.

Before Japan, there was Germany, another society that embarked on industrialization relatively late compared with the rest of Western Europe, and was modernized by a strong centralized state.

Neither Germany nor Japan embraced the traditions of Anglo-American liberalism, which encouraged individualism, laissez- faire economics and a fundamental distrust of state power. Individual rights were subordinated to the economic and military imperatives of countries lurching late into the modern world.

Few Japanese wished to criticize the slogan “fukoku kyohei” (meaning “enrich the country and strengthen the military”), as their country rapidly modernized in the late 19th century under the not-so-benign gaze of Britain, Russia and the U.S.

Even during the politically favorable conditions of Taisho Japan or Weimar Germany, liberals wanted the state to devise and implement social-welfare policies for the benefit of the working poor. Reacting against modern capitalism’s built-in inequalities, they trusted in bureaucratic management of the economy.

Many Indian liberals, too, stressed state initiative in many areas of public life. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, implanted representative democracy by ensuring that individual consent, periodically sought through elections, legitimized the great power of the Indian state. Yet his liberalism had a communitarian and paternalistic bent. The state was to hold great prescriptive powers in the realm of the economy. The Indian constitution held that free speech, too, could be circumscribed in favor of the public good.

Alas, a straight line runs from this pragmatic acknowledgement of a diverse society to the present, when just about anyone — a small town mullah as well as a thuggish politician — can claim to be attacking artists and writers on behalf of the public good. Liberal democracy in India has never seemed more feeble.

But it is China that poses the bigger challenge to the Anglo-American faith in the onward march of liberalism and democracy. It has achieved spectacular growth without embracing electoral democracy. Moreover, the state controls the commanding heights of the globalized economy. This won’t change anytime soon.

China’s experience as a late developer is crucial to understanding its peculiar trajectory. Liberals, always a minority among the country’s leaders and thinkers, had little chance of flourishing against a backdrop of civil war and foreign invasions. China’s biggest challenge, for much of the 20th century, was survival and self-strengthening.

Chinese leaders first had to establish, in double-quick time, a centralized national state, a center of security and stability in a dog-eat-dog world of international relations. Unlike the Japanese, who developed an indigenous family conception of the state, Chinese leaders had to systematically overhaul the body politic in order to command loyalty from China’s citizens.

Having disavowed their imperial system, Chinese leaders — Chiang Kai-shek as well as Mao Zedong — had to inculcate a sense of nationalism and national identity from scratch through mass education and propaganda.

Individual challenges to the state’s arbitrary power were ruthlessly crushed. The heirs of Mao finally recognized the blunders of investing too much economic initiative with the state.

But even Deng Xiaoping, while liberalizing the economy, did not break with older imperatives: of mobilizing China’s resources to make it truly autonomous and secure, and postponing the expansion of individual freedoms.

“Development is the only hard truth,” Deng claimed. “If we do not develop, then we will be bullied.”

Speaking of the “China Dream,” the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, upholds the same imperatives of national unity, strength and pride against the need for broad democratic reforms.

And he may be right to think he has a receptive audience. Soothsayers have been predicting the collapse of the Chinese regime for decades. In recent years, they have transferred their hopes onto the main beneficiaries of China’s economic growth: the middle classes. Last year’s leadership transition generated much wild talk about imminent revolution.

But China’s middle classes seem too fragmented to mount an effective political movement, let alone spark a revolution. And to many Chinese left behind by economic growth, the remote apparatchiks in Beijing may appear more committed to their welfare than an affluent minority devoted to further self-enrichment.

With its rhetoric of social welfare, the Communist Party still monopolizes the ideological sources of mass political legitimacy in a poor country. It now also draws on an indigenous discourse, such as neo-Confucianism, in championing the values of discipline, hierarchy and harmony.

The party also remains capable of diverting political ferment among the middle classes into nationalism. In any case, the growing availability in China of some private freedoms — primarily to consume and travel — has defused at least some of the urge for political change.

It is why Chinese liberals insisting on the sanctity of individual rights seem as powerless and isolated as their counterparts in 1920s and ’30s Japan.

Ignoring their plight, many commentators view China’s ability to survive and adapt as proof of an alternative model: a developmental state that, presided over by a technocratic elite, is stronger than society and places the national community above the individual.

But these inverted Sinophiles, or Asianized Whigs, make the same mistake as the ideologues of liberal democracy: China’s “model” is not for universal export, either. It is, instead, an unreplicable product of China’s peculiar history.

Here is the question before us: Is the model sustainable, and what implications would its failure have for China and the larger world?

The late modernization of Japan and Germany, though largely successful, did not lead to peace in Europe and Asia. Rather, economic crises and growing social unrest led to greater authoritarianism at home and jingoistic expansionism abroad.

Certainly China’s assertive posture with its neighbors and increasing severity against internal dissidents do not bode well. China may turn out to be another cautionary lesson in the dangers of a country arriving too late in the modern world, with its elites determined to regard liberal democracy as an unaffordable luxury.

Pankaj Mishra is author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” and a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

  • 思德

    “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Sir Winston Churchill

    I was waiting for you to get around to mentioning what happened to Germany and Japan who went for over trusting, over centralized visions of government. I’m glad you did. China reminds me of wartime Japan in many ways. They are starting to flex their hegemonic muscle in different ways. The question is simply this: Now that China is developed and has become the very bully that Deng Xiaoping was afraid of, how much of it will the world tolerate?

    Also- China will not bring about cultural change because nouveau riche are generally not the kind of people one wishes to emulate, except in the sense that they have wealth. China will still be influenced culturally, not the other way around. China will still be copying innovations, not the other way around. Chinese people may not be “westerners”, but they ARE human, just like “westerners”. And humans (enough of them, anyway) eventually learn that freedom has a very, very high value.

  • paul lang

    The problem with centralization of power is that it does not provide for the freedom that ensures quality of life. The best and brightest will not live under a system that interferes with their individuality. They will migrate to countries as the USA and Canada, and Western Europe. Their talents and skills will go with them and create new industries and technologies.
    Some of the best and highest brains in China lived in Hong Kong, Celebrated for its freedom, it offered no better amenities than did China. However it offered freedom to do business without the restraints imposed from above. At the time many Chinese living in Hong Kong took dual citizenship in the US and Canada, as an insurance policy. Similarly Singapore and Japan provide these environments in Asia. For China to be really a destination for top notch talent, it must liberalize and open up to entrepreneurs. Dictatorships whether soft or hard cannot provide this atmosphere, they rely on who you know, rather than what you know.

  • El Don

    The question is: Does anyone in China want full-scale democracy anytime soon? The answer is: no. Because as long as the Chinese economy grows, the Chinese elites as well as the middle class will profit from the authoritarian system. In other countries the middle classes were drivers behind democratization movements. I don’t see why this should happen in China. And what about the poor and the politically suppressed? Their uprisings can be crushed anytime by the PLA.