John Keane | How Not to Think about China
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How Not to Think about China

  |   China, Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media   |   No comment

In preparation for an upcoming event at the University of Sydney, I’ve been re-reading ex-diplomat Stefan Halper’s interpretation of contemporary Chinese politics. Like most books by outsiders on the subject of China, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate The Twenty-First Century is entangled in friend-foe thinking. It plays a strange game of binary opposites: remarkably, it’s both pro-China and anti-China. It sets out to be positive but ends up on a negative note, which prompts the question whether the book suffers from muddle, or whether, as seems more likely, the political game of binary opposites inherited from the Cold War turns out to be just that: a single game with rotatable places for various players who are more or less tacitly agreed on its rules.

Halper certainly provokes. He chides the China watchers in Washington sometimes known as the hawks’ club. Its members include figures like Paul Wolfowitz, the author of a hard-line report on Chinese military capacity in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration; the sinologists Arthur Waldron and Michael Pillsbury; and pundit Robert Kaplan, who’s on record as saying that the twenty-first century will be defined by the American military contest with a China that is preparing to ‘lob missiles accurately at moving ships in the Pacific’.

Halper also contradicts those China watchers who warn of the grave dangers of its burgeoning economic power on the world scene – the critics who doubt that ‘China is coming to get us’ because they are convinced instead that ‘China is coming to buy us’. Halper is also critical of right-wing believers in ‘great power’ theories, figures such as Robert Zoellick , John Mearsheimer and John B. Henry who draw analogies between contemporary China and Wilhelmine Germany, then conclude that rising global powers inevitably confront hegemonic powers.

Halper rejects hawk talk. He says that China is indeed ‘the world’s most powerful rising power’ but outright conflict with the dominant global power, the United States, is by no means inevitable, or even probable. He offers several reasons. The Chinese and American economies are locked within a marriage of liabilities. Chinese military spending has been growing exponentially for over a decade, but the CCP leadership has disavowed a ‘catch up’ strategy with the United States, whose own military spending currently exceeds that of all other states combined. The Chinese emphasis is instead on procuring new-generation weaponry so that it can establish an ‘area of denial’ around mainland China, extending towards Taiwan and southwards into the South China Sea.

The Chinese search for new deterrents is combined with level-headed determination to avoid a costly and dangerous arms race with the United States, says Halper. Hence comparisons with past great powers and their deadly rivalries don’t apply. The analytical geometry of the Cold War is obsolete. China stands for something historically different. Locked into a marriage of economic liabilities and knowing that war would have catastrophic consequences, both for the CCP and the Chinese economy and people, the authorities are experimenting successfully with a brand new political vision: ‘authoritarian capitalism’ applied on a global scale.

Here Halper criticises bodies like the U.S.-China Business Council, the ‘commercial engagers’ who are persuaded that pro-market reforms are the friend of public liberties. Halper cites a group of American economists around William J. Baumol. They wager that ‘the odds are with the optimists’. They favour a democratic China because in their view history shows that the growth of ‘business skills’ most often hones ‘the talents needed to achieve and maintain self-governance’. Halper rightly questions their poor grasp of history and their spurious economic reductionism. His doubts serve to toughen his conviction that in matters of government what is going on in today’s China is without precedent.

So a strange tension between pro-China and anti-China begins to resurface within the book, which ends up defending the thesis that China poses a strong legitimacy challenge to the United States, and by implication to ‘the rest of the West’. China is a big and complicated country, says Halper. Yet the success of the CCP in binding together its sprawling fractiousness foreshadows the global spread of authoritarian rule. China has shown that a one-party system of free-market capitalism without civil and political liberties is not just possible. For growing numbers of admirers, among them African dictators, it is a viable alternative to the American model of self-government. China is ‘shrinking the West’. The illusion that capitalism begets democracy is crumbling.

Halper at no point bothers to justify his faith in the superiority of American-style ‘liberal democracy’. He’s silent as well about the historical significance of the new hybrid ‘post-Washington’ forms of monitory democracy that have taken root in places as different as Taiwan, Brazil, India, South Africa and the European Union. He’s instead preoccupied with showing that in world affairs America’s voice is being drowned out in a new global struggle centred on rhetoric. Future American success on the world stage is about more than market prowess and military muscle. It is equally about ‘whose story wins’.

There are more than a few grains of truth in his claim that contemporary Chinese developments befuddle our inherited narratives of democratisation. The point might be widened, to say that we’re at one of those rare watershed moments in the modern history of democracy when an almighty battle among rival language games has broken out over the question of how to name anomalies, and whether or not they have long-term political significance. Such battles have happened before in the history of democracy. Think of the rowdy controversies sparked by the appeals to the nation, the terror and military conquests of the French revolution: the bitter struggles to interpret its good and bad ‘democratical’ effects through such neologisms as representative democracy, Caesarism, dictatorship, Bonapartism, imperialism and despotism. Or consider the rise of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s, when newly-invented terms like people’s dictatorship and totalitarianism vied for prominence as descriptors of the decadent trends unleashed by the coming of mass democracy.

Analogous disputes now centre on China’s global role in the 21st-century world. Terms such as post-democracy, civilisation state, people’s socialist democracy, tributary empire, neo-totalitarianism and deliberative authoritarianism are all competing for public attention in a great naming game. There’s a desperate political struggle by insiders and outsiders alike to convince others that their particular description of Chinese politics is universally relevant.

By crafting terms like the ‘Beijing consensus’ and ‘authoritarian capitalism’, Halper wants to produce the winning story. The trouble is that his narrative is unconvincing. The fatal weakness of this book is its inattention to political language. It is strangely un-inquisitive; at times, it is downright careless about the key categories it wields, sometimes like blunt axes. Consider Halper’s repeated references to ‘China’. It seems never to occur to him that the common use of contested neologisms such as Huaxiaand Zhongguo (both are today translated as ‘China’) are not much more than a century old. He does not acknowledge that the synecdoche ‘China’ has since become an artefact of international relations realpolitik, a unifying category that blindly ignores complications, such as unresolved territorial disputes (Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang) and a living history of contested visions (projected by intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Lu Xun and Liu Xiaobo) of what ‘China’ is, or ought to become. The probability that the new crop of leaders to be chosen at the forthcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China have no immaculate vision of their country’s global role, and that they shall continue to improvise as they go along, is never entertained.

In Halper’s hands ‘China’ is a political monolith, a sovereign state unencumbered by overlapping jurisdictions and obligations. That’s evidently not the case, even in highly sensitive areas, as Pitman Potter and other scholars have shown when examining the ways the Chinese authorities, even prior to the WTO accession, have creatively incorporated foreign legal rules covering such matters as administrative supervision, commercial contracts and intellectual property rights.

The term authoritarian capitalism is equally troubling. Readers learn nothing from Halper about indigenous public traditions of Chinese affection for democracy. They are kept in the dark as well about internal divisions within the upper echelons of the Party. Deep-seated tensions between the central leadership and the often corrupt and defensive local Party authorities, seen by Pierre Landry and other scholars as vital for understanding present-day political dynamics, including the resort to elections, deliberative mechanisms and promotions based on merit, are ignored. So, too, is the political significance of the sharp jump in social inequality (proof that one problem with market competition is that some people always lose) and the conjecture of Cheng Li and others that developing tensions within the Chinese new middle class and between the urban rich and the rural poor are slowly but surely preparing the ground for either a social explosion or the birth of a multi-party system.

Such complications seem uninteresting to Halper. It’s simply ‘China’ this and ‘authoritarian capitalism’ that. In spite of his avowed opposition to Cold War thinking and call for multilateral engagement, Halper consequently ends up retreating to the comforting thought (for Americans) that the coming battles with China amount to a clash of two civilisations. China stands for authoritarianism. On the global chessboard America is perforce the guardian of the West and ‘liberal democratic’ ideals – exactly as Cold War ideologues used to say.


-> Originally published in The Conversation, August 24, 2012