Is there a soft path for China?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Hu Jintao's visit the the U.S. has got me thinking about China's future.  The legitimacy of Communist Party rule once rested on ideology, but now that the party has accepted capitalism and seen the resulting economic boom, that source of legitimacy is gone.

There are a couple obvious potential paths.  One would be the "China model," using nationalism as the key to legitimacy and stoking xenophobia to justify party rule.  China's military owns factories in exporting industries, and there are only a couple civilians above the military.  In fact, it's quite possible we'll see a bellicose, militaristic China bearing all too great a resemblance to the Japanese government of the 1930s.  It would make China a destabilizing force in the world, and the record of such governments in the long run has not been good for the people ruled by them.   Bellicose nationalism was a major part of the Japanese, Italian and German regimes in World War II.  Each of these countries became embroiled in wars than finally devastated them.  This could be a hard path for China, a country that saw about 3 million people die in World War II.

There is another movement in China, the movement for "universal values."  Supporters of this view believe that human rights, fairness, and rule by law and a government that gains its legitimacy by serving the people.  An incident reported by UPI China illuminates the controversy.

Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), a newspaper published in southern China, published an editorial in 2008 titled “Wenchuan earthquake generates a new China.”  In that editorial, the publication argued that the Chinese government's effective rescue work following the earthquake showed the Chinese people and the world that they were committed to universal values.

“As long as the state keeps the people in mind and operates centered on their human rights, our nation can walk with the world on the path of prosperity where human rights, rule by law and democracy can be fully practiced,”  the Nanfang Zhoumo editorial said.

This brought a sharp response from a critic named Sima Nan, who wrote in a Beijing newspaper that universal values are a myth, and that they are in fact Western values, applicable only to Western society.

According to the UPI report, "Democracy, freedom, human rights and constitutionalism cannot be called universal values, Sima argues. He claims that those who promote such values actually have another agenda – to weaken racial and national bonds."

To those who have studied fascism, Sima's arguments will sound familiar.  German fascists argued that there could be no universal science, that each nation would have science appropriate to its people.   They were, of course, concerned that such universal science would undermine racial and national bonds.

I've talked about this in connection with Robert A. Brady's excellent book, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, in this post: 

 In other worlds, Sima's nationalist argument is no more Chinese than the argument he criticizes.  We need not assume that either group has copied their ideas from abroad, there just seem to be ideas that keep occurring to people whether they live in ancient Greece or modern China.

It points to the fact that if democracy and freedom are to continue to spread, we need to rethink the arguments in their favor.  A property-based social contract proposed by a 17th century Englishman isn't going to be persuasive to a modern Chinese thinker.  As it happens, I think there is a persuasive argument to be made based on the social nature of language, and I've laid out the basic argument here.

We've spent far too much time and blood trying to achieve freedom by perfecting our relationship to property, both under classical liberalism and communism.  If we can define "universal values" and think through the implications, we might have a more prosperous and peaceful future.

Such a future would need to have a place for China's current elites.  A system that allowed party members to run against each other might be helpful.  Certainly the lesson of Russia is instructive, showing it is possible to go from economic stagnation under Communism to stagnation under an authoritarian regime without the benefit of ideology.  What we might call the Russia Model has been in place for a while, and the results don't look promising.