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China’s quest for legitimacy


Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University, was a non-executive director of the private Russian oil company PJSC Russneft from 2016 to 2021.

Liberal democracy faces a legitimacy crisis, or so we are repeatedly told. People distrust government by liberal elites, and increasingly believe that the democracy on offer is a sham.

This sentiment is reflected in the success of populists in Europe and the United States and in the authoritarian tilt of governments in Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere. In fact, liberal democracy is not only being challenged in its European and American heartlands, but also has failed to ignite globally.

Democracies, it is still widely believed, do not go to war with each other. Speaking in Chicago in 1999, the United Kingdom’s then-prime minister, Tony Blair, averred that, “The spread of our values makes us safer”, prompting some to recall Francis Fukuyama’s earlier prediction that the global triumph of liberal democracy would spell the end of history. The subsequent failure of Russia and China to follow the Fukuyama script has unsurprisingly triggered fears of a new cold war. Specifically, the economic “rise of China” is interpreted as a “challenge” to the West.

On this reading, peaceful transfers of international power are possible only between states that share the same ideology. In the first half of the 20th century, therefore, Britain could safely “hand over the torch” to the US, but not to Germany. Today, so the argument goes, China poses an ideological as well as a geopolitical challenge to a decaying Western hegemony.

This perspective, however, is vigorously contested by the Chinese scholar Lanxin Xiang. In his fascinating new book The Quest for Legitimacy in Chinese Politics, Xiang shifts the spotlight from the crisis of rule in the West to the crisis of rule in China.

In one sense, this is familiar territory. Western political scientists have long believed that constitutional democracy is the only stable form of government. They therefore argue that China’s one-party state, imported from Bolshevism, is doomed, with the current protests in Hong Kong foreshadowing the mainland’s fate.

Xiang’s contribution lies in challenging the conventional Western view that China faces the alternatives of integrating with the West, trying to destroy it, or succumbing to domestic violence and chaos. Instead, he proposes a constitutional regime with Chinese characteristics, based on a modernised Confucianism.

Xiang is a Chinese patriot, but not a blinkered supporter of President Xi Jinping. The most interesting part of the book examines how the West has consistently disparaged the Chinese achievement. Xiang shows how the 17th-century Jesuit-inspired effort to reconcile Christianity and Confucianism (in the “Rites Debate”) foundered in the face of Protestant opposition to any form of idolatry. In his account, the harmonising path of “co-evolution” through “virtuous government” was permanently shut down by the Enlightenment — which he interprets as a secular expression of crusading Protestantism. China had no such crusading zeal: it was satisfied to be where it was. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once noted, “the Promised Land is China. And the Chinese are already there”.

Leading Enlightenment thinkers contributed to a “universalist” critique of China. For example, Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers was consciously promoted as the only alternative to “Asiatic despotism”. Hegel rejected the Chinese system on teleological grounds, arguing that China’s lack of awareness of “Spirit” doomed it to stasis and stagnation (a view later endorsed by Karl Marx). And Adam Smith said that China had made no economic progress since the 12th century because it lacked free institutions.

By the 1800s, these various currents had merged into a social Darwinist view of progress that arranged races in a hierarchical ladder of achievement — an outlook significantly influenced by the West’s military superiority in its encounters with “inferior” races. This universalist approach underpinned the West’s condescending, patronising and contemptuous view of China. Western economists and philosophers regarded the Chinese system of rule not as a contribution to the global stock of human wisdom, but as a cause of the country’s “backwardness”. Their verdict that the West was superior to China in every way, except in the manufacture of porcelain, left no room for cultural accommodation.

Yet, this negative view ignored China’s extraordinary record of stability under the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Outsiders misinterpreted this system — “built on a clearly defined scheme,” as Xiang describes it, with “blood-line royal legitimacy at the top” and “the scholar gentry to administer affairs of state” — as a recipe for stagnation.

Xiang argues that China’s recent economic rise is simply a “restoration” of the success the country enjoyed before 19th-century Western intrusions disrupted its harmonious system. But the late Angus Maddison’s estimates of historical GDP per capita suggest that China’s economic “retardation” started well before its encounter with the West. Between 1500 and 1870, per capita income barely moved from $600, while the UK’s quadrupled (from $714 to $3,190), and even Spain’s doubled.

China’s political stability and relative absence of violence were thus achieved at the expense of economic dynamism, not in harmony with it. The West’s economic ascendancy, on the other hand, was based precisely on a rejection of the organic unity of morals, politics and economics that Xiang values so highly.

Xiang is vague about how Confucianism can be fitted into a world order created by the West. He thinks China’s leaders are deluded in hoping that Marxist rhetoric will sustain the regime’s legitimacy, given “the moral decay of the ruling elite whose appetite for wealth accumulation knows no bounds and legal limits”. China, he says, “does need some Western idea of democratic procedures”, and a civil society that can serve as an alternative to rebellion.

Finally, Xiang looks to the Roman Catholic church to seize a historic opportunity to reignite the old Jesuit efforts at accommodation with Confucianism. If Protestant America represents a new Rome, he writes, then the European Union might somehow become “a secular version of the unifying Catholic Church prior to the Reformation” — an intriguing conclusion to an engrossing book. BM

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.


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