Is China an ideological alternative? by foarp
July 19, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Development


A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.

First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China’s current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated “6 Whys” saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:

“The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history”

The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.

Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the ‘democratic centralism’ of the ‘revolutionary vanguard party’, or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China’s political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.

Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country ‘India’, since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as “the nearest thing China has to a national religion”) has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.

A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?


9 Comments so far
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Just curious: what is the source of your statement about India? (“villages in which nobody…”)

Comment by devanjedi

How do you feel about the applicability of the Singapore model as an alternative if the Chinese model is too specific to their unique culture and history?

Not too dissimilar on the surface to the Chinese model: more of a corporate than Communist autocracy, but still a rabidly capitalist autocratic regime.

Granted, Singapore is very small and thus more manageable, but does demonstrate that a strong social development agenda can be advanced even within an ethnically diverse society.

At first glance at least Singapore seems to imply that the term “benign dictatorship” isn’t an oxymoron.

Comment by Jay Faircloth

@Devanjedi – An Economist piece from a couple of years ago, although they didn’t say what they were referring to, so should this be insufficient, India is well documented as containing some of the last uncontacted tribes outside of the Amazon. The various tribes on the fringes of China, mainly in the south in Yunnan and Guangxi province, all had their splendid isolation punctured by crusading cadres after the communist takeover.

@Jay Fairclough – Singapore has been around for a while now, and has not inspired many followers. Perhaps the current Taiwanese government is the one exception, but they are not clear as to what exactly the Singapore system is.

Comment by FOARP

villages where no one has heard of ‘india’? where did you conjure this one from? please visit india – i’d be happy to take you around.

you may not have people use the word ‘india’, but every villager knows what ‘bharat’ is

Comment by MadGenius

@MadGenius – As someone who has never been to India I’d absolutely love to take you up on the offer. Of course, my intimate understanding of Indian language and culture (okay, I checked it on wiki ) tells me that Bharat is a pretty complex term which may or may not be synonymous with India. Is wiki correct or is this a typical case of bias/idiocy on wiki?

Still, I’ve got Sentinelese and the Jarawa in the bag as entire tribes living in India which don’t know about India – although this reflects as much their rejection of contact as the lack of any insistence by the government on contacting them. China (and Vietnam for that matter) has not been tolerant of rejection. Whilst India has also engaged in nation building since independence, it cannot be said to have engaged in it as fervently as China, or with comparable results – although obvious demographic differences prevent such a move.

Comment by FOARP


I agree with most of this but I want to cast some doubt on the line that “Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists…” Much the same thing is often said of Italy, and by Italians who ought to know better, but Dante was speaking of “quel’umile Italia” in a messianically nationalistic passage eight hundred years ago. Similarly, an idea of national destiny and national unity goes back to the earliest Chinese literature. Tian Hsia–all under heaven–is destined to be united as far back as the Shu Ching. This may very well coexist with numbers of overlapping regional, ethnic, or other identities; it may be utterly ignored by many in the illiterature population; but it exists, and these kinds of gross oversimplifications (created in the 19th Century) don’t help much.
A more interesting question is: why do such projects work in some cases and not in others? Spain has been undergoing a fierce program of national unification since at least the time of Ferdinand and Isabella and it doesn’t seem to have worked very well. Franco’s attempts in that direction, unlike Mao’s, may well have backfired. Chiang Kai Chek’s attempts to impose a Chinese identity on Taiwan seems to have failed pretty miserably as well. So what’s the secret?

Comment by Christopher

Tian Xia (天下) essentially meant the entire world, with all other rulers being subordinate to the Emperor, who in turn receives his mandate from heaven. This concept may have influenced modern Chinese nationalism, but it is not its origin, as it is not a national identity but merely a way in which the entire world was naturally meant to be. The Chinese empire was not a nation-state, nor did it embue its citizens with a national identity. At most it was a Han structure which had been hi-jacked by the Qing, and it could have been a specific Han nationalism that developed after the fall of the Qing, rather than the supposedly broader Chinese race/identity which is embraced today.

Comment by FOARP

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