View Full Version : Can China get rid of its authoritarian tradition ?

Dec 6, 2009, 01:15
Here is food for thoughts. This is an abstract from Rob Gifford's new book China Road (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0812975243/maciamojapan-20/104-6066459-7917524) (UK version (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0747593353?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN= 0747593353)), which I am devouring now.

In 230 BC, he [Qin Shihuang] was the ruler of just one of seven states that existed in Northern China, states that had themselves been formed from dozens of smaller ones. China as we know it today had never been unified, and in fact the period from 403 BC until Qin's unification, in 221 BC, was known as the Warring States period. His unification is still hailed by the Communist Party.
I am not convinced it was such a wonderful event, though. Qin's unification is the first reason, the political reason, why China's system never developed the checks and balances that eventually emerged in Europe.
But Qin Shihuang (pronounced chin shuh-hwahng) had set a very important precedent, which has survived to this day: that China should be united. It has fallen apart many times between then and now, but each time, someone has said, 'China must be reunified', and set about doing so. Chairman Mao was just the most recent in a long line of reunifiers, and if Emperor Qin were to return to China today, he would recognise the mode of government used by the Communist Party.
I have to say I find this idea rather scary, that two thousand years of history might have done nothing to change the political system of a country. Imagine a Europe today where the Roman Empire had never fallen, that still covered an area from England to North Africa, and the Middle East and was run by one man based in Rome, backed by a large army. There you have, roughly, ancient and modern China. The fact that this set-up has not changed, or been able to change, in two thousand years must also have huge implications for the question, Can China ever change its political system ?
The Roman analogy is an apt one. The tendency is to think of contemporary China in terms of the United States, because of the similarity in geographical size. Actually, to understand China today, the best comparison by far is Roman Europe two thousand years ago: lots of people with different languages and dialects, different customs, different artistic styles, even different cuisines, all with a shared heritage, but ultimately held together by force. It makes no more sense to say that you're going out for for a Chinese meal than to say that you are going out for a European one.

So, what do you think ? Can China get rid of this one thing that even the Communist kept from the old system, an authoritarian state that keep vastly different peoples together by force ? Is it a good thing ? Wouldn't China benefit from a federal system, or even to be split in several countries within a common market like the EU ? Do Chinese people need authority and forced uniformity to function well ?

Dec 7, 2009, 03:42
Rob Gifford's opinion is that China cannot change.

The big question now, though, is whether China will change and allow the independent rule of law to take hold. Having collided with a civilization that does have a rule of law, and been dragged kicking and screaming into a globalised world where contracts and courts and judicial independence are important, will the Chinese government start to allow some restraints on governmental power ?
Or, more important, with all that historical and philosophical baggage, can it allow such restraints ?I am not sure it can. I think restraints on government power may be contradictory to the whole concept of China and its existence as a state. I think perhaps the need for autocracy just to hold China together may make the country fundamentally unreformable, and that sooner or later the modern economic juggernaut is going to slam up against the immovable wall of Chinese history.

He may have a good point when he equates the existence of China with autocratic power. China has always been autocratic, from the first emperor to the Communist Party. Its geographic area has tripled since the first empire, its population has not only boomed but become ethnically diverse, and many of its peoples (Tibetans, Uighurs) do not necessarily wish to be part of it.

Europe is very different. Europe has had autocratic regimes, but also moderate republics and democracies since ancient times. I am not just referring to ancient Greece and Rome, which usually spring to mind when we mention ancient republics and democracies. Ancient Celts and Germans were even more egalitarian. The world's first true democracies (without slaves) was the ancient Norse society. I think there may be genetic differences that unavoidably lead people of Celto-Germanic descent to be more individualistic and egalitarian towards power and government than, say the Chinese.

Corruptibility is also linked. In Scandinavia, corruption is virtually unheard of. In China, it has always been a way of life, part and parcel of the culture. The Communists tried to eradicate it, but within a few years in power they were just as bad as the older regimes. Corruption happens when people only care about their own interests at the expense of other people. Ironically, corruption is systemically higher in collectivist societies than in individualistic ones. I think that part of the reason is that individualistic people have a stronger conscience and self-discipline, which in fact what males them individualistic. Instead of being deterred by shame (what others think of you), they are governed by guilt (own conscience, regardless of what others think). China is one of the best example of "shame-driven society", where 'face' is what matters, and truth is malleable.

Dec 12, 2009, 21:42
Here is another abstract from the book.

It seems sometimes as though Chinese history has never had any narrative, just a succession of dynasties, all walled off from one another. Each dynasty came into power with a new agenda, opposing the corruption of the previous one. It was welcomed; it undertook reforms. It expanded, it ruled, it revelled in its cultural golden age, and then it descended into the same corruption and incompetence as the previous dynasty. Sometimes it took a hundred years, sometimes two or three hundred. China's history has only ever been about uniting and then collapsing, reuniting and then being invaded, overthrow, collapse, and then reuniting and collapsing again. Why should the future be any different ?
In some ways China is he same as it has always been. It is still the same kind of imperial one-party government that the first emperor from 2,000 years ago would recognise. And that means that there are no effective checks and balances, and there is terrible corruption, as there always has been. Confucius was wrong on one point. Human beings are not able to police themselves.

The question that Western observers like to ask is : Can China become a democracy ? I think it is irrelevant, because countries that are democracies on paper are never truly democratic. Some do better than others. Switzerland or Denmark are examples of "good democracies", close to the people and doing what the people want. But the bigger a country gets and the harder it is to satisfy everyone. It gets close to impossible in extremely diverse societies such as the USA, where opposing interests clash all the time, vying for power, and ultimately losing sight of the real meaning of democracy.

China has such a huge population that a Western-style democracy would almost certainly cause more chaos and problems than bring solutions. The economic gap between big cities and the countryside, and the generally low education level of the peasants and factory workers do not play in favour of a democratic system. I am persuaded that the Communist Party understands this very well, and this is why reforms aren't carried out in politics. Democracies only work well with small and well-educated populations. Universal suffrage* was not implemented in European countries until free compulsory education was available to all, and the population understood how the system worked.

The USSR was China's most similar regime. It collapsed when it attempted to introduce democracy. Now, Russia is only a democracy in name. Many people are worse off than under the Communist regime. Fortunes have been made by a few thanks to the liberalisation of the market. But as China already has a liberalised, capitalist market, one this is far more flourishing than Russia's, there is no point in risking to blow everything up by tampering with the government.

Social unrest is worse among the peasants, because they are the poorest layer of society, earning ten times less than factory workers, and suffering most from corruption and abuses of power by local officials. If there is one level of government were democratic reforms could be undertaken without risk for the central government, it is at the village level. This would alleviate a lot of pressure from farmers and dramatically reduce social unrest in rural areas. Farmers would have their say in the way their small community is managed, have the power to elect and sanction local officials, without having any repercussion at higher levels of government. The Communist Party wouldn't need to tame or quash the currently frequent demonstrations (it is estimated that one such demonstration takes place everyday in China). If elected officials end up being as corrupt as before, at least peasants would only have themselves to blame for electing them, diverting the tension away from Beijing.

*Universal suffrage for both men and women was implemented between 1913 and 1948 in most of Europe, and in 1920 in the USA. Compulsory education was introduced in the late 1800's (1859 in Italy, 1871 in Germany, 1880 in England, 1882 in France). In other words, one or two generations of state education was required before the whole population was allowed to vote. In the USA, Massachusetts became the first state with public education in 1852, and Mississippi the last in 1918.