China – a future democracy?
Every fifth person on the planet is Chinese. China is now the world’s second largest economy. So, the question is not merely academic.
Dear blog subscribers, engaging pictorial essays are in the planning stage, but we have to wade through one or two more thematic essays to get to the fun ones that are coming.
Our answer is no. China is not likely to become a democracy in our lifetimes, or in our children’s lifetimes, or their children’s.
China never has been or had a functioning democracy. But, what about Sun Yat-sen and Nationalist China in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? The history of those decades shows a very corrupt, inept government that did not govern the entire country in any meaningful sense of the term govern. Chinese generals would routinely become regional warlords and use the armies under their command to enforce their will on the local provinces thereby enriching themselves. Corrupt civil servants used their positions not to serve the society but to enrich themselves through graft. Unified national governance was a myth. This was true in the 1920s even before the invasion by Imperial Japan in the 1930s. And, throughout the 1930s, a growing area of northern China was under communist control.
Looking further back in Chinese history, one sees civil wars and revolts, but nothing like a concerted and determined effort to establish a republic. In the Tang dynasty (early 600s to early 900s A.D.), the emperor was chased from power on occasion, and replaced for a time before the dynasty reasserted itself. But, this was over excessive taxation, or for land reforms for the peasants, or because of opportunistic generals who desired power for themselves. There were centuries of turmoil prior to the Tang, as petty states fought with each other after the collapse of the Han Dynasty around 200 AD. China has been ruled by two foreign dynasties: the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty, 1279 – 1368), and the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty, 1644 – 1912).
But, what about now? The idea of democracy, or giving the governed a voice in how they are to be governed, is really foreign to the thinking of the mainland Chinese. They have been beholden to a Confucian model for the past 25 centuries. Confucianism is not a religion even though one finds a chapter on it in some books on comparative religion. (It does not address God, man’s relation to God, the soul, etc.) Confucianism is a social philosophy applied to ordering society (hopefully) harmoniously. It uses familial language to describe the relationship of the ruler(s) to the ruled. The emperor, “the son of heaven”, is like a father figure to the people, his subjects. They need to be well-behaved children and not question authority, or its abuses. The Chinese do not have a concept of individual worth and dignity like we have in the West. The individual is nothing. He/she attains any status or worth only as part of a group. One observes the excessive value and emphasis placed on the extended, multi-generational family within Chinese immigrant communities in the West.
(Confucianism was introduced to me in two undergraduate courses, one on comparative religions, and the other on east Asian history. This was so long ago now that it seems to be ancient history itself. Jimmy Carter was president at the time.)
Another attitude to be aware of, readers, is the deep seated Chinese contempt for anything foreign to China. At the time of Confucius, China was surrounded by “barbarian” peoples in the surrounding steppes and jungles of Asia. The Chinese saw themselves as the only ones possessing culture and refinement. This attitude of superiority applied not just to the arts and to technology that China possessed, but also to its political and social thinking. This ethno-centric attitude of superiority still prevails in the minds of many Chinese. The Chinese seem to not realize that in the past 2 and one half millenia the world has changed considerably. Democracy is suspect, in no small part, precisely because it is a foreign invention.
(This attitude of superiority also helps to account for the fact that the Chinese are the least assimilated foreign immigrant group within the US. You may say that is a subjective opinion, and is not factual. But, think about it, and compare the Chinese with other immigrant groups. And, it is fact that there are many mainland Chinese agents and operatives here in the US, and they do find assistance in Chinese Americans of dual loyalties.)
We see China, run as it is by the totalitarian mentality in Beijing, as a very big and real threat to world peace. The news media in the US may complain about Vladimir Putin in Russia, but he is not a threat to world peace. (Putin does get things done in Russia. He is effective. We cannot say the same for you know who in the US.)
When former President George W. Bush claimed that China was our “strategic partner”, I laughed out loud. He had to say that given that the Chinese were buying the US Treasury bonds which financed his ill-conceived nation building exercise in Iraq. (One wonders if Bush really believed that the Chinese are America’s strategic partner. One also wonders if he could be so naive as to think that the US could successfully build modern, unified nation states out of backward, tribal societies possessed of virulent ancient hatreds. Things that make you go hhhhhmmmm.) China is not the US’s strategic partner.
The Chinese military has published various tracts within China detailing how it is not possible for China and the United States to be friends or allies. One bellicose Chinese general threatened Los Angeles (the US’ 2nd largest population center) with nuclear destruction in the mid 1990s if the US defended Taiwan. To the credit of the Clinton administration, China was informed, through diplomatic and intelligence channels, that if that happened it would be the end of communism in China. The US, which at that time had a very potent nuclear arsenal, would respond by levelling all the major cities in China. Does this tell us anything about the true attitude of the Chinese in Beijing?
North Korea’s continuing belligerence has Beijing’s blessing. China tests US resolve by proxy using North Korea. If the US will not act against North Korea when it threatens US allies, South Korea and Japan, where American blood was shed in prior wars, then it can be concluded that the US will not act to defend Taiwan in a military conflict. We feel for the people of Taiwan. All they have wanted is to be left alone to live in peace.
Will the Chinese military of today be any more humane towards the people of Taiwan than they were towards the people of Tibet 60 years ago? (While the world’s attention was focused on the Korean war in the early 1950s, China brutally invaded and occupied Tibet. Do not buy the lie that Tibet had been an integral part of China for centuries. The historical fact is that the only time that Tibet and China were truly unified and Tibet was administratively integrated into China was under (foreign) Mongol rule (the Yuan Dynasty, 1279 – 1368). Needless to say, that was brought about by conquest. Tibet gained its independence from Mongol rule separately and earlier than China did.)
Remember, this is the infamous land of ongoing female infanticide and forced abortions. (See our essay from last summer under the Human Rights category for more on that.)
In conclusion, we do not see China becoming a democracy. We do see China continuing on its path to becoming a formidable, if not dominant, player on the geopolitical world stage. Its aims are self-serving to the leadership in Beijing. It is not a western thinking leadership.
Disclaimer and full disclosure: My wife, Lucy, was born in Hong Kong, at the time a British Crown colony. Her family had escaped communism in southern China in the early 1950s by fleeing to Hong Kong as many Chinese tried to do. The views expressed in the above essay are mine, and such views do not necessarily represent my wife’s thinking on the various issues discussed.
My father, a Korean war veteran, was a commissioned officer in the US Navy during the conflict. At one point (1951), he was aboard ship, when the US Navy was shelling from offshore the Chinese communists who had entered the Korean peninsula to save the defeated North Koreans. At that time, the US Navy was very powerful. When its firepower was unleashed, it inflicted very heavy losses on the Chinese.
Thanks for reading!