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China and the West: the hedgehog's dilemma

China has liberalised significantly since the Incident of 1989, but America and Europe are coming to the realisation that ultimately China holds different values

Andy Yee
9 March 2010

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s analogy, the hedgehog’s dilemma, describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs have to become close to one another to share warmth during a cold winter. However, once too close, they cannot avoid hurting each other with their sharp spines. While it is an analogy about the challenges of intimacy between individuals, we may well view it in the context of international relations between China and Western countries. Beijing has come a long way since the Incident of 1989, and there are illusions that ‘engagement’ will make China become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ and more liberal domestically. But it seems we are entering a stage where America and Europe have realised that China, at heart, reject many values that they share.

Getting intimate

For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the death of Communist ideology following the end of Cold War, coupled with the Tiananmen Incident, brought about a legitimacy crisis. China faced international outrage, followed by isolation and sanctions. In early- to mid-1990s, a new direction emerged, in which China followed a diplomatic grand strategy which aims to maintain the international conditions conducive to its growth and reduce containment, chiefly led by the US.

In the mid-1990s, China began to embrace multilateralism and cultivate partnerships with major nations. We have seen it engaging actively with intra- and inter-regional organisations such as ASEAN, ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and Korea), East Asia Summit, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and China-EU Summit. China’s decision not to devalue its currency during the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 won itself significant international political capitals (though some argued that it had an element of self-interested economic factors). China was further elevated in the international arena during the 2000s, with milestones such as its accession into WTO in 2001, an institutionalised dialogue with the G8 (through the Heiligendamm Process), and recent talks of a G2 with the US.

The shift of mutual assessment could be detected by examining Chinese and Western discourses. In the 1990s, Samuel Huntingdon was concerned that China would ‘bring to an end the overlong century of humiliation and subordination to the West and Japan.’ Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro also stated that ‘driven by nationalist sentiment, a yearning to redeem the humiliations of the past, and the simple urge for international power, China is seeking to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia.’ In return, we saw the publications of a series of hostile Chinese books, such as China can Say No (1996), Behind the Demonization of China (1996) and The Way Out for China: Under the Shadow of Globalisation (1999).

The attitude changed in the 2000s. In 2004, the concept of a ‘Beijing Consensus’ emerged. It was strengthened by the financial crisis of 2008/09, when the Chinese model of development, characterised by efficient reforms, opening-up and development, has become the centre of the discussion. China is portrayed as a global pillar of stability and an engine of economic development, a responsible stakeholder.

Feeling the spines

History moves in such a fast pace. The mood seems now to be swinging towards the other end of the scale. Several bubbles of optimism have burst in the final years of the ‘noughties’. Top on the list are China’s unhelpful, at times arrogant, attitude on Iran’s nuclear programme, climate change, currency manipulation, crackdown on human rights activists, execution of a British citizen for drug smuggling, internet censorship and cyber-attacks on Western computer networks.

This evaporation of ‘wishful thinking’ stems from a strategic misunderstanding of China on the part of Western countries. For the past three decades, American and European leaders think that by helping China on economic reforms, the emergence of a more affluent and liberal middle class will lead China towards political reforms. So far, this has not, and is unlikely to be, materialised. In 2008, Michael Ledeen, an American foreign policy expert, reiterated his speculation that China is something the world has never seen before: a mature fascist state. Over the years, China’s leaders have consolidated their hold on the political, economic and cultural organ of controls. He reckoned that instead of gradually embracing pluralism, China’s corporatist elite has become more entrenched over the years. A fashionable Chinese term used widely in liberal Chinese media, guo jin min tui (‘the state advances, the private sector retreats’), sums up which way the wind is blowing.

To have a serious understanding of contemporary China, Perry Anderson, in the London Review of Books, points us to two recent scholarly works. They describe the brand of Chinese capitalism, deformed by a ‘corrupt and self-aggrandising state’, while denying its people economic liberty, and reasonable fairness and welfare, not to mention political liberty. Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics highlights how China changed course after 1989, diverting credits from rural entrepreneurs to large state-owned enterprises and urban infrastructures. Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law describes a new working class of young migrant labours in the coastal zones southeast, working 70-80 hours a week in poor conditions, receiving low wage and few security guarantees. They give us a picture of the Social Darwinist mechanisms at work in China, a ‘forest of grand theft’, where officials, SOEs and foreign enterprises profit handsomely, while the rural population, private firms, ordinary urban households and migrant workers struggle to make ends meet.

What is at work in China is a ‘wolf-sheep’ two-tier social structure. It might well serve as a key to assessing realistically the possibility of political reforms in China. Jiang Rong, author of the renowned novel Wolf Totem, stated that Chinese culture, in its modern form, is ‘sheep-like’, materialistic, and insensitive, amongst other characteristics. The ruling class has evolved into a mature structure seeking economic rents at all levels in all parts of China. Everyone in China is trying to grab a piece of profit. For those with social status and economic clout, such as well-educated middle class, intellectuals and successful businessmen with good connections, the Party would open its door to them. For example, in 2001, the CCP decided to admit entrepreneurs as members. In recent years, an increasing number of university students are aspiring to join the CCP. The Chinese government has also dealt with intellectuals skilfully, applying repressions when free expression is getting out of control, while relaxing constraints when state policies require their expertise and cooperation. The result is that only a few is left to carry on the 1919 May Fourth and 1989 June Fourth traditions of liberalism and democratisation. 

What about the disenfranchised? Ching Kwan Lee told us that without freedom of political and industrial organisation and a basic social contract, all they could hold onto is the legal system and the popular faith in the good intentions of the Central Government, unaware of the misdeeds of the bureaucrats. Many take their grievances to the Letter and Petition Office of Beijing, in the hope that the higher authorities would hear their voices which are neglected by local officials. However, largely under-educated and ignorant, all that they demand for is a stable life, not further institutional changes.

An ‘inscrutable’ China?

‘China is not emerging; it is re-emerging. It was the largest economy in the world for 18 centuries, and it will be the largest again by the end of this century,’ said Lord Patten in 2008. This is true not only in the economic sense, but also for its internal political structure. As Perry Anderson quotes China’s historian He Bingdi, for centuries successive dynasties in China were always ‘ornamentally Confucian and functionally Legalist.’ To control independent thoughts, intellectuals were institutionalised through the imperial examination systems.  To legitimise imperial rules, generations of traditional Confucius intellectuals, as apparatus of the state, preached social harmony. These are reminiscent of the CCP’s call for a harmonious society, United Front Work, media censorship, marginalisation of independent intellectuals, and the list goes on. No one knows whether a modern, mature version of authoritarianism would work, but China’s own history of cyclic rise and fall, true even for the prosperous Han and Tang dynasties, might give us a clue.

Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist of South Africa, said that ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.’ It is clear that China is alien to the Western traditions of freedom, democracy and individual dignity. China did not go through, like the Western civilisation, the age of Enlightenment, where thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau started a new age of human rights and dignity, echoing Greco-Roman cultural greatness. The American Independence and French Revolution were motivated by Enlightenment principles. No doubt, Chinese history is not in short supply of revolutions, but they are just peasant revolutions and chaos following the downfall of dynasties, not fundamental institutional changes per se. The Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898 and the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 were the weak voices of reform that China could muster under its historical inertia. In this sense, it is doubtful whether China has really modernised.

With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to keep a distance from each other. This might work for individuals, less so for Sino-Western affairs, now that they are interlinked economically, and compete for natural resources (ranging from oil and gas, minerals, food, water to continental sea shelf). The Chinese empire of yesterday was self-contained and inward-looking, but the one today is exerting influences as far as Africa and Latin America. Where to go from here then? For a start, American and European countries have to understand what China doesn’t share with them and what it wants. In other words, be more realistic. Continue to engage with China, which is neither a friend nor an enemy. Meanwhile, it is important to continue the efforts to convince the people of China that their, as well as the world’s, interests are best served by a political system with better representation, checks and accountability. If we do not do so, the wish to huddle together for warmth while struggling to find the optimal distance with this increasingly influential hedgehog will remain a precarious balance.

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