Those of you who have been following Perfect Chaos for a while may be aware of my friend David Robertson, who I interviewed for the blog in 2019 (you can read the interview here). David is a blogger, author, and student of theology from Australia, where he currently lives with his wife and young daughter.
On his blog A Perennial Follower, David shares his faith explorations and travels to holy sites, among other things. His writing style is gripping and I consider him to be one of the most gifted writers in the WordPress community.
David lived in China for some time, and I thought it would be interesting for readers of Perfect Chaos to read his thoughts regarding the role of China in the world. This is a more political theme than is typical for either David or myself, as the focus of both our blogs is usually philosophy and theology. But I felt that China is such an interesting country in terms of global events right now that it would be interesting to invite David to write an article sharing his understanding of Chinese politics and his opinions regarding the role of China on the world stage.
Today is the Lantern Festival in the Chinese calendar, which marks the 15th day, and the close, of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations. So it felt to David and I like a fitting time to publish David’s piece. The article David has written is below, and you will find a link to his blog at the end of the piece. Thanks to David for putting in the time and effort to write a really fascinating article.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Steven for the opportunity to be a guest writer on his fantastic blog. Although the topics of my own blog, A Perennial Follower, are usually more theological, religious and philosophically themed, I do enjoy delving into contemporary issues.
I spent three years living in China and have a Chinese wife. At university, I studied the rise of China quite extensively, having written a number of essays on the matter. Although I am far from an authority on the country, its culture and political system, I think my personal lived experience and formal education provide me with at least a few insights into the Chinese world and mindset.
In the West, there is an understandable perception of China as some sort of totalitarian dictatorship where freedoms are virtually non-existent and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dominates virtually all aspects of life. The spectacular growth in the Middle Kingdom’s economic and military power has frightened many in the West, and there is a reasonable fear that China will increasingly undermine Western institutions and essentially seek to control the world in one form or another. One recent book, Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, is a quintessential example of this perspective. Hidden Hand reveals how the CCP has influenced media organisations by pressuring journalists and producers into censoring their news reporting and deciding what can and cannot be reported. It shows how the CCP, through its Confucius Institutes, can also pressure academic institutions to prevent the release of scholarship critical of the Party by threatening to withhold funding and Chinese students. The book also highlights the way China targets minor politicians and flirts with incredibly powerful business figures to shape policy in Western countries in favour of China. For Western governments, Hidden Hand certainly raises worrying concerns about China’s actions and potential to undermine democratic and free institutions in the West.
Although it rightfully highlights much of the politicking of the Chinese Communist Party and how it is subtly expanding its influence in the West, the book ultimately falls short. This is primarily because of its simplistic portrayal of the CCP as a dictatorship that is only interested in preserving and expanding its own power and nothing more. It has nothing positive to say about the accomplishments of the party in recent decades. It depicts all of its members as slavish adherents to the Party rather than individuals who may join it to get a step up in the world or to genuinely serve the country. It also fails to explore why developing countries, for example, are generally quite enthusiastic about the return of China to the world stage.
I am certainly not an apologist for the Communist Party. I abhor what they are doing in the western provinces to the Uighur and Tibetan people. Moreover, its censorship regime stifles creativity and free thinking in the country and cultivates a nationalism that has the potential to be explosive. It’s state atheism and implicit encouragement of a crude materialism further inhibits the spiritual development of its people. These are perhaps my biggest issues with the current incarnation of the Communist Party.
Before I continue though, I would also like to note that I distinguish the Communist Party of the Mao era and the era after the beginning of reforms in the late 1970s as virtually distinct entities. Whereas the former was driven by utopian ideology that justified some of the worst atrocities in history, the latter manifestation has been far more concerned about seeing the living standards of the Chinese improve and is far more pragmatic in nature.
Western perceptions of the Communist Party, which do have validity, generally fail to see the positive side of the Chinese government. I think this is not least due to deeply ingrained Western cultural attitudes that see liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of government. It is also due to our general lack of understanding of Chinese culture and people. There is something of an assumption in the West that everyone around the world wants to be individualists and have freedom in the same sense that we have. Authoritarian governments, therefore, are vestiges of the past that prevent people from experiencing the privileges that we have. My experience with China and its people suggests that this is not entirely the case. Freedom of speech and the violations of privacy that the CCP commits (in our view) are simply not big issues for your average Chinese citizen. Human rights and democracy activists, although their actions are meritorious, appear to be a tiny minority. In relation to privacy, we in the West are frightened by China’s surveillance system, but for many Chinese, they don’t think twice. The sheer number of people and (prior to the One Child Policy) historically large families make privacy something of a non-issue. Deeply ingrained Confucian values that emphasise the natural hierarchical structures of society makes Chinese society (and other Confucian influenced cultures such as in Korea) much more accepting of authority than Western cultures.
Despite what the surface looks like, the Chinese government run by the CCP is in a significant sense a continuation of the form of government that has essentially run China for thousands of years. This form of government is noted by its hierarchical nature, its centralisation and bureaucratisation (which has always been reasonably meritocratic). Moreover, despite opening up to the world, China is still a very inward-looking nation, engaging with foreign countries primarily for its own interest and on its own terms. This insular worldview suggests why many Chinese do not use Facebook, Google or other Western social media services (even before they were blocked) and are content with their own apps such as Douyin (China’s TikTok), WeChat and Baidu. Chinese people like engaging with other Chinese people and despite politics that contradict the Party’s view being forbidden (though rarely punished unless offenders continue to repeat the offence), Chinese social media is surprisingly quite open relative to Western perceptions.
My experience in China opened my eyes to the idea that people are simply different and generally speaking, Chinese are simply content with more authoritarian forms of government than what we would tolerate in the West.
The West, I believe, does not really know what to do with an alternative form of government that can function in the modern world and as such sees it as a threat. There has been an assumption in academic and policy circles that the more a country develops, the more it will democratise. China, for the time being, seems to be proving this theory wrong, and the exporting of the Chinese model of governance, consequently, is seen as a danger to the freedom of the world. This view is grounded in the perception that Western values are universal values. In certain senses, I believe they are, but I also believe different cultures emphasise different particular values more than others. China, for example, prioritises social harmony over freedom of the individual. This can lead to violations of human rights that are utterly unacceptable to me personally, but can also lead to a security in the society that made me feel safe no matter where I went, at any time of the day or night. This is something I can’t quite as easily say when I’m in a Western country.
To return to a more international perspective, the movements of the Chinese government to gain influence around the world is nothing new, but rather the regular functioning of a nation in a multipolar system. The West has dominated international politics for the better part of the last five centuries and since the end of the Cold War, we have experienced a unipolar world where the United States and its allies have been absolutely predominant where no other nation can challenge its authority. Virtually all major international institutions such as the UN, World Trade Organisation and the World Bank were established by Western nations to create a system that was largely based on Western political and economic models, values and norms. The rise of China, and to an extent Russia and other increasingly developed countries is challenging this order through what is actually nothing more than traditional Realpolitik. China is taking advantage of open societies in the West to further its influence, and manoeuvring in the South China Sea and other regions of the world to assume military advantage to secure its interests. This is no different to the behaviour of most countries, including modern western ones, throughout history. The US doesn’t just maintain military bases across the world purely for the stability of these regions, it does this also for its own interests (hence why there are far more military bases in Europe, Asia and the Middle East than in Africa). International Relations theory calls China’s approach realism, which is based on self-interest, establishing a balance of power and survival. Most countries, despite rhetoric of cooperation and friendship, ultimately act like this. It is far from ideal and doesn’t justify some of the actions taken, but it is simply the way nations, kingdoms and empires have always acted and gives a frame of reference for why countries like China have become more assertive against the Western led world order in recent years.
Before concluding, it is important to talk about the Belt and Road Initiative, also commonly known as the New Silk Road. This enormous project initiated by Xi Jinping is a direct challenge to the Western order whilst also being a means for developing countries to develop economically. China uses the BRI to establish strong relations with countries and increase its influence through major infrastructure projects. The developing countries benefit as they receive investment that is often withheld by the West due to concerns of human rights abuses, corruption and authoritarian systems of governance. In this sense, the West is blinded by its values and own place of remarkable privilege. Economic development comes before social and political development, something Western leaders often fail to understand. A struggling sweatshop worker does not have time to care about his political views and the direction of his country when he can barely put food on the table. Despite being for China’s own self-interest, this willingness to engage with developing countries who are often mired in corruption and authoritarianism, is popular for people within these developing nations and winning allies over to Beijing. As a result, surveys suggest that attitudes towards China are generally much more popular in developing countries than in the Western world (see this link).
So is China really a threat to the West? Yes, in the sense that it will challenge Western dominance and has the potential to undermine the values and systems that many of us cherish. We do need to be tough with China when we are being taken advantage of, and we shouldn’t allow Chinese culture and forms of governance to damage our own. But we should nonetheless abandon the perception that China is the next great villain for the West to defeat, like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany was. Respect for each civilisation’s ways of living needs to be established, and perhaps each can learn from one another. China could learn from us in the sense that achieving social harmony and unity should not be pursued at all costs, especially to human life. Whereas we could also learn from China in certain ways such as by not imposing our values on other countries when we engage with them. The West and China are both guilty in the way relations are deteriorating and it is only by deep engagement with one another and mutual respect for each other’s civilisations (though not uncritical, of course) that would allow the monumental shifts happening in the international realm to occur peaceably. We need to challenge China when needed, since relationships are always complex, but both the West and China needs to ultimately understand each other. A failure to do so, and continuing misperceptions could otherwise be catastrophic for everyone.
I hope you enjoyed reading David’s reflections. If you’d like to follow David’s blog, you can find it here. Also, feel free to leave a comment below if you’d like to share any thoughts on David’s piece. Thanks again to David for writing the piece, and thank you for reading!