My Take

West's critique of China has deep roots

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 7:21am

Is the Chinese state a dictatorship or an enlightened meritocracy? The once-in-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing has raised this question.

I claim no expertise and do not compare myself to the many erudite writers who have tackled the question. What I wish to offer is some familiarity with the history of the Western political literature on this very question.

It can be safely asserted that it is not a new or recent question, but one of the oldest in Western political science. It predates the reign of the Chinese Communist Party by at least three centuries. Whether they know it or not, many Western critics of China today are repeating the same terms and presuppositions of the West's sinophiles and sinophobes of old.

After the time of Marco Polo, but particularly in the 18th century, China was all the rage in Europe. Enlightenment philosophers used virtuous China as a foil to decadent Europe. Every aspect of Europe was held up to criticism: Christianity, hereditary monarchy, scholastic philosophy. By contrast, China was hailed as the perfect state, land of atheism, benevolent despotism and social harmony.

Leibniz proposed the adoption of ideographic writing. Voltaire believed the Chinese emperor ruled by moral authority, and accepted advice and reprimands from mandarins of literary and moral distinction.

French physiocrats advocated Chinese notions of cosmic harmony, the primacy of agriculture and the state as the organiser of the economy. Montesquieu was the most famous exception. He characterised China as backward, inferior and unchangeable - its people incapable of freedom. His view would become the Western consensus in the 19th century.

What caused this sea change in attitude? The British Lord Macartney's diplomatic mission to China, and eyewitness accounts produced later by his staff. From this came an avalanche of criticism, with that by Hegel and Marx among the most influential. But like Napoleon, Marx warned that the Chinese would shake the world when they awoke from their "hereditary stupidity".

To answer Xi Jinping's famous complaint about why the West always picks on his country, well, the Western critique of China runs deep in its history and culture.