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  • Dec 27, 2014
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My Take
PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 2:59am

Sometimes it's better the devil you know

Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of the English civil war, applies his notion of the state of nature to how societies will degenerate into anarchy or civil war when there is no overarching authority to rein in people's passions and greed.

Extending his idea to relations between states, scholars have argued international relations are anarchic unless they are lorded over by a hegemon like Napoleon or a world cop like the US.

It's remarkable how this Hobbesian argument is central to two of the great ideological debates today. When Beijing's defenders get tired of arguing for the legitimacy of one-party rule, they point to a simple cause and effect: it's us or chaos.

When critics complain about US President Barack Obama's reluctance to commit militarily in Syria, they revive the international side of the Hobbesian argument.

There is no one left to enforce the rules if the US doesn't commit.

We have seen how a US-led G6/G7 of industrialised powers expanded to G8 and now G20. Once you get to double digits, collective leadership just becomes leaderless.

There were vague talks of G2 - China and the US, which proved illusory. Instead we are probably approaching what political writer Ian Bremmer calls a G-zero world.

Many Russians and Chinese, myself included, often look on with glee to such a world.

But on further reflection, if there is only one bar in town, you might want the US to be its owner or at least co-owner rather than being just another drunk - because in a bar brawl this drunk will still be the strongest.

A similar Hobbesian argument applies to Communist Party rule. What's the alternative in China? Those who rhapsodise how the Arab spring must reach China should now have the honesty to admit its failure has only strengthened Beijing's hand.

From Mursi to Sisi, we have just seen how the overthrow of a mild tyranny in Egypt led to a democracy of demagogues, ending with the people's embrace of an even harsher tyrant.

And Syria-style civil war, anyone?

Like it or not, we will be stuck with Chinese one-party rule for another generation or two. In all likelihood, that's a better outcome than its sudden overthrow or collapse.


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This article is now closed to comments

John Adams
Wrong, wrong, wrong !
Mr Lo is absolutely correct, whether we like it or not.
On this matter facts not feelings and idealism rule supreme.
Give me China and HK any day just as they are, warts and all, rather than Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Russia .... and indeed many of the poorer regions in the USA where racialism and guns still rule
My Take,by Alex Lo makes SCMP worth reading. Not that one has to agree with his writing. More importantly it is his breadth in Western philosophy in supports of his comments like what we have today. He gives a wider view which it is timely for Alex Lo to provide us in such complex time the world is facing. Here we are confronted with two major cultures -- Western and Chinese facing head on with diametric opposite values. Each with successes and failures and for anyone to take side wouldn’t be easy. In fact, more and more we must use our own judgment to make a point. It seems in the bewilderment of our interconnected world hence our expanded world we must more look into philosophy to guide our judgment. In the West, there are many schools of philosophy and not quite in China. The former has gone inactive since Jean-Paul Sartre of the 20th Century and the latter since Confucius of 600 BC but still unyieldingly dominant.
hard times !
In our long-time history of more than 5000 years,many dynasties fell overnight.Take for instance,the late Chng Dynasty rulers would never dream that their over 200-year rule would collapse all of a sudden--------the outburst of rebellion in Wuhan since the name list of certain revelutionists were discovered by the local government.And the fire of revolution soon spread to half of China ! The troops sent by the then Ching Dynasty led by Yuen Shi-zai turned against their rulers in Beijing after having a compromise with the revolutionists led by Dr.Sun Yet-sen ---our National Father who advised us that 'politics is the affairs of everybody ' ! No one could predict the downfall of the 'Four-guy Gang' led by Madame Jiang Ching (wife of Chairman Mao) soon after the death of Chairman Mao and the rise of Deng Xiao-ping plus the open-door policy and economic reforms which totally buried Communism practised since 1949-1979 ! In the same way, no one can predict the future of Mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party's rule.Don't forget, the former Soviet Union collapsed overnight in 1990, the year after the June 4th Massacre staged by Deng and his elderly colleagues--the Eight Oldies !
The reason there's no alternative in China is because the Chinese Communist Party doesn't allow one. And then their defenders say, "There will be chaos if the Party falls." If the Party had confidence and real support, why would it be afraid to hold elections?
The problem Alex is that the Pan-Democrats are so brained-washed by the West, they are incapable of fathoming this out!
Their intellect is practically on a par with North Koreans.
Just because events in other countries leads to similar consequences does not mean they will have the same result elsewhere. If the population is largely poor, ignorant, uneducated and excitable, perhaps you will get anarchy in a period of social or political upheaval. Wise governments learn to bend with the wind and implement reforms before their rigidity causes the system to crack. China does not have a good track record in reform.
The issues facing China and many other nations are more economic than political. If the one party state does not do something radical to curb almost universal corruption and nepotism in favour of spoiled children of officials, the increasing wealth gap and the lawless abuse of state security forces (including urban security thugs), it does not deserve to survive. The Chinese have not risen up against the present system mainly because so many have been able to rise out of poverty, thanks to huge foreign investment and technology. In their much boasted about lengthy history, they have almost never had honest, humane government. Therefore they have been brought up not to expect too much.
China has to maintain its economic growth rate or it will implode.
What a load of nonsense. There is zero reason to believe that the only options China has is either one-party rule or total chaos with a risk of civil war.

The comparison with Egypt is for many, many reasons (ethnic, religious, geo-political and historical ones) deeply, deeply flawed. It's also cheap. A recent case of an indeed disastrously messed-up attempted transition from dictatorship to democracy that now gets used by strongmen throughout the world to justify their authoritarianism. The countless cases of successful transitions in the past decades get left out. Tell me, in what ways is China like Egypt?

It is more much more reasonable to compare China with other largely ethnically homogeneous (yes, yes, China has minorities, but <9% of total and overwhelmingly neatly concentrated in certain areas), historically unified and religiously moderate nation-states in Asia. Taiwan, Korea (ok, only half), Mongolia and Japan have all transitioned very successfully from (military or one-party) dictatorships to multiparty democracies in the past 60 years. And looking only a tiny bit further from home, we have even seen multi-ethnic Indonesia (where the New Order era was effectively a one-party state + sham elections) pull it off not so long ago too.

Would Mr Lo also want to defend the North Korean one-party regime on the same grounds, even while its ethnically, religiously and historically (up to 1953 at least) southern neighbour proves the fallacy of such a position?
Taiwan didn't disintegrate when it democratized. Neither did South Korea. Both of their economies continued to grow just as strongly before the process as after. Why must you cherry-pick, Mr. Lo? It's very possible that the CCP could continue to rule for a while after democratization (look at KMT in Taiwan). Or maybe not, who knows? Meanwhile, the devil you know has no qualms with stealing billions of yuan from taxpayers, then putting up posters at the bus station asking me to donate to the government charity so kids in Sichuan can have clean water to drink.
I'd be willing to take the risk that the next group coming along could do better.
It is interesting to read this commentary after watching Lincoln (the movie) over the weekend. If the agenda is the preservation of the Union by nations, it appears an equilibrium has been reached.
SCMP, why is the word h_omo considered worthy of censorship? It is a completely acceptable term. Homogeneous. Homo_sexuality. Homonym. Homophone. Also, we are all homo sapiens. Except perhaps Leonardo daVinci, who apparently was a homo universalis. Get real please.




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