The West can avoid conflict by allowing China to go its own way
Eric X. Li says the West's outdated views have blinded it to the failures of liberal democracy and market capitalism. By allowing China to rise in its own way, conflict can be avoided
From US President Barack Obama's ceding of the centre stage to his Chinese counterpart at the recent Apec gathering, to frenzied attempts to decipher the country's political and economic directions from the party's just-finished third plenum, the rising giant of the East often dominates Western political discourse. Unfortunately, such discourses are taking place on a faulty paradigm.
Ever since 1989, mainstream Western opinions about China have been dominated by two divergent theories with opposite policy prescriptions. The ultimate aim of both was to build a univer-salised world order, which of course could not be credible without China.
One is the "imminent collapse" school. Espoused by cold [war] warriors, it predicted the wholesale collapse of the country. The one-party political system was inherently incapable of managing the intensifying social and economic conflicts as the country went through its wrenching transformation from a poor agrarian economy to an industrialised and urban one.
The Western alliance should seek to contain China, so the theory went, and thereby hasten the fall of a threatening power ruled by an illegitimate regime.
The other is the "peaceful evolution" school. These are the panda-hugging universalists who made the "they-will-become-just-like-us" prediction. As the country modernised its economy, China would inevitably accept market capitalism and democratise its political system, and proponents urged deploying an engagement policy to speed up this evolution.
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the Western intellectual and policy establishment has been guided by these two schools of thought. The report card is not pretty.
The assumptions made by the "imminent-collapse" school include the following: China was run by a dictatorial party clinging to the dead ideology of Soviet communism. Its political system inherently lacked the ability to adapt to the rapidly modernising Chinese society. The myriad social and economic conflicts would soon implode, and the fate of the Soviet Union awaited the party state. With that, a major ideological obstacle to a Western-designed universal order would be removed.
Of course, the cold warriors have had to postpone the effective date of their prediction year after year for decades. What did they get wrong? It turned out that the party has not been holding back or reacting to China's modernisation, but leading it. Self-correction, an ability many attribute to democracies, has been a hallmark of the party's governance.
In its many decades of governing the largest- and fastest-changing country in the world, the party has pursued the widest range of policy changes compared with any other nation in modern history. Most recently, it has successfully managed a highly complex transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. In the process, it has produced the most significant improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest time in history.
Because of this performance record, China's modernisation process has strengthened the party's rule, not weakened it. The key driver of the party's success is inherent in its political institution. Over the decades, the party has developed a process through which capable leaders are trained and tested. Whereas elections have failed to deliver in many parts of the world, meritocratic selection has in China.
As embarrassing as it must have been for the "collapse" predictors, the bitterest disappointment belongs to the universalists who foresaw the inevitable evolution of China towards liberal democracy and market capitalism. Their conviction was guided by the grand post-cold-war narrative: After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world would come together under a globalised order. Western values were universal values. Western standards were universal standards.
But China walked a different path. As the party embarked on dramatic reforms, the country possessed a degree of national independence unmatched by most developing nations. This ability to control its own destiny allowed China to engage globalisation on its own terms. Its one-party system remained intact. Its economic integration with the developed world was carried out in ways that brought maximum benefits to the Chinese people.
Market access was granted in exchange for direct investments that created industrial jobs and technology transfers. The government exercised political authority above market forces and led the largest investment expansion in infrastructure and health and education in history.
The dream of "they-will-become-just-like-us" has evaporated. After the cold war, many were enamoured by the material successes of the West and sought to emulate Western political and economic systems without regard to their own cultural roots and historical circumstances.
Now, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes and market capitalism remain mired in poverty and civil strife.
In the developed world, political paralysis and economic stagnation reign. The hard fact is this: democracy is failing from Washington to Cairo. Even the most naive panda huggers could not sustain the belief that China would follow such "shining" examples. If the West wants to deal rationally with China, a paradigm shift in thinking is urgently needed.
To begin a reassessment, it is useful to first recognise what China is not. It is not a revolutionary power, and it is not an expansionary power. It is not a revolutionary power because, unlike the West of late, it is a non-ideological actor on the world stage and not interested in exporting its values and ways to the outside world. It is not an expansionary power because that is not part of the Chinese DNA.
The Chinese outlook is that of centrality, not universality. More practically, the Chinese see, rather wisely, that, although it could not accept wholesale the current global architecture, its rise must be peaceful. Otherwise the consequences are unimaginable. China's sheer size makes this so. Self interests will dictate that China is likely to err on the side of restraint as it re-emerges as a great power.
History is littered with precedents of failures to accommodate rising powers, leading to tragic conflicts. But that does not have to be destiny. Give China time, allow it the space and independence to continue on its own path. Live and let live. The forced convergence led by the West is costing everyone, not least the West itself.
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the Oxford Union. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu