Francis Fukuyama: China-US relations will get worse before they get better – and not just because of Trump

  • Audrey Li speaks to the author of The End of History on how his views have changed amid China’s rise on the global stage, and how hostility towards China among US businesspeople has become the driving force behind deteriorating relations
PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2018, 6:17am

When the renowned American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy rather than communism constituted the Hegelian-Marxist “end of history” in 1989, it was right at the beginning of the end of the cold war. Although the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests and subsequent government crackdown happened around the same time, Fukuyama still believed China, with its economic and political reforms, was heading towards the direction of a liberal order.

But nearly 30 years have passed, and history seems to be refusing to “end”. While the collapse of the Soviet Union might have once signalled the demise of the last ideological alternative to Western liberalism, China's rise appears to have provided a new one, the “China model”, which combines elements of a market economy with authoritarian rule.

In his 2014 book, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama in some ways modified his views and emphasised that state capacity was as important to a country’s prosperity as democracy and rule of law were, an apparent recognition of the value of benign centralised power, or the governance of “good emperors”. However, when China abolished its presidential term limit earlier this year, Fukuyama said that China’s “bad emperor” had returned.

In a recent interview, Professor Fukuyama discussed his views on China, among other topics.

Question: Over the past two decades since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man, with China’s rise and democracy recession worldwide, you have become known as a prominent proponent of “fin-de-siècle Western triumphalism”. Do you find that unfair? 

Answer: Yes, I think that’s based on a certain misunderstanding of what I was arguing. In my different books, I never said that democracy was going to triumph; I didn’t necessarily say it was the best political system. I just said that, given the kinds of competitors that existed, it was hard to see systems were going to work better than that.

Also people misunderstood the concept of “the end of history”. Marx also had a concept of the “the end of history” (communism). So “end” should mean something more like “target” or “objective”, rather than “cessation”.

Q: Democratisation didn’t happen in China, which can be viewed as a counterexample to Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democracy”. Can we say most observers got it wrong? 

A: We have to see whether that’s true over the long run. We got it wrong in terms of the likelihood that China would democratise based on a rise in income. But these things are determined by a lot of things other than per capita GDP. They have to do with your specific historical experience, which for China has been pretty good under the Communist Party since at least the late 1970s. I do think there are genuinely cultural issues – this long tradition in China as a centralised state – and that’s a legacy that is quite hard to overcome. But I don’t know that that’s going to permanently change the nature of Chinese politics.

Q: In your last book Political Order and Political Decay, you considered state capacity, like that of China's, as equally important as democracy and the rule of law. Has what is going on in China over the past few years since 2014 in any way changed your thinking? 

A: What’s happened since that time corresponds to Xi Jinping becoming the general secretary of the Communist Party and the president of China. I think that he has been taking China backwards in a certain way in terms of the abolition of [the] term limit. I thought the term limit was one of [the] features of a highly institutionalised authoritarian system which made the Chinese system good. So, in that respect, China has not been making progress. A lot of Chinese people expected that there will be more freedom in their individual lives, even if they didn’t have democracy. They have been disappointed in that as well.

How the West got China’s leader, Xi Jinping, wrong

Q: Deng Xiaoping had a famous motto, for China to “hide its strength and bide its time”. With China getting increasingly aggressive and assertive on the world stage, what do you think of the future of the “China model” and the feasibility of it being exported to the rest of the developing world? 

A: The big question that I think no one can really answer right now is the extent to which this model is sustainable. The economic model, which is based on a lot of debt, is not sustainable. Whether the Chinese Communist Party can continue to produce leadership that’s adequate to the kind of challenges such a large country faces is also not clear. If there is an economic crisis like a big recession, which China has really not experienced since 1978, that will put a lot of stress on the country and so, it’s just not clear how well the system is going to last when it’s stressed. So far, it has done well because there has been stability in the external environment. But that’s not always going to be the case.

Q: With this trade war going on, do you think the “Thucydides Trap” between the US and China is unavoidable? 

A: Nothing is unavoidable. It’s something that’s possible – there’s a lot of stress on the system. 

Q: The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit wrapped up with no agreement on a joint communique amid the US-China spat. What’s your take on the Sino-US relationship under these two unconventional leaders, Xi and Donald Trump? 

A: I think the relationship is going to continue to be bad and this is not just the result of Trump being in office. I think there’s a real shift in the business community in the United States, and in Europe, which has become much more hostile to China. They used to be the most favourable in terms of wanting a good relationship with China but I think that has all changed because they felt they had not been treated fairly. So I would expect that things are going to get worse before they get better in US-China relations.

Q: The narrative of “a century of humiliation” played a big part in China’s rising nationalism. It might make China’s nationalism different from the global trend. Could you help us understand the difference between national identity, nationalism, and patriotism? 

A: Oftentimes, nationalism is associated with the kind of an aggressive form of national identity shared by a community. National identity simply refers to the way that people think about their country, the kind of symbols and collective memories they have about the society. I think it’s important to have a national identity, and it’s important that national identity not evolve into something aggressive, like the kind of nationalism that existed in Europe in the early 20th century.

Patriotism is a different word for different people. For some, it signifies a kind of nationalism and intolerant attitudes toward foreigners, but it could also just mean pride on one’s own country, which I think it’s necessary for any society.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a freelance journalist from Guangzhou and a regular commentator for the Post. This is an edited excerpt of her interview over the summer with Professor Fukuyama