“Although China exhibits authoritarian characteristics, this, by no means, presupposes that liberty is incompatible with its people’s worldview.”
he Trump administration’s explicit stance against China has altered Western political discourse. Discussions on the Belt and Road Initiative and the communist state’s profuse human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong surface in the news with unprecedented frequency, heaved into the view of even the most ordinarily disinterested readers.
China is most often portrayed as a monolithic structure, a command economy, and a communitarian society, which tolerates no dissent or disobedience. Some of this view’s proponents have even posited that the Chinese model constitutes an unequivocal foil to liberal democracy, the latter of which is alleged to be incompatible with China’s local culture and history. Others, including The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge and Bloomberg’s John Micklethwait, consider this perspective a symptom of the “fourth revolution,” destined to supplant the contemporary consensus on government. Doubtless, this image has been reinforced by the continuous failure of the United States to counterpoise China commercially and diplomatically. Similarly, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s optimistic belief in the possibility of China metamorphosing into a democratic state has been proven erroneous, to the benefit of the China hardliners within the Republican Party.
However, such conclusions are misguided. Although China exhibits authoritarian characteristics, this, by no means, presupposes that liberty is incompatible with its people’s worldview. Furthermore, liberal ideology is not exclusively Western. Taiwan amply illustrates this. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is advancing democracy without undermining its constituents’ cultural code. Unaware of unalienable rights, the Chinese philosophical tradition has nevertheless discussed individualism over the course of the country’s long history. In turn, this suggests China’s divergence from the West is somewhat exaggerated; it exists but is neither congenital nor absolute. What defeated the United States’ earlier attempts at spreading the message of freedom was instead its narrow-minded advertising strategy.
Liberty with Chinese characteristics is not an oxymoron, as Taiwan reveals. Its government’s recent decriminalization of adultery and iconoclastic legalization of same sex-marriage under its first female head of state are but the most visible indicators of how liberal values can co-exist with a Chinese way of life. Below the surface, there is further proof of Taiwan internalizing this ideology. For instance, Taiwan has climbed to the fifteenth place on the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business rankings, and President Tsai Ing-wen has created the Startup Regularity Adjustment Platform to mitigate “the lack of clarity about applicable regulations” to assist the growth of local enterprises in 2017.
Understandably, Taiwan is no paradise, and thinking otherwise is unwise, at best. After all, Taiwan remains a diplomatic pariah, excluded from the United Nations and unrecognized by the vast majority of the international community. Its allies are increasingly fewer in number. Gambia and the Solomon Islands have recently opted to switch allegiance to Beijing, furthering the country’s isolation. The DPP has yet to deliver on the economic front: Restrictions on private banking and money transfer continue to deter investors from opening bank accounts in Taiwan.
Any plans to proselytize democratic values in the Far East should still take this case-study into account. It vindicates that democracy can flourish alongside Chinese traditions and shows that it could benefit the local population. Taiwan’s outstanding handling of the Coronavirus is a prime example of the system’s efficacy. Taipei led a coordinated response, which involved the government partnering with hotels to create two-week self-isolation spots. There were also technology developers coding advanced tracking software, and the nation’s political parties put their differences temporarily aside to project a vital image of national unity. Arguably, this sense of national unity is something other countries—such as Brazil and the United States—have, in particular, been lacking so desperately in this trying period.
In addition, the West should consider the history of Chinese individualism, while considering what version of liberalism—devised and written in the local language—is bound to resonate with the people. China lacks a robust history of representative rule: The region was dominated for millennia by imperial dynasties, and the Kuomintang Republic of China hardly resembled a healthy democracy, given its lack of territorial control and its lackluster institutional transparency.
Yet, this should not obscure the existence of Chinese individualism. It has its origins in the Warring States Era (475-221 B.C.), a period of extreme political fragmentation, similar to the bellicose polycentrism observed in eighteenth-century Europe. Known as Yangism, it is named after Yang Zhu (440-360 B.C.), whose advocacy of ethical egotism has survived to this day in the works of his Confucian and Taoist rivals.
According to Yang Zhu, individual personality is the most important element of the universe and must consequently be preserved. This preservation—or alimentation—of life, as he put it, consists of sustaining human integrity and authenticity, while guarding against burdensome things. This is because only the beneficial things in life keep the integrity of human physical and internal nature intact. Based on this, life is defined by its quality and is fundamentally about satisfying human senses as opposed to complying with arbitrary rituals. This meshes well with what some Western scholars have argued: that liberalism also places the individual at its ideological center and extols social mobility and personal development.
Yang Zhu’s target audience was the ruling elite, and its justification of government—when read today—seems to overlap with many Western proponents of individual rights. To Yang Zhu, government was valid, insofar as the defense of human life’s integrity was concerned. In other words, the ideal Chinese Emperor protected his citizens and rebuked benevolent interventionism into their daily affairs, and in the Yangist utopia, one would rationally strive for what one requires, thereby leaving room for others’ self-improvement. Allowing others to take what they need, in turn, would enable them to sustain their lives’ integrity and authenticity to cultivate prosperity. Once again, this form of indifferent non-interventionism could provide the basis for a culturally conditioned, liberty-loving Chinese political ideology.
Pondering on a viable ideological strategy against the Communist Party of China is essential for the United States to triumph in a nascent Sino-American Cold War. This task might very well seem overwhelming: Beijing appears on the offensive, and past efforts to inculcate republican-democratic values in its society were evidently nullified by Xi Jinping’s counter-reformist agenda. Arguably, the West requires a more culturally-attuned alternative that it could offer to the Chinese people if it is to effect changes in the Chinese political system—much like how President Ronald Reagan managed to influence the Soviet perestroika. Liberty is not incompatible with the Chinese mindset, and this new alternative must make this clear.
Dan Mikhaylov is a columnist for Orthodox Conservatives, a British group dedicated to promoting social conservatism.