“Globalization without liberalization” best characterizes the political climate in China. In March, the country entered an era of single-man rule after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) removed all institutional obstacles and amended the constitution to allow him to govern the nation permanently.
The amendment surprised Western scholars and journalists, who thought that as China became increasingly globalized, it would follow a path toward liberalization as Taiwan and South Korea did during the 1990s.
However, there has hardly been a period of Chinese history in which the ruling elites have limited their power and respected the consent of their people willingly. Xi’s efforts to consolidate his absolute leadership are derived from the long tradition of imperial obsession with control. The ultimate objective is to regulate, exploit and weaken civil society.
Since China is facing a trade war with the US and a potential economic slowdown, a heightened sense of crisis has prompted the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) dramatic totalitarian turn to silence internal dissent and suppress civil rights protests.
Ironically, this year marks the 170th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, a political treatise that argues that human societies are divided into warring classes, and that a socialist utopia will eventually supplant the system of industrial capitalism.
Compared with impoverished factory workers who suffered extreme poverty in 19th-century Europe, contemporary Chinese workers and professionals are not drawn to communism as a mobilizing belief. The Chinese communist transformation since 1949 has revealed the failure of workers to achieve a revolution.
The pragmatism of China’s Leninist market economy is built on the state’s blatant rejection of universal values and cruel indifference toward migrant workers and peasants.
Three structural problems can be discerned in China’s totalitarian polity. The first is a lack of cosmopolitan vision within the CCP hierarchy.
As products of the Cultural Revolution, some Chinese leaders are nostalgic about Maoism and show no interest in implementing liberal reforms.
Balancing the policy of class struggle with that of class coalition, the leaders have launched intense propaganda campaigns to unify the majority of the population against what the state perceives as a slew of “enemies of the people.”
Unlike Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who skillfully manipulated mass sentiment and encouraged popular participation in political campaigns against his opponents, Xi does not permit any public attacks on corrupt officials.
Worrying that criticism might turn into an uncontrollable force against the regime, he is determined to repress society into quiescence. Mass submission to Xi-ism, not mobilization, is the latest political culture.
If this authoritarian governance remains intact, Xi might risk jeopardizing the fragile elite coalition that has supported the communist regime since the suppression of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The second problem is a lack of opportunities for competent officials to advocate, formulate and execute progressive socioeconomic and political policies. Many relatively young and educated officials are quite disillusioned with the nation’s future and have put a brake on any modernizing initiatives.
Even though many, if not most, capable officials have taken a back seat in controversial political matters, they are still keen to develop the cultural heritage industry, improve the quality of public life and advance the sustainability of local economies.
The determination to balance profit-making with cultural enrichment is common in developed democracies such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, which encourage teahouses, independent bookstores and private museums to open, providing decent career opportunities for people in second-tier cities and rural townships. These features makes these countries enchanting to international visitors.
Some parts of China are following in the footsteps of Taiwan, Japan and Korea, nurturing creative, cultural and heritage industries. For example, in Guangdong Province’s Shantou the municipal government has supported the privately run Xiangyuan Piano Museum (香園鋼琴博物館). The museum, founded in January last year, organizes regular classical music concerts, featuring outstanding performances by international musicians, and advances local music education.
In Zhejiang Province’s Cangnan County, the county authorities have worked with semi-independent bookstores to launch cultural forums at a grassroots level, turning Cangnan into a livable suburb with cosmopolitan values and norms for middle-class families from Wenzhou.
If these visionary local officials were to be promoted to the senior CCP leadership, China could easily diversify the domestic economy, liberalize the public domain and educate cosmopolitan citizens.
The third challenge has to do with China’s adventurism in foreign policy. As an authoritarian state in a liberal world order, China is trying to remake the longstanding “status quo” in its own image.
Xi and his advisers seem to believe in the official rhetoric of a gigantic power shift from the US-led, rules-based international system to a Sinocentric one. This ideological mindset has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, trapping China in an intense competition with the US.
Rather than taking incremental steps toward liberalization, China is prepared to challenge the US in geopolitics and strengthen state power at all costs.
For Taiwanese educators and policymakers, a more sophisticated understanding of China’s neo-authoritarian statecraft is essential.
While many Chinese officials and citizens appear to go along with the anti-liberal sentiment of the CCP elites, Taiwan’s liberal universities should expand outreach activities in civic engagement and democratic citizenship for students from China, Hong Kong and Macau. Otherwise, Taiwan might end up training future Chinese political, economic and cultural leaders, who will expand the Sinocentric order against the nation’s quest for independent statehood.
Given its unsettled international status, Taiwan must utilize its rich intellectual resources to win the hearts and minds of Chinese visitors and find ways to safeguard its own autonomy and influence in the face of an assertive China with enormous resources.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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