The empty chair at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10 will no doubt be a cause for Western politicians and commentators to again condemn China’s authoritarian regime.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee that awarded the Peace Prize to the jailed dissident Liu Xioabo represents those in the West who believe a color revolution such as those that took place in Eastern Europe would lead China down the path of Western-style liberal democracy.
In this, they are utterly ignorant of China’s history and the nature of modern China. The revolution they seek, if it happened, would bring anything but liberty and responsibility. The revolution that is taking place they miss completely.
Given the opacity of its political system and penchant for behind-the-scenes decision-making, subtle but important signals in Beijing often get lost in transmission. Such appears to be the case with the plenary session of the ruling Chinese Communist Party held in October. Predictably, the West focused its attention on the promotion of Mr. Xi Jinping, the heir designate, as the most notable accomplishment of the meeting. An even more consequential political development was completely overlooked: The final communiqué.
On the surface, the communiqué seemed to be full of official clichés and a return to a strident claim of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” But rather than an empty slogan, the phrase embodies a consistent developmental and political strategy that seeks to strike a difficult balance — achieving high growth rates through a market economy while relying on one-party political institutions to ensure social justice and peace. This strategy is the anchor of China’s relatively peaceful emergence into the global order.
Skeptics may justifiably question whether the strategy is achieving its objectives, pointing out rising inequality, corruption, social unrest and international conflicts. But they forget to ask, “What if?” For example, “What if a color revolution does sweep across China and overthrows its one-party regime?”
What happens after the euphoria is over? Will a post-Communist China deliver greater liberty and prosperity to the Chinese people? Will it be a less nationalist and more responsible power?
For all its shortcomings, the current one-party state in China is a status-quo power in two important respects. First, it is the initiator and protector of China’s enormously successful free-market development model. One of history’s greatest ironies is that in today’s world, the most pro-market party is the Communist Party in China. True, China’s economic success ensures the party’s political survival, but this has also ensured social peace in addition to improving the livelihoods, individual liberty and personal dignity of hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese.
Second, in spite of the recent perceptions of an assertive China, the Communist Party is not seeking global hegemony or even regional domination. Its foreign policy is based on pragmatism and realistic national interests, not grandiose projects of ideological self-glorification. The reason is quite simple: Given China’s economic interdependence with the rest of the world, and its dependence on economic performance as a source of legitimacy, the Party has all the incentives in the world to maintain a pragmatic foreign policy. China is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the status quo, so why change it?
Of course, skeptics may counter by pointing to China’s rising nationalism as evidence that Beijing will be forced to challenge the Western-made status quo. But this is confusing nationalist barking with aggressive biting. For all its nationalist rhetoric (there is plenty of it in China’s cyberspace), actual Chinese government behavior on foreign policy has been by and large moderate and restrained. Should a color revolution overthrow the Communist Party, who can guarantee the continuation of such a course, especially if extreme nationalists — with democratic credentials — gain power in a post-Communist regime?
Only by staying the course of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” can China’s development lead to ever enhanced liberty and prosperity for the Chinese people, and its ascendancy lead to a largely peaceful and responsible power on the global stage.
It is this irony, this oxymoron, that is disorienting to many Western observers: that the Chinese Communist Party is the guardian of China’s free-market development; that the socialism it deploys is the protector of liberty and property; that the Party is the only authority that can ensure moderation in China’s international relations.
To understand this, one must look deeper into Chinese cultural history and the nature of the modern Chinese nation state.
Those who look at China from the outside often see a rigid Confucian hierarchy. What they tend to miss is the deeply egalitarian values underlining Confucian morality.
“Those who want to farm are entitled to land.” This most primitive communist value is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Almost every dynasty began with the new emperor confiscating land from big landowners and evenly distributing it to the population. This is how each new dynasty gained moral authority. Over time, land ownership would again become more concentrated, the dynasty would be overthrown and the cycle would begin anew. The 1949 Communist revolution led by Mao Zedong could be viewed as another beginning of such a cycle.
The second pertinent aspect is the nature of modern China itself. The Western nation-state was shaped by bourgeois revolutions that aimed to advance and protect “liberty and property.” China never had such a bourgeoisie. It was literally dragged into modernity by the military powers of the West. The modern Chinese nation-state was built in the 20th century by the peasantry led by the intelligentsia. Rather than liberty and property, egalitarianism and communitarianism formed its moral foundation.
The respect for individual liberty and private property that informed the modern West were never within the core construct of the modern Chinese nation-state. Instead, China’s national sovereignty was the result of violent struggle against foreign aggression. Only with the knowledge of this historic background can one recognize how miraculous were the changes that Deng Xiaoping launched 30 years ago.
In effect, the Chinese Communist Party leveraged its moral authority as the vanguard of the common man to hold back the egalitarian impulses of the Chinese people and guide a rapid and unprecedented expansion of individual liberties and private property rights.
Further, its unquestioned role in redeeming China first from the humiliating subjugation by Western powers and then from Japanese aggression gives it the unique ability to moderate Chinese nationalism toward the outside world.
Maintaining this moral standing — hence the slogans of socialism and nationalism — is crucial for China to continue on this path. Western-style electoral democracy, as advocated by the West and some inside China, could only lead to tyrannical populism and its twin brother, extreme nationalism.
Today, respect for liberty and private property are at their highest in China’s entire history. It is unprecedented that the rise of a nation of China’s size at such speed is taking place largely in peace. Let’s allow it to continue. If it means that the chair in Oslo will remain empty for decades and generations, so be it. The alternative is far worse.
Eric Li, founder and managing director of a leading venture capital firm in Shanghai. He is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a doctoral candidate at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Policy.