A recent article by Michael Schuman https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-06-27/china-does-foreign-policy-its-own-way-whatever-western-leaders-like-to-pretendn prompts some fundamental philosophical questions. His argument is that China will–by and large–determine its own fundamental direction, its future, and its foreign policy—despite the West’s attempts to modify them. I agree. But for Schuman this is a bad thing because the West will eventually have to recognize and accommodate some of China’s values and interests. This may happen. But if it does, it would not be the first time the rise of a nation challenged and changed the existing dominant international system and its dominant values. This is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ but the natural evolution of human international governance.
China’s President Xi Jinping and his inner circle see themselves as the inheritors and implementers of Mao’s legacy—the creation of a China that can and has stood up to the West. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3137521/chinese-people-have-stood-beijing-says-it-has-no-fear-us-eu They seem determined to restore respect for and the dignity of China as a nation–and more importantly the Chinese people– in the world, starting in Asia.
If that is indeed the intent– and many signs indicate that it is- -they are doing a good job. In any event, as Schuman says, Xi “has no intention of allowing the U.S. and its allies to muck things up” by integrating their values into China’s political and economic systems. At the century celebrations of the founding of China’s Communist Party,, Xi said, “the Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.” https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/06/30/world/china-communist-party -anniversary?campaign_id=60&emc=edit_na_20210630&instance_id=0&nl=breaking-news&ref=cta®i_id=68914441&segment_id=62263&user_id=928181c961878113bcdc3fbf534b305b#xi-warns-beijing-will-not-be-bullied-by-foreign-forces This rhetoric is clearly aimed at his domestic audience and the principle of not being ‘bullied’ is now a promise ingrained in the national psyche. As such, Xi has thus made foreign challenges to his foreign policy—in the South China Sea –and elsewhere ever more dangerous.
Schuman worries that “Beijing wants autocracies to be perceived as legitimate as democracies” and that”this is a threat to the very foundation of the current global system” based on ‘democracy’.
Again, this may be so. But in the larger sense of ‘democracy’–a people’s form of government is their own choice—unless and until they have the will and capacity to change it—like the revolts of colonies against imperialism from the 18th through the 20th centuries epitomized by America’s successful drive for independence from its colonial master.
Moreover the global international system is not purely ‘democratic’ and never was–nor was it intended to be except maybe in the minds of the hopelessly idealistic. Indeed, international democracy would grant authority to a supranational body to make binding decisions on issues that may affect them –something the U.S. has traditionally resisted. Further, international issues—including those critical to peace and security– are not decided by one country one vote. Nations are not equal in hard and soft power to influence others. They never were and never will be. This reality is manifest in the ‘invention’ and acceptance by all UN members of the structure of the UN Security Council with the ‘right’ of the five Permanent Members — China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to veto any UN decision or action that is not in their interest. The Security Council—led by these five ‘exceptional’ countries has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. All UN Member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions. That system superimposes a layer of autocracy onto a mythical one nation one vote democratic system.
If there were a pure democratic system, issues like a nation’s violation of human rights would be decided by the majority. But the concept of human rights is a Western invention that probably evolved from the recognition and regret of its own complicity in slavery, torture, genocide and war crimes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights While there is general agreement that the term covers a wide range of rights, there are values-based disagreements as to the priorities within this range.
In 2019, 22 nations including Australia, Germany and the U.K. issued a joint letter to the UN Human Rights Council condemning China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-nations-china-and-the-us-battle-it-out-20210622-p58313.html China responded by organizing a letter signed by 50 nations that criticized the previous letter and opposed “politicization of human rights issues”. So if it were a case of majority rules, the West would be in a minority.
Worse, the West’s attempt to weaponize ‘human rights’ is a grand hypocrisy. All major powers have abused their citizens and some have still not recognized or atoned for doing so to the satisfaction of the abused. For the U.S. that includes the treatment of its indigenous peoples and slavery.
The clash of ‘values’ raises the basic question of the goal of particular sets of ‘values’. Is it a system that prioritizes the provision of basic human welfare for the majority –or one based on the abstract notion of ‘freedom’ to improve one’s condition at the expense of others. It seems to me that Schuman’s prefers the goal of individual advancement at the expense of the majority rather than that of raising the basic human condition of the majority. In that sense the rise of China and acceptance of its values may indeed be a threat to the very foundation of the current global system—just as the rise of America and its values of individual freedom and capitalism were a threat to the global colonial system and its abuses of human rights. Ironically this imperial and colonial system was led by what is now called “the West’.
The China-West values contest is not a case of democracy versus autocracy as Schuman would have it. The West has long supported autocracies that embody the antithesis of Western values—today in the Arab world epitomized by Saudi Arabia, and in the past by brutal dictators in Asia –Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia. What Schuman and others really seem to be afraid of is not the concept of autocracy per se but China’s demonstrated success due its quick decision making and implementation, stability and continuity that its governing system provides.
Schuman and others make much of China’s aggressiveness in it international relations. For them, China “seems bent on doing what it wants to do regardless of what anyone else thinks [and that is a] danger.” https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/28/chinas-wolf-warrior-diplomacy-aggression-are-an-immense-danger-analyst.html But this also describes how other rising nations—like America– have acted as they challenged and changed the international order. This is neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but the natural course of humanity and its quixoitic search for a mythical ‘international order’.
Schuman is right about at least one thing. “President Xi Jinping is pursuing China’s national interests in a way that makes conflict with the Western democracies almost inevitable”. The U.S. and its allies are doing the same. This is a Huntingtonian ‘clash of cultures inflamed by perceived historic grievances and nationalism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clash_of_Civilizations and it is not likely to end well.