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A Stronger and more Loving World: a Critical Reflection of China’s Global Influence

Publié le 1 mars, 2008 | Pas de commentaires
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China’s growing economic prosperity has incurred both admiration and suspicion. The People’s Republic marches into world history as the heir apparent to global supremacy. In light of China’s ubiquitous geopolitical influence, it seems ineluctable to interpret China’s current socio-political formation as a model for future regimes and nation states. One would inevitably ask: what kind of social and political formation does China foster?

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Jeremy, Spain Grafitti, 2007
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A cynical interpretation of China’s role in the world was recently put forward in an article by Australian journalist Rowan Callick. In “The China Model,” 1 Callick argues that China represents a new social and political model. China’s successful economic growth has inspired many third world countries in Asia, South America, and Africa to use the same development strategies employed by the Chinese government. China’s new model of government has two components:

The first is to copy successful elements of liberal economic policy by opening up much of the economy to foreign and domestic investment, allowing labor flexibility, keeping the tax and regulatory burden low, and creating a first-class infrastructure through a combination of private sector and state spending. The second part is to permit the ruling party to retain a firm grip on government, the courts, the army, the internal security apparatus, and the free flow of information. A shorthand way to describe the model is: economic freedom plus political repression.

The China Model would be a paradoxical synthesis of economic freedom and authoritarianism if it were not for the fact that the Chinese government has “control over the strategic sectors of the economy, [which] include utilities, transportation, telecommunications, finance, and the media.” The lack of transparency at the level of Chinese economy, society, culture, and politics reveals that, in fact, there is nothing paradoxical about China’s participation in global capitalism. China’s economic strategy is merely an apparent appropriation of the ethics of free market. Callick argues that even if some Chinese citizens enjoy luxury goods, attend the school of their choice, travel wherever they like domestically, etc., Chinese citizens are not free to transform their political system. The authoritarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party is displayed in its nefarious suppression of any attempt to question its policies. The CCP has gone to great lengths to censor books, cinema, art, etc. The insidious specter of the Communist Big Brother haunts the virtual realms of wireless communication: even text messages and emails are monitored. The virtual space of the Internet is kept in constant surveillance, as the vigilant hand of the Communist Party shields its citizens from the influence of websites such as Wikipedia and BBC. All these take place while China’s gross domestic product has grown at an average annual rate of more than 10 percent since 1990.

Given the fact that China’s coercive tactics on its population have been accompanied by a higher quality of life for its citizens, Callick is quite concerned with the fact that Third World nations have begun to emulate the China Model, most notably in Africa and Latin America. Callick observes that the warming relations between China and several African nations have not only led to an increase in trade, but “China is [also] canceling its debts due from the least developed countries in Africa, setting up a $5.5 billion fund to subsidize Chinese companies’ investments in the continent.” The growing ties between China and Africa become even more evident when one discovers that China has become the continent’s biggest money lender ($8.9 billion this year to Angola, Mozambique, and Nigeria alone), exceeding that of the World Bank (which only gave 2.8 billion to all of the Sub-Saharan nations combined).

As for Latin American nations, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has established strong ties with the Chinese government. Chavez rationalizes the necessity of good relations between China and Venezuela in order to overcome American capitalist hegemony. However, a more pressing example might be the relationship between China and Cuba, where government officials have become anxious to find a governmental model to replace the one that will soon collapse with the demise of Fidel Castro. China’s recent success has encouraged Cuban officials to think of the China Model as a viable alternative.

In light of these developments, Callick reiterates how China has disappointed Western expectations:

In the 1980s, wishful thinking on the part of some Western observers, combined with a form of historical determinism that was, in its way, a tribute to the thinking of Hegel and Marx, had China inevitably becoming more free and democratic as it became more of a market economy. The Tiananmen massacre caused some head-scratching for a while, but Western business, in particular, tended to take the public view, when pressed, that a semi-capitalist country was bound to evolve in time into a democracy, because the emerging middle-class would demand it.

For Callick, the opposite has happened: China’s economic development has bred a prosperous non-democratic system. Much to the chagrin of Western nations, China presents a model of prosperity without paying lip service to liberal democracy. And by reinterpreting the rules of global capitalism according to its specific cultural needs, China is able to challenge dominance of Western nations. China has adopted a Western economic model and appropriated that system in such a fashion that guarantees its own prosperity. In other words, China is an example of how a third world country can adopt a Western economic system and benefit itself instead of the West. Thus China’s recent development shows how developing nations can resist Western power, and thereby jettison the historical baggage of colonial influence.

However, for Callick, there is something discontinuous about China’s economic strategy, making him skeptical about the tenability of China’s social and political model. Insofar as the Chinese government suppresses civil liberties, the possibility of corruption remains. The prospect of future instability clouds whatever optimism one has about China’s economic growth. For what is hidden in light of material prosperity is an opaque political system that refuses to recognize the civil liberties of its citizens; liberties that have made Western liberal democracies durable despite market fluctuations and economic setbacks.

Callick’s pessimism regarding China’s refusal to recognize the political rights of its citizens presents China as an aberration of free market capitalism. However, Slavoj Žižek argues that there is nothing discontinuous about China’s use of coercive tactics and its participation in free market capitalism. In “China’s Valley of Tears,”2 Žižek claims that “[m]odern-day China is not an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, but rather the repetition of capitalism’s development in Europe itself.” Instead of identifying civil liberties and worker’s rights with capitalist development, Žižek suggests that worker’s rights were products of popular struggles. Hence there is no necessary relation between worker’s rights and the capitalist system.

What is significant about Žižek’s interpretation is that he presents China’s development in the same trajectory as Western nations:

In the early modern era, most European states were far from democratic. And if they were democratic (as was the case of the Netherlands during the 17th century), it was only a democracy of the propertied liberal elite, not of the workers. Conditions for capitalism were created and sustained by a brutal state dictatorship, very much like today’s China.

Žižek not only explains the continuity of China’s use of authoritarian tactics in the context of Europe’s early capitalist development, but also refers to the recent history of Eastern European nations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many post-communist nations’ early affairs with liberal democracy led to financial ruin. Insofar as there is no necessary connection or direct correlation between the tenets of liberal democracy and economic prosperity, China is no different from other nations, such as Chile and South Korea, whose adoption of a capitalist system coincided with authoritarian rule. What becomes clear from Žižek’s argument is that authoritarianism stabilizes a nation, which then engenders the kind of development and prosperity that is more expedient than under liberal democracies. While Callick argues that civil liberties are necessary for states to endure the fluctuations of the market, Žižek suggests the complete opposite. History provides examples of how authoritarian practices facilitate the passage from one economic system to the other. As much as economic development requires transparency to prevent possible corruption, authority is necessary to the kind of obedience that ultimately protects society from chaos. Thus, for Žižek, China’s strange hybridization of authoritarianism and economic liberalism may in fact be the triumph of capitalism itself. This is not merely evident in China’s rapid modernization. The triumph of capital manifests when capital’s oppressive nature endures in spite of improvements in standards of living. That is, the state’s ideological and coercive apparatus is not alleviated by economic prosperity. Economic prosperity only engenders more state coercion for the sake of accumulating more capital, which, in the end, benefits not the people but capital itself. For Žižek, the China Model is no aberration; the very fact that China has been able to modernize without succumbing to popular struggle is no surprise. But like Callick, Žižek is disturbed by what China represents for the future of civil society.

Despite Callick’s and Žižek’s respective concern about China’s influence, both of their interpretations fall short. Both are correct in identifying China’s role in global politics. In light of China’s modernization, the critical discourse that began in the twentieth century that papered over American hegemony will now be eclipsed by China’s world revolution. We can readily interpret Callick’s and Žižek’s respective positions as current examples of a new trend in geopolitical discourse. However, both positions are limited since the standard of measure remains in occidental terms. Both Žižek’s interpretation (that China’s modernization is consistent with the historical unfolding of capitalism) and Callick’s analysis (that China’s socio-political model is discontinuous to the tenets of liberal democracy and free market capitalism) fail to address the possibility that China’s global influence and its decisive place in world history cannot be deduced by our normative understanding of capitalism or civil liberty. In terms of civil liberty, both Žižek and Callick fail to recognize that China can enlighten us on the nature of civil liberties that Western nations hold so dear. The continual success of the China Model would mean that the people of the third world would rather choose material improvement rather than the recognition of their civil liberties. This may confirm the pessimistic predilection of the cynics. Yet the seductive quality of the China Model is a present fact that must be faced if one is to find an alternative to an apparently irresistible model.

The refusal to understand China’s influence on its own terms is more pressing. For if developing nations continue to adopt the China Model, China’s success says less about capitalism, communism, or the ideological underpinnings of liberal democracy. We must consider how China appropriates Western ideas and the specific cultural elements that substantiate their use of Western ideas and practice. What is decisive in understanding China’s global influence is that we recognize the possibility that China may succeed where previous superpowers have failed. Even if the United States and the Soviet Union shaped much of the world during the last century, China can speak to the developing world in the way that the US and the USSR could not. The irresistibility of China and its model resides in the fact it was developed in for the Third World. Among the superpowers, it is only China that can promise wealth to impoverished nations with the authority and confidence that wealth is their’s for the taking.

What is essentially different about China’s imminent hegemony cannot yet be deduced. In terms of the immediate future, China’s rise will certainly entail that history itself must be reordered, that the archeology of knowledge will concentrate its dig on a different soil. The future may in fact bring an end to Euro-centrism and render the notion of Americanism obsolete. Whether one despairs over the impending collapse of the present world order, and thereby recognize that the practice of capitalism is indeed debatable, or rejoices in China’s rise as an opportunity for broadly shared wealth and prosperity, as a time of hope and imminent liberation from centuries of Western dominance—what will haunt the political imagination of the world is a new spectre that not even Marx could have dreamed.

References

1. Callick, Rowan. “The China Model.” The American (Dec 2007), found online at <http://www.american.com/archive/2007/november-december-magazine-contents/the-china-model> [retrieved on february 19, 2008]
2. Zizek, Slavoj. “China’s Valley of Tears.” In These Times
(Dec 2007), found online at <http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3425/chinas_valley_of_tears http://www.american.com/archive/2007/november-december-magazine-contents/the-china-model> [retrieved on february 19, 2008]

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