China rejecting the Western political system

Why China Won’t SubAmericanise

By Gwydion M. Williams

The USA in 1917 pitched into a war that might have ended with a limited victory for the Central Powers. Indirectly they caused the Russian Revolution—Lenin would never have taken power except in a nation desperate for peace. The short-lived liberal parliamentary system that took over from the Tsar would not have gone on fighting if the USA had not been there to offer the possibility of total Allied victory.

What was the US looking for? Having digested a great diversity of white immigrants and made them into US citizens, they were smitten by the idea of ‘normalising’ the rest of the world, making it just like them, but not quite as good. A standard name is lacking: ‘globalisation’ could take many forms and should not be reserved for this one process. SubAmericanisation sums it up quite nicely.

The USA helped turn empires into democracies in Central Europe, influenced by immigrants from those countries who had fled failed national uprisings. By the 1930s, most of the new states had rejected parliamentary rule, which doesn’t work unless it evolves very slowly among people who are used to it and respectful of the existing state structures. Before 1914, it had been evolving in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which wasn’t that different from the pre-1914 British Empire. The biggest difference was that Britain had huge numbers of non-white subjects who were never intended to be included in the system

Parliamentary systems originated in the Middle Ages, as a way for monarchs to negotiate with a relatively rich minority who voted. They were not democracies; voters were the lower strata of the elite. Britain industrialised before it became a democracy: before 1832, maybe one tenth of the adult males had a vote. Nor was this one-tenth in control: most of them were found in a small number of constituencies with a wide franchise, while a few hundred rich people controlled the majority of seats in the House of Commons. The Reform Act gave real power to one-seventh of the adult males, who used this power to give themselves various advantages over the non-voting majority. Notoriously, they created the Workhouse system for the victims of industrialisation whose craft skills and secure lives had been destroyed. But there was much else, a middle-class assault on those less fortunate than themselves.

Only in the 1880s did the British electorate constitute a majority of adult males. Britain didn’t give the vote to all adult males until 1918, having gradually extended the franchise on the assumption that traditions would not be upset by the new voters

Parliamentary Democracy does not ensure good government, or peace either. The USA after its War of Independence made a republican constitution that put a republican gloss on government structures that people were already familiar with. Democracy was not the intention: Washington and a lot of the other leaders were Federalists, wanting to govern as a new elite without London giving them orders. Over the decades, though, Jefferson and the ‘Democratic Republicans’ subverted this system, establishing Representative Democracy at both a State and Federal level. Setting the stage for the modern world’s first war between Representative Democracies in the 1860s. The South would not accept the election of a President hostile to slavery, even though Lincoln said he had no powers to limit it except in the newly settled lands of the West. The Civil War began because the right of the South to secede was denied. This wasn’t exceptional: Switzerland had been just as intolerant of the attempted secession of the ‘Sonderbund’, but managed to crush it in just 25 days, in a war that gets left out of most discussions of democratic rights.

During the Cold War, the USA showed no respect for democracy when it looked likely to produce a result they disliked. They blocked elections in Vietnam when the French pulled out. Used threats to exclude the Communists from power in France and Italy. Maintained Franco in Spain. Had a hand in many coups, in Africa, Asia and Latin America and also the coup in Greece.

Since the 1980s, they’ve found that Representative Democracies can usually be manipulated. Not always: in Serbia they had to organise the Kosovo War to convince the Serbs not to keep electing a leader the USA disapproved of. In Russia, they discredited themselves by backing Yeltsin’s corrupt authoritarian rule.

They also lost China. In 1989, lots of young people thought that they could do better without the Communist Party running everything. At the time I thought they were right. But Russia and Eastern Europe got poorer and worse as they naively followed Western advice. China learned better.

I think there was always an element of flimflam in China’s apparent Westernisation. Deng Xiaoping’s system was always a Mixed Economy. Private property of a western sort was never established and still has not been established. The currency cannot be easily converted, ruling out the money-games that severely damaged the Asian ‘tiger’ economies in the 1990s. This has happened because the Communist Party stayed in control.

The West dislikes this, obviously:

“China’s government on Wednesday issued a lengthy justification of its commitment to autocratic rule by the Communist party entitled The Building of Political Democracy.

“The document, China’s first policy “white paper” on the subject, left no doubt that Beijing defines democracy very differently from western governments or domestic dissidents who think it should mean giving ordinary people a real role in choosing their leaders…” (China issues first ‘white paper’ on democracy, Mure Dickie, Financial Times October 19 2005.)

Italy chose Berlusconi and may chose him again. Back in the 1920s, a large chunk of them chose Mussolini. Hitler was democratically elected and was wildly popular in his first few years. The USA chose Bush Junior by a bigger margin than Britain ever gave Thatcher. If China should ever opt for US-style elections, a candidate to watch would be Mao Zedong’s grandson, who could tap into Mao’s vast continuing popularity among ordinary Chinese. There is a precedent: Napoleon the 3rd winning the French Presidential election in 1848, and then overturning the nice new liberal constitution in 1851. The French voters overwhelmingly endorsed this in 1852, to the dismay of liberal writer / exiled politician Victor Hugo, who likened it to a vote declaring that 2 + 2 = 5. This seems to be the origin of a phrase now best known from George Orwell, though Dostoevsky plays about with the notion in Notes from Underground. Hugo never did explain why voters prefering a system he disliked was equivalent to nonsense that could be readily refuted by counting pebbles.

Dickie also sneers at China’s flourishing system of village democracy, saying “Pro-democracy activist and foreign journalists who have tried to report on developments in the village have been beaten and harassed.” Local activists are in just as much peril in Brazil or in the Republic of India, where Western-style elections are held for the central government. China has done better than India, under Mao as well as since Mao. Brazil has been a bit of a disaster and is chewing up the Amazon as a way to ease internal tensions.

I’ve not seen any Western commentator try to deal with China’s own explanation for why they are not going to import a Western system—the fact that they tried it before and it led to chaos, even worse than the chaos that opium-led free-trade had brought.

“China had a long history of feudal society, and when, from 1840 on, the Western imperialist powers launched, time and again, aggressive wars against China, the corrupt and weak feudal ruling class buckled, and China was reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society. For nearly 110 years after that, China became a target of plunder for almost all the imperialist countries, big and small…

“Through painstaking exploration and hard struggle, the Chinese people finally came to realize that mechanically copying the Western bourgeois political system and applying it to China would lead them nowhere. To accomplish the historic task of saving China and triumphing over imperialism and feudalism, the Chinese people needed new thought and new theories to open up a new road for the Chinese revolution and establish a totally new political system. The important historic task of leading the Chinese people to find this new road and establish a new system landed on the shoulders of the Chinese communists. In 1921, some progressive intellectuals who had studied the ideology of democracy and science combined Marxism and Leninism with the Chinese workers’ movement, and founded the CPC. After that, under the leadership of the CPC, the Chinese revolution entered the period of New Democracy, characterized by thorough opposition to imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism. After fighting bravely for 28 difficult years, China finally achieved national independence and the people’s liberation.

“As the vanguard of the Chinese working class, the Chinese people and the Chinese nation, the CPC has taken as its own task the realization and development of a people’s democracy right from the date of its founding. The goal of the CPC’s leadership of the people in revolutionary struggles is to realize democracy for the overwhelming majority of people, and not just for a minority of the people…

“That the people are the masters is the quintessence of China’s socialist democracy. In China, the publicly owned sector of the economy is the economic foundation of China’s socialist system. In the primary stage of socialism, the state persists in the basic economic system with public ownership playing a dominant role and diverse forms of ownership developing side by side and the distribution system in which to each according to his work is predominant while other forms of distribution exist side by side. This ensures, from the perspective of economic foundation, that China’s democracy will not be manipulated by capital; it is not a democracy for a small number of people, but one for the overwhelming majority of the people…

“On the other, criminal activities, such as sabotage of the socialist system, endangering state security and public security, infringement on citizens’ rights of the person or their democratic rights, embezzlement, bribery and dereliction of duty, are penalized according to law so as to safeguard the fundamental interests of the broad masses.

“The practice of democratic centralism also requires that ‘the majority be respected while the minority is protected.’ We are against the anarchic call for ‘democracy for all,’ and against anybody placing his own will above that of the collective.” [].

Back in 1989, I was under the impression that there had been an actual ‘restoration of capitalism’. I also wasn’t expecting the Soviet Union to go downhill rapidly when they broke their own system and tried to copy the West. One lives and learns, at least some of us learn.

The current US view is built around The Individual, a Standardised Individualist who ideally would operate autonomously on a global level playing field where no state intervention was needed. They make concessions to reality from time to time. They can be realistic when they would get a serious pain in the wallet from acting as if they believed their own propaganda (unless of course the propaganda should be true, but deep down they are not sure). Despite which, most US citizens genuinely believe that inside every foreigner, there is a Unit of the Standardised Individualist struggling to get out. This isn’t propaganda; what they did in the former Soviet Union and now in Iraq makes no sense unless the people running the show really believed that they were liberating something natural and pre-existing, rather than trying to create it in a very alien cultural context.

In China, they had their chance and blew it. If they had rehabilitated Eastern Europe and Russia in the way that they rehabilitated Western Europe, West Germany and Japan in the 1950s, then they might indeed have secured global domination. But back then, they were Keynesians, dominated by an East Coast elite with some idea of how to be a ruling class. From the 1980s, the USA has been dominated by characters who should be called the New Backwoodsmen, cunning at working the levers of power within their own society, full of self-confident ignorance about the wider world.

China now produces a lot of the ordinary industrial goods that are consumed in Europe and the USA. China could cut ties and get along, with much hardship but it is a population used to hardship. The West? The West finds a small war in Iraq intolerable and has lost the capacity for a lot of the routine industrial production that the Chinese now do. China also has raw materials and its own oil, maybe more oil than they officially admit. One must be thankful that China has no great ambition beyond living its own life within its own traditional territory.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2005.

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