The controversial “Thucydides trap” argument has sparked a heated debate since 2013, when President Xi Jinping of China told a cluster of western guests: “We must all work together to avoid Thucydides’ trap.” Later, this concept was elucidated by Professor Graham Allison in his articles, talks and famous book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap. So, what exactly is this Thucydides ’trap?
The phrase originates from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who had observed that the Peloponnesian war (431BC-404BC) was caused by the growth of Athens, the rising power, and the corresponding fear of Sparta, the ruling power. Currently, this historical scenario is applied to discuss the relations between China, the emerging power, and the United States (US), the established power. The rise of China and the relative decline of the US allude that a gradual power imbalance may repeat history and lead to war. In fact, 12 of the 16 historical power shifts have resulted in catastrophe. More importantly, this narrative, to some extent, suggests the current dominant power is taking preemptive measures against the rising one. In reality, the US-initiated Sino-American trade war reflects this precautionary attitude.
The world may argue that although China has become more assertive than before, this war is the consequence of President Donald Trump’s radical foreign policy. Consequently, Trump started this war even though it may harm the Sino-American economic ties, leading to a negative economic impact on both sides. As a matter of fact, the Sinophobic turn in Washington is essentially a bipartisan consensus that realistically considers the economic facts thanks to strategic thinking. Based on the research of Alyssa Leng and Roland Rajah, the US had been at the helm of world trade until 2000, trading with over 80% of countries worldwide. However, in 2018, this number has plummeted to just 30%, as China has replaced the position of the US in 128 of 190 countries. Thus, “this bipartisan shift may have coincided with Trump’s arrival but the very fact that it is bipartisan demonstrates that it was not Trump who created it. Like a rooster at dawn, his crowing simply called forth the inevitably rising sun”. This situation raises the following questions: which side suffers the least? If the US achieves its goal of putting down China, who will win? According to Bruno Macaes, “in the end, the question of whether a new world order will be born, or the status quo preserved is less important than the question of whether the outcome will be determined peacefully or whether China and America are destined for war”.
This does look like the inevitable Thucydides’ trap, but where is the solution? It is conceivable that the trade war is just a sign that might follow more fierce disputes militarily. As historical determinists, Professor Graham Allison and Professor Jonathan Holslag both believe that the strategic transformation of structural forces between China and the US are doomed to conflict that has already emerged and will transpire more dramatically, ineluctably reshaping the global geopolitical landscape. Currently, China is not strong enough to compete with the US in general and “the balance of power could continue to be in America’s favor for quite a long time into the future.” It is then justifiable for the US to want to suppress China’s growth right now. However, I argue that the reality is far more complex than the aforementioned circumstance and there indeed exists some way to avoid this “inevitable” trap.
First, diplomacy and leadership in the US and China play pivotal roles in avoiding this dilemma. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argues that political leaders and elites are not “simply some kind of puppet of anonymous structural forces”, but can change the historical tendency, to some extent. He proposes “constructive realism” as a solution by saying, “agency—what leaders decide, and those elites who advise them shape— actually determines the future course of history”. By suggesting that based on reality, the leaders of both sides should differentiate between the non-negotiable and negotiable national interests, thus managing the Sino-American strategic competition. In this context, the China-represented authoritarian capitalism versus the US-led liberal capitalism, is able to compete without one devastating the other and finally let the winner prevail.
Similarly, Chinese prominent scholar Jin Canrong suggests that when drawing on the wisdom of the Chinese and American leaders and diplomats, the two countries should neither have a “Hot War” nor a “Cold War”. The first may result in total planetary destruction with the example of the two World Wars during which great losses were suffered due to militaristic action worldwide. The later might bring about a deconstruction of the entire international trade system. Because of today’s economic globalization, a “Cold War” would devastate our internationally integrated economy, specifically, the existing Sino-American interdependent economic connections.
Nevertheless, Professor Jin proposes that the two sides should have a “Chess War”, as a metaphor of playing chess, which denotes that the two sides should be more transparent, reveal their strategic capabilities and intentions and reasonably bargain with each other. This is analogous to Rudd’s approach of distinguishing clearly between the non-negotiable and negotiable national interests of both parties. Furthermore, Jin argues that when China develops to a certain level, it will comprehensively compete with the US in all aspects. The US, as a commercial and pragmatism-centered empire, will compromise and accept China’s position, thus forming the global bi-core leadership and co-governing the world. He argues that the new global system is akin to the Concert of Europe/Age of Metternich, the balance of European powers between the Napoleonic War and World War One. The notion is to forgive France, the war initiator, and invite it to be part of European leadership, maintaining peace in Europe for a whole century.
The second plausible approach to this dilemma can be taken from the angle of a third party. Facing the increasingly Sino-American tension and the potential outbreak of a proxy war, Professor T. V. Paul advocates for “Soft Balancing”, meaning small-scale countries relying on “international institutions, limited ententes” to unite and enhance their strength. Uniting smaller countries thwarts the threatening behavior of the rising or ruling powers through economic instruments or moral and legal condemnation, thereby avoiding the Thucydides’ Trap. By comparison, the military capabilities or “Hard Balancing” of a country, remain important, but are clearly not as cost-effective as the institutionally driven “soft” method. Taking the ASEAN states’ soft balancing strategy toward China as an example, in addition to aligning with the American navy as hard balancing tactics, the ASEAN has involved diverse institutional engagements such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea), the Chiang Mai Initiative and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. These measures not only benefit the ASEAN countries from the economic rise of China, but simultaneously limit China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea by the united voice of ASEAN. To some extent, this strategy alleviates the Sino-American hostility and competition for leadership in this area, allowing the countries involved to have a fighting chance in the race for power.
To summarize, both approaches are aimed at constructing the scarce asset through frequent diplomatic communication: trust. In the anarchical international system, due to the fact there is no central authority to enforce laws, international actors, in the course of interactions, are always suspicious of each other’s real intentions. Indeed, human beings are distrustful and forgetful, repeating 12 identical mistakes throughout history. As the Western philosopher George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, the Chinese poet Du Mu wrote about how a destroyed dynasty vanished before it could reflect on its mistakes. Du details that the later generations of the dynasty felt the impact of this failure, yet did not learn from the past, continuing the cycle of collapse. While Graham Allison believes that the US and China may be destined to a violent collision, his relevant Ted Talk leads one to believe that the last two power shifts of the world were peaceful. Between the US and Soviet Union power shift from the 1940s to the 1980s, and the UK, France and Germany power shift from the 1990s until now, demonstrated how we are able to break the cycle of destruction. Especially, the European power shift proved the importance of diplomatic leadership. Hopefully, as time progresses, mankind may learn to draw lessons from a series of historical tragedies. When the political leaders of the world face irreconcilable conflicts of interest, they will look into the dark and bottomless chasm in front of them and say, “that is indeed a very deep hole which we should not fall into.”
From our partner RIAC
The atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A historical reflection
A week ago, U.S Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, posted a tweet on his account on Twitter, reflecting on the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the devastation of nuclear weapons. In his own words: “We reaffirm that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”. A nuclear war can never be won indeed, however nuclear weapons have been used before. Regarding the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can that be described as a war crime, a military necessity, or just another implementation of realism, where there are no boundaries towards victory?
Importance and background of the event
On December 28, 1942, the President of the U.S, Theodore Roosevelt, authorized the “Manhattan Project”, which was created to weaponize nuclear energy. It was clear by then that WWII entered a new phase of competition and struggle, with superpowers like the U.S trying to develop the first nuclear weapons, to assert themselves as the only nation capable of developing nuclear weapons.
On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died at the age of 63, and Harry Truman was named the 33rd President of the USA. Now, the whole project was on his shoulders and soon a very difficult decision had to be made. To stop the war in the Pacific, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb, known as “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. Three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, known as “Fat Man”. As a result, Emperor Hirohito announced on August 15, 1945, the unconditional surrender of Japan, officially ending the Second World War.
According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the bomb detonated in Hiroshima had an explosive yield equal to 15.000 tons of TNT, destroying 70% of the city and causing more than 140.000 deaths. 70% of the victims in Hiroshima suffered severe burns, and most of them died on the same day due to radiation exposure. In Nagasaki, the bomb that was dropped by the U.S leveled 6.7 km2 of the city, killing more than 74.000 people, while ground temperatures reached 4.000 Celsius degrees. Five years after the explosions there were increased incidents of leukemia among the survivors, and in later years there were increased cases of different types of cancer.
Up until this day, historians argue about the use of the atomic bomb. Some argue that it was used for military reasons while other historians think it was unnecessary and was only used to intimidate the Soviet Union.
Nuclear annihilation: A terrible success
After Truman became the 33rd President of the United States, it was clear that a huge decisionwas laying on his shoulders. His country had the chance to finish one of the deadliest wars in human history but with the cost of corruption of human morality. He was in favor of the operation as he saw no alternative to ending the war against the Japanese. He later called the use of the atomic bomb, “a terrible success”.
The biggest argument in favor of the use of the bomb was the fact that this tactic would prevent further casualties from the American side. With a direct invasion of Japan, advisors near Truman expected that casualties could range from 200.000 to 1.000.000 American soldiers. In addition, the USA predicted the casualties from the Japanese side, which ranged from 100.000 to 1.000.000 depending on the duration of the invasion and the possibility of a Soviet invasion from the north.
The use of the atomic bomb was the best way to finish the war once and for all without having to deploy more military troops and continuing the war for more months. It was the fastest and easiest way to make Japan surrender. It was clear that by 1945, Japan was committed to the essence of total war, and the Japanese leaders refused to surrender. Emperor Hirohito himself, being pressured by people like Hideki Tojo, the prime minister of Japan, kept declaring to his people that they will not surrender whatsoever. Combined with the Bushido code -the way of the warrior- that many soldiers followed where they were trained to fight until death, made the plan to invade Japan more and more repulsive.
The statement from Delfin Jaranilla, a judge from the Philippines, and a member of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, that took place on April 29, 1946, best describes the thinking of the people that were in favor of a swift end to WWII. In his own words: “If a means is justified by an end, the use of the atomic bomb was justified for it brought Japan to her knees and ended the horrible war. If the war had gone longer, without the use of the atomic bomb, how many thousands and thousands of helpless men, women, and children would have needlessly died and suffered?”
Nuclear annihilation: A terrible disaster
Although there were a lot of Truman’s advisors who believed that the use of the atomic bomb was the only way to end the war, there was strong opposition against this option. Assistant Secretary of the Navy and member of the Interim Committee on Atomic Matters, Ralph A. Bard, tried to convince President Truman that a standard naval blockade would be enough to make the Japanese surrender. He wanted the U.S not to drop the atomic bomb or at least first give a warning to the population.
The idea was that if the U.S had just warned them about the bomb they would consider surrendering. Bard submitted his resignation at about the time the Interim Committee made its recommendation to Truman on the use of the bomb which he opposed. In 1946 he received the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal. He died on April 5th, 1975.
In addition, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are considered by many historians and authors as war crimes that reach the level of genocide. Historian Martin Sherwin argued that it should be considered a genocide. “The bombings were gratuitous at best and genocidal at worst”. Especially in the case of the Nagasaki bombing which came only three days after the Hiroshima bombing, many argue that it was completely unnecessary, totally inhumane, and fundamentally immoral.
The historical point of view: There was no other way
How will history judge our actions? Are we certain that specific actions from individuals will be judged accordingly? For better or worse, historians tend to disagree on historical events, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are no exemption.
Some historians believe that the use of the atomic bomb was the only way to convince Japan to surrender. The militaristic and nationalistic propaganda that was promoted since the Great Depression, convinced the Japanese people to fight until the end. According to Richard B. Frank, an American military historian and the author of the book “Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire”, the necessity of the atomic bomb as a tool of destruction was crucial to saving thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.
By 1945, the U.S military had intercepted important messages and information from the Japanese army and it was clear that Japan’s armed forces were determined to fight a final destructive battle in their homeland against the Allied invasion. This tactic was called Ketsu Go in Japanese, which can be freely translated to Operation Decisive. The idea was that American morale was fragile and could be shattered by heavy losses in the initial invasion. As a result, the American side would happily negotiate an end to the war without implementing the idea of unconditional Japanese surrender.
The historical point of view: The competition with the Soviet Union
According to plenty of revisionist historians, the use of the atomic bomb was completely unnecessary, and it was not the reason for Japan’s surrender. Instead, they point out that the entrance of the Soviet Union in the war against Japan on August 8, 1945, was the only reason Japan surrendered.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a Japanese-American historian specializing in Soviet history and the relations between the Soviet Union, Japan, and the United States, agrees on the importance of the Soviet Union as a major threat to the U.S. His book, “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan”, is a revisionist study of the end of the Pacific War. He suggests that the only reason Japan surrendered in WWII was because of the Soviet Union, advancing from Manchuria and it had nothing to do with the use of the atomic bomb which he viewed as completely unnecessary. In one chapter of his book, he states that:
“As long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender, the Japanese Empire had no alternative but to fight on with all its strength for the honor and existence of the Motherland. However, based on the available evidence, it is clear that the two atomic bombs alone were not decisive in inducing Japan to surrender. Despite their destructive power, the atomic bombs were not sufficient to change the direction of Japanese diplomacy. The Soviet invasion was. Without the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese would have continued to fight until numerous atomic bombs, a successful allied invasion of the home islands, or continued aerial bombardments, combined with a naval blockade, rendered them incapable of doing so”. (Hasegawa 2005, p. 298).
The historical point of view: The human aspect
There are historians who focus on the humanitarian aspect of the bombings rather than if it was a military necessity or the decisive factor in Japan’s surrender. It is more important to remember that human lives were destroyed and thousands of people were affected by these bombings that directly changed the route of history.
Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology who studies the history of nuclear weapons. In 2013 he published an article with post-bombing photographs of the two cities, condemning the scale of damage that the U.S caused in Japan and focusing more on the catastrophe rather than the reasons behind using the atomic bombs in the first place. From a short excerpt from his article we can understand his point of view that does not justify whatsoever the atomic bombings:
“What is the right view to have about the bombings? An ugly, troublesome, disturbing one; right between those extremes. The atomic bomb was a weapon used to inflict tremendous human suffering. This is true whether you think its use was justified or not. If an atomic bomb were to go off over your city, the damage would be horrifying, the death toll staggering. But it’s a level of destruction that people should try to appreciate for what it is, a realistic possibility, not a clean science-fiction ending or a blow to be shrugged off”.
Alongside this point of viewing these events purely from the humanitarian perspective comes the famous argument of whether or not the U.S had warned the Japanese civilians about the atomic bombings. On the internet, anyone can find certain photos displaying B-29 aircrafts dropping leaflets which the Americans used to call LeMay leaflets, giving a warning to the Japanese civilians about the intentions of the U.S to drop atomic bombs on their country.
In one of his articles for the Washington Post, historian Gregg Herken, author of the book The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War and Brotherhood of the Bomb, 2014, exposes myths regarding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. One of those myths is the fact that the Japanese were warned about the bombings specifically in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those LeMay leaflets were dropped indeed, but Herken stresses the fact that nothing was mentioned about the use of such a powerful weapon. In addition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians were never warned about these attacks because the US feared that their attack would be sabotaged by the Japanese.
In this day and age, we should all take any given information with a pinch of salt, since even historical events are up for debate as to their necessity. With that being said since the U.S never warned the civilians of the two cities that were completely destroyed, should we consider this an actual crime against humanity? The decision indeed saved thousands if not millions of lives, but what happens when we need to evaluate the corruption of human morality that comes with difficult decisions like the one that President Truman had to go through?
To this day, none of the American Presidents have apologized for the event. Barack Obama was the first U.S President to set foot in the destroyed city of Hiroshima. He paid tribute to the survivors of the attack and talked about the need for a moral revolution regarding the use of nuclear power. However, he did not apologize for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As of this point in 2022, it seems like the mindset of the U.S regarding these events is set on a military necessity mode. Without a formal apology, we will probably expect more tweets and posts from U.S officials reminding us of their own decisions that led to the destruction of two cities.
One might think that there are no easy decisions throughout history and that the hardest choices cannot be seen at first glance. The point though is, how can we learn from these events so that we will not repeat them? We might be on the verge of a nuclear detonation again and if it comes to the stage of a third world war, we will know it will be fought with nuclear weapons. However, if we reach such a stage, then most certainly, a fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones.
Taiwan’s Only Hope: Nuclear Capability
Taiwan, a wonderful island nation, has had a relationship of conflict with China since its inception. With full faith in democracy, Taiwan has grown into a well-developed society, to the surprise and irritation of China. Russia’s war with Ukraine, followed by a policy decision by the West not to directly interfere in the war, has heightened fears that China will take military action against Taiwan.
In a situation in which North Korea tests new missiles every two months to show the world that it has nuclear weapons, the world does not know if the people of North Korea have freedom, three meals a day and adequate medical facilities. North Korean President Kim Jong-un runs a brutal regime with the tacit support of China that threatens the peace of the Indo-Pacific region. There is no news from North Korea about how many people have died and how they have coped with Covid-19. It should be remembered that former U.S. President Donald Trump and his team had negotiated with North Korea for denuclearization.
Israel is a tiny country in the Gulf, a non-signatory to the NPT and CTPT. The international community knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. Are any countries going to interfere with Israel? It should be noted that all Gulf countries, beginning with Saudi Arabia, are seeking reconciliation with Israel.
Even though there have been full-scale wars between India and Pakistan after independence in 1947 and continued action against cross-border terrorism, the possession of nuclear weapons by both countries works as a deterrent and self-restraint to both countries, so that the conflicts never get out of hand.
Let’s not forget that the world, especially the U.S. during the Cold War, looked amused when Pakistan built its nuclear weapons – with the help of China – to contain India. It should be remembered that this changed the geo-political situation in South Asia. Under these circumstances, it is despicable for the international community to be a mute spectator as imperialist China attempts to arbitrarily annex Taiwan, against international law. If China started to deploy its military, the statements of the UN or any individual country would be rubbish. It won’t serve any good purpose. It’s good to remember that, every time China’s Foreign Ministry officials – and even President Xi Jinping- say that they will use all their might to annex Taiwan if Taipei City goes for independence, they demonstrate that Beijing is well-prepared for military action against Taiwan.
It is shocking that even the democratic country of India is silent on the Taiwan issue. Countries in the region may consider that Taiwan is not their problem. Yet, every country that hesitates to curb China’s hegemony, especially East Asian countries, will have to pay a heavy price in the future. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger failed to predict the course of China’s leaders and the biggest historical mistake he made was to ask Washington to give economic aid to China in return for its newfound friendship. It is absurd that the same Chinese state is presently trying to rewrite the world order with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
International relations are contested. Yet, those who understand the behavior of the states in the international power system and still hesitate to react to the Taiwan issue, only cause more problems for the Indo-Pacific. At any cost, it is the duty of the international community to protect the status quo of democratic ‘Taiwan’. The international community should take advantage of the time available now to defend Taiwan’s status quo. Decisions made later will not yield any results. The international community should wake up now before the sound of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine prompts China to take similar military actions against Taiwan.
The recent visit of the U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan – along with her East Asian tour to meet with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen- has encouraged America’s continued stance on Taiwan. However, provoking China will not help Taiwan.
Today, the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific region is under the shadow of war with the Taiwan issue. Meanwhile, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Feng has not only expressed his strong condemnation to the U.S. Ambassador to China Professor Nicholas Burns, but also said that the U.S. will pay a price for its mistake. It is worth recalling that during last week’s virtual meeting between the U.S. President Joe Biden and the Chinese President, Jinping, the latter observed that China will not be idle if “Taiwan provokes us.”
With Russia possessing a large number of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology, the West fears that if they comes to Ukraine’s side directly, it could turn into a nuclear World War III. As a result, they are practicing self-restraint and providing covert assistance to Ukraine, so that the war has been going on for 163 days. If the West thinks that diplomacy is only about sustaining the negotiations and not about resolution, then the United Nations has been reduced to a weak body in dealing with international issues. International law has no teeth in today’s environment. So, it can only bark.
The world must understand the pain that Ukraine is going through today. The international community may feel pain for the people of Ukraine. Yet who can share in their grief? The ‘neo-realist’ thinker Kenneth Waltz, in an article in 1981 stated, “The reasons for preventing war between the superpowers since 1945 is nuclear weapons”. Therefore, the only way to keep ‘Taiwan’ from being pushed into the situation of Ukraine is to immediately provide them with nuclear weapons technology. Realizing the grace of time, it is inevitable that the U.S. should provide nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to Taiwan (to be positioned in Taipei City) for self-defense targeting at least three of the major cities of China including the capital Beijing. No one should have a doubt about this strategy. This will surely be the only solution available to change China’s attitude towards Taiwan and to make the Indo-Pacific region continue in peace.
On Chinese Democracy
In recent years, China has been following the adage that “he who controls the discourse controls the world” with increasing vigour. That is, the first side to describe a given phenomenon, with a new coinage emerging, determines global attitudes towards it. There are two nations, one on either side of the Pacific, the two main economies of the world. Both declare they have a constitutional republican system and respect for human rights. Yet, one is considered a model of democracy and an example to be followed, while the other is seen as an archaic authoritarian system built upon censorship and repression. We are, of course, talking about the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.
As recently as 15–20 years ago, it was generally accepted that the U.S. version of democracy was the model to aspire to, but this is no longer the case. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and the various reactions thereto around the world, Western journalists are increasingly giving in to the temptation to characterize this period of world history as a struggle between “democracy” (represented by the West, led by the United States, and “correct” non-Western countries such as Japan and Lithuania) and “authoritarianism” (China, Russia and the “enfants terrible of world politics” that joined them). One of the fallouts, therefore, is that there have been new turns to the discussion about whether China’s socio-political system can be called “democracy”.
Western observers are unanimous in their appraisal: “there’s no democracy in China.” However, the problem is that the very concept of “democracy” (a certain “power of the people”) is fluid. It is much like a “healthy lifestyle”—it is easy to assume that you are leading a healthy lifestyle, while your rival is not. How can you know for sure, though?
Even political analysis falls short. For instance, any researcher who was brought up in the Western paradigm of political science will argue that if there are no direct democratic elections and a separation of powers, this is no “democracy” but something entirely different. Neither exists in China, yet this does not stop Chinese scholars from proclaiming—with no hint of irony—that their country is indeed democratic, only in a distinctly Chinese way.
It is not only the definition of “democracy” that is fluid, so too is the genesis of democratic traditions. For example, it is generally accepted that the Western neo-liberal model can be traced back to the democratic practices of Ancient Greece and that the subsequent history of humankind is a single process of encouraging and improving such practices. However, what most people do not know is that democracy, even in Athens, was an expression of the oligarchic elite’s power at best, and this was done with the help of populism and appeals to the legitimacy of the “popular opinion.” A similar situation was the case with the Veche in medieval Veliky Novgorod. At the same time, proto-democratic procedures (for example, the election of chiefs among nomads or the self-government of agricultural communities in Ancient China) existed among all the peoples of the world in one form or another, and it is a mystery why some practices led to “good democracy,” while others led to “bad authoritarianism.”
Thus, when the Chinese talk about their own “thousand-year traditions of democracy,” they are not paltering with the truth, but sincerely believe it to be true. They call the political system they now have “democratic,” with China’s Constitution containing a reference to “a socialist state governed by the people’s democratic dictatorship, led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants.” Who said democracy was anything other than that? And who endowed someone with the right to decide what democracy is or is not?
It should be noted here that the term “democracy” has long been absent in the Chinese tradition. In fact, the word “minzhu” (民主, “the power of the people” or “the people are the masters”) was brought by Sun Yat-sen from Japan in the early 20th century. This was merely a re-rendering of the Japanese term “mingshu” (民主), which itself came from the Western notion of “power of the people.” The Hanzi and Kanji (which the Japanese originally adopted from China) are identical, but the wording first came from Japanese for a fact—much as the word “gongchanzhui,” 共产主义, meaning communism, as well as other “-zhui”-words (主义), which is something like the English “-ism”—and never appeared in classical Chinese texts.
On the one hand, the term “democracy” is borrowed, and so too is its understanding. On the other hand, the term has no historical base and can be filled with any content. Or, rather, its understanding can be corrected for the sake of political expediency or local conditions. And that is exactly what has happened to “democracy.”
In China, the term appeared on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution and the overthrow the Manchu-led Qing imperial dynasty. For Sun Yat-sen and his cohort, it was important that the “power of the people” (“minzhu”) was directly opposed to the “power of the sovereign” (“junzhu”, 君主). That is, any political system where the head of state is not the sole sovereign is seen as a democracy. Incidentally, Sun Yat-sen used the word “minquan” (民主, “sovereignty of the people”) in addition to “minzhu” (民主) to denote democracy, although most people consider these terms to be identical.
In any case, if we proceed from Sun Yat-sen’s understanding of democracy, we can say that a democratic state was founded in China in 1912, since power was seized by the party, and the party consists of the people and reflects the interests of the people. This is fundamentally different to the situation where power belonged to the Son of Heaven (the Emperor’s official title).
Of course, China’s political system of the 1910s to the 1940s—that is, before the Communist Party ascended to power—was far from the high standards of neoliberal democracy. If we were to put a label on it, we would say that it was a combination of the power of the oligarchy and generals, multiplied by the partocracy (the ruling Kuomintang party) and the cult of its leader Chiang Kai-shek. But this, of course, was also called “democracy.”
When the Communists came to power, Mao Zedong wanted to show that China would be a democracy—not the “bad” kind of democracy that reigned under Chiang Kai-shek, but a different, “new” kind of democracy. This “new democracy” (新民主), as it was called, was seen as a stopgap on the way to building a socialist society. It was still a single-party system (only it was a different party that was in power), and the position of leader (Mao Zedong) looked almost indistinguishable from that of emperor in the end.
The death of Mao Zedong was followed by a series of reforms that laid the foundation for the modern Chinese political system, where elections do take place, although the Party’s monopoly on power remains very much intact. The Chinese people define this phenomenon as “the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class” (a quote from the preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China). It is essentially a partocratic regime based on the one that once existed in the Soviet Union, only reimagined and improved.
One of the most striking features of China’s political system is the absence of the separation of powers. Officially, the only “state power” is the national people’s congresses—the institution through which the people exercise their power under the Constitution. People’s congresses are a multi-layered pyramid, at the very bottom of which direct and quite democratic elections are indeed held. What is more, the higher people’s congresses are made up of members of the lower ones, meaning that the pyramid works as one big filter. Thus, the people actually play an indirect role in the formation of the highest body of state power – the National People’s Congress (NPC).
It just so happens that most members of the people’s congresses at all levels are communists. While some opposition-minded figures may appear as if out of nowhere at the bottom of the pyramid from time to time, they will not make it past the multi-stage filter, and only proven and reliable people will end up in the NPC. The vast majority of these (although not all) are members of the Communist Party. It is only natural, therefore, that they act within the framework of party discipline and go along with decisions adopted by party congresses in the past.
The workings of this system are quite easy to trace if you look at key personnel decisions. For example, the party leadership for the next five years will be elected this autumn at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The new convocation of the NPC will convene somewhat later in March, where the President of the People’s Republic of China will be elected (or re-elected). Therefore, it would be logical to assume that it will be the General Secretary of the Central Committee elected (or re-elected) at the autumn Congress.
Other key appointments will be made in a similar fashion. For example, the second-highest person in the party hierarchy will become the head of government. Is that democratic? If you were to ask China’s idea-mongers, they would tell you that it most certainly is. The NPC is formed as a result of multi-stage elections. Theoretically, parties other than the CPC can compete for a parliamentary majority. But the main thing is that the Party represents the interests of the people, meaning that the power of the party is the “power of the people.”
Are Chinese people aware that their understanding of “democracy” is different from Western standards? Of course they are. Are they about the abandon their system in order to conform to Western standards? Of course not. What is more, Chinese politicians have been actively using the term “democracy” in their official rhetoric and stressing that democracy exists in China too. They do this in defiance of the West and its “monopoly on deciding where there is democracy and where it is absent.” China realizes that the West uses this monopoly to exert pressure on foreign policies of its opponents and seeks to demonopolize this function and achieve parity in the struggle for control over the information discourse at the very least.
This is most evident not in the concept of “democracy,” but rather in the concept of “human rights.” From a Western point of view, human rights are first and foremost the right of the individual to do or have something contrary to or regardless of the interests of society or the state. The classic liberal understanding of human rights is the triad of fundamental natural rights put forward by the British political philosopher John Locke, namely, the right to “life, liberty, and property” (the understanding is that the state was created to guarantee these rights, even though they may be contrary to the interests of the state).
For China, the very notion that the interests of the individual and the state may not coincide is inconceivable. The Western understanding of human rights thus not have any foundation. The Chinese concept of “human rights” (also absent in the traditional political and legal system) is also different. Human rights, as the Chinese understand the term (at least those I have had the chance to talk to), means, first of all, the right to food and a decent quality of life, and the state exists to ensure this. This implies that the highest interests of the state and the highest interests of the individual are one and the same.
Thus, as long as there is economic growth in the country and people are fed and clothed, the Chinese version of democracy and human rights will be supported by its people. And the idea that all the countries in the world will, as globalization marches forward, eventually adopt the Western socio-political system is no longer popular or seen as a given.
After the West emerged victorious from the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s and everyone wanted to be like the winners, it was the United States who perhaps had the moral right to say which countries were “democratic” and which were not, and everyone listened. What is more, both China and Russia sincerely wanted to become a part of the “global West.” But when it became clear that they would never occupy a place other than the periphery in this pro-Western global model, and that Western society had become a prisoner of its own agenda (poorly understood and not at all appealing for the “non-West”), people started to voice their criticism of the West’s monopoly on the right to play the role of arbiter.
Nowhere can these voices be heard louder than in Russia and China, and to some it may seem that they are singing this tune in unison. At the same time, the two countries have a number of differences and contradictions, and the Chinese political agenda is even less clear than the Western one. Thus, Russia and China should not be lumped together into some kind of “axis of authoritarianism,” not only because there is no military–political alliance between the two countries (this is just a formality), but also because the terms “democracy” and “authoritarianism” are little more than “labels” that rivals in the current political climate tag each other with in the struggle for control over the information discourse.
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