By the EAF Editorial Board (Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jill Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman).
This article was originally published by the East Asia Forum.
Many in the West want China’s system of governance to be ‘more like theirs’. Whether the Chinese polity would be easier to deal with, more reliable or stable, if it were somehow transformed into some form of representative and democratic government at this moment is a question that is rarely asked. China’s system of government is rooted in its revolutionary past and while it has changed a great deal since reform and opening up forty years ago, it remains a one-party state of which the Chinese Communist Party has unquestionable control. That is the state which the United States and other democracies recognised as the legitimate government of China after US President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972.
All systems of government have their unique history and evolution. Nor is there any cookie cutter liberal democracy that is exactly the same as any other, even those that are very close in their historical and institutional genesis, such as Australia and New Zealand. That’s why they remain sovereign. In varying degrees, the international political system is a plurality of political systems that order their economic and political relationships around system differences based on respect for sovereignty.
In an age of geopolitical transition and uncertainty, questions about respect for sovereignty and non-interference have bubbled rapidly to the surface after decades of dormancy. The spectacle of Russia-gate in the election of President Donald Trump in the United States is a notable example. But emphasis on the ideological divide between the United States and China, quiescent when China was not such a powerful state as it is today, now presses in on all aspects of dealings between the two countries.
China, despite the reassertion of Communist Party power and discipline under the presidency of Xi Jinping, with its ‘socialist market economy’ remains open to the international economy in a way in which no other large Communist one-party state — most notably the former Soviet Union — has before. Despite oppression around maintaining the authority of the state, including over freedom in the exchange of information, Chinese citizens enjoy unparalleled opportunity to engage in the international community, to travel and to study in countries around the world.
The Chinese state has given new and elevated attention to guarding the integrity of the political regime under which it is governed, but it professes no ambition, in policy or in principle, to export its political system to, or to interfere in the political systems of other countries. That is an issue that is now enthusiastically contested by some in the West, but the evidence for their case is still weak.
In our lead essay this week, Zha Daojiong suggests that one explanation for the pessimism about Chinese governance in the West is the return to polemics reminiscent of the earlier years of political reform. But, he explains, Xi seized political advantage because of the sentiment for change in China. The country needs leadership that functions with authority to restrain the vested interest groups within the state, military and Party that have been hijacking policy to feather their own nests. Economic growth needed to shift towards meeting the people’s demands for a ‘better life’.
‘Along with the creation of the National Supervision Commission, which will administer party discipline over all public servants (including non-party members) to ensure they act in the public interest, the message for loyalty is loud and clear’, Zha points out. ‘Still, it will be essential for Xi to hear challenges and take feedback on board from the leadership circle when ideas are flawed and policies produce poor results. Absence of disagreements could mean that he becomes more insulated and prone to mistakes’.
So what principles might assist dealings between the world’s largest established power and the world’s second largest, emerging power, with their different political systems — both highly interdependent economically through global markets, and with many common, conflicting and overlapping political and security interests?
Former US Treasury Secretary Henry (Hank) Paulson, who has more experience than most in navigating the US–China relationship, sets out a handy practitioner’s guide on this subject in his book Dealing with China. Paulson has worked with dozens of China’s top leaders, including Xi Jinping, and argues that the world’s greatest challenges, from climate change to nuclear proliferation and global financial stability, will be easier to tackle if the United States and China work together cooperatively and will be vastly more difficult if they work at cross-purposes on them.
Paulson’s starting point is that the United States can best advance the economic agenda with China if it negotiates hard for greater market liberalisation and openness to competition, helping reformers led by President Xi Jinping to achieve China’s own economic goals as well as those of the United States. A Bilateral Investment Treaty on which both countries were earlier engaged is critical to this approach. Support for reform in China means pushing for greater transparency and improved adherence to universal standards that cover the widest possible range of activities and systems. Transparency is the best way to fight corruption and to strengthen the confidence of Chinese citizens — and foreign companies and investors — in their government and in the rule of law. Asserting US competitive leadership while pragmatically accommodating China at the global table on all major issues is also part of Paulson’s recipe for successful management of the relationship with China.
But above all else, ‘facts, not dreams’ should direct dealings between the United States and China, Paulson concludes. China is very different from the United States, and Americans ‘cannot be guided only by the understandable desire that it become more like us’. The need is to know as much as possible about what is going on inside China and be self-confident and realistic enough to focus on what is doable.
That would seem to be quite good advice.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
Image Credit: Flickr.