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China's historical concept of governance and its modern fate: Lessons for other countries

Josef Gregory Mahoney



No civilization or culture has emerged perfectly formed from the cradle of history and none have fully realized their own dreams of progress. None have demonstrated an ability to fully liberate the creative potential and social justice of their own societies. These truths appear self-evident and yet so much of history is littered with claims to the contrary. For example, in the Book of Rites, Confucius lamented the inadequacies of his contemporaries but valorized ancient kings, claiming they had achieved datong or "great harmony", with the right leaders using the right rituals, and describing their achievements in terms that would make a modern socialist turn red with envy or embarrassment.

But Confucius' claim was even less spurious than one made thousands of year later, in 1992, when Francis Fukuyama influentially argued the United States had reached the finish line of history first — an assertion he came to regret following the United States' second invasion of Iraq and clear declines at home and abroad in the decades that followed as the US squandered $8 trillion on destruction and division and another $5 trillion on failed pandemic responses, with more than 1 million deaths and overall economic losses estimated at $14 trillion.

As Mao Zedong wrote in his classic poem Snow (1936), "All are past and gone! / For truly great men / Look to this age alone." Indeed, Mao and others of his generation had their own quarrels with Confucius and other towering figures of Chinese history, as well as foreign imperialism, and after surviving the long odds of the Long March, Mao's praise for his contemporaries is well-understood. Of course, we remember Mao and the Communist Party of China more for what came after the Long March—including winning the revolution and establishing New China — which led step-by-step to unprecedented developments such as lifting more than 800 million out of abject poverty, eliminating extreme poverty altogether and establishing a middle-income population of 400 million — which exceeds by a third the entire population of the US. But is it not the case that Chinese leaders from Mao to the present have been the first to point out their own shortcomings, saying again and again that China has not yet reached its full development potential and still has a lot of work to do?

A Marxist understanding of history asserts that progress is made through the positive resolution of contradictions. This is explained by the Marxist dialectic and negation-of-the-negation. Conflicts are resolved in favor of outcomes that increase progress, and the bellwether of progress is advancing human liberation and social justice. Nevertheless, this does not mean the past is erased or that the best parts of it should be forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. On the contrary, there are some ancient values that are carried forward through time that can be described as transhistorical "concrete universals". In China, such values include harmony and others, like datong, that share a common essence with today's concepts of socialism and communism. These remain the intrinsic civilizational and cultural values that are periodically updated and advanced by the instrumental values associated with good governance, which today is advanced by President Xi Jinping, who has made improved governance the cornerstone of his leadership.

One of the ways that values such as harmony, socialism and governance advance is through syncretism. This is a longstanding characteristic of traditional Chinese thinking as well as Chinese Marxism: a blending of the best ideas, sometimes including those that come from competing schools, and then adapting through change. This helps explain in part Chinese Marxism emphasis of Confucian concepts such as a xiaokang(well-off) society while also promoting Taoism's principle of promoting harmony between human and nature. But Chinese Marxism also opened the door to the best that Western and other civilizations had to offer, past and present, and in many respects continues to do so.

With these points in mind we can reflect on China's past and present and how these speak to a concept of governance that too often is misunderstood by others around the world, above all those inclined, whether through lazy, pseudo-intellectualism or patent dishonesty, to reductively interpret China's rise as an ideological competition and a threat to the sovereignty of others (i.e., the false binary of communist authoritarianism versus liberal democracy). In fact, the rise of the modern nation-state in the West and with it the anti-democratic practices associated with capitalism, imperialism and the zero-sum logics of hegemony forced China to emulate nationalism and even build a socialist market economy; but modern China's rise has never been aimed at diminishing the sovereignty of others unless the sovereignty of others is contingent on hegemony or imperialism.

However, we often hear four general counterclaims from anti-China critics. One, that China today is advancing hegemony through "debt traps" and the Belt and Road Initiative. This has been proven false repeatedly by numerous objective, scientific studies by non-Chinese scholars and research units around the world. Instead, we see reports from the United Nations and others praising China's remarkable contributions to global growth and development, helping to achieve the UN's 2030 sustainable development goals, above all in the Global South.

Two, that China weaponizes trade when other countries take antagonistic positions against Beijing. However, choosing to diminish a trading relationship due to poor bilateral relations is quite a different thing than what we see from Western countries that truly weaponize economic policies, imposing trade wars, economic sanctions, state and company blacklists and disconnections from the global financial system.

Three, that the mainland is asserting itself vis-à-vis Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Diaoyu Islands, and on the border with India: but in fact from the Beijing perspective these issues are not consistent with even a regional hegemonic paradigm. Rather these are issues directly related to historical as well as contemporary Chinese sovereignty claims and security needs.

Four, that China was expansionary in the past. It's true there were relatively brief periods centuries ago when the emperor's rule and regulations expanded too much, in the case of Vietnam and Korea, but these were relatively short-lived, always tenuous and ultimately corrected. In the case of Xizang and Xinjiang, sovereignty was extended over these areas centuries ago given the vital geographic relevance they have for Chinese security, a point well-proven again and again by foreign powers trying to subvert these areas to exercise control over China (e.g., Russia and the United Kingdom playing the "hundred year game over Xizang" and the US sparking trouble there in 1959, and continuing to meddle in affairs related to Xizang, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan). In other words, these areas involve both historical as well as ongoing and non-negotiable strategic reasons directly related to sovereignty that have long mandated and continue to mandate that these areas are an inalienable part of China.

Such concerns however should not distract us from the true, bigger question: why isn't China seeking hegemony or control of the global system, despite what its naysayers claim, and further, and why is it unlikely to seek such control in the future? In other words, despite emerging in recent years as a major power capable of imposing its will on others, why hasn't it done so? And why during previous peaks of power did China avoid the sort of imperial expansion associated with the Macedonians, Muslims, Mongols, and every member of today's G7 with the possible exception of Canada, with all due respect to the First Nations who argue to the contrary?

In fact there are many theories to explain the limits of Chinese expansionism through history and why, despite the clear ability to do so, decisions were taken otherwise. Indeed, here is a question that should always be asked when we look at maps of Asia, past and present: why is such a large and powerful country surrounded by so many other countries, including those that are quite small and easy to defeat and assimilate? In fact, why does China have more countries on its borders than any other in the world?

The best theories for answering this question center on Chinese cultural exceptionalism and values — that China has long been a peace-loving country that has variously understood that what is suitable for Chinese civilization begins to break down and lose efficacy when China tries to rule others, which in turn can undermine China's capacity to govern itself. And this brings us to five keys lessons of Chinese history related to governance.

The first lesson: China was the first to innovate an analog of the modern state, emerging with the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and accelerating with the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the latter merging Qin legalism with Han Confucianism to create a professional state with durable institutions that above all valued good governance and the rule of law — achievements that outpaced by centuries and in some cases millennia similar breakthroughs in other civilizations and countries.

In short, as a civilization but institutionally, the Chinese innovated a state culture that itself became a "concrete universal value" to be protected against threats such as engaging in imperial overreach. There were and remain geographical and cultural limits for achieving good governance: go too far or too "foreign" and your governance and state overall will suffer. In fact, according to some scholars, the idea that Chinese culture and state system were so advanced itself became so dominant that the Chinese were more afraid of invading others than being conquered by others, given their experiences during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In short, they were convinced that trying to rule others could lead to their own failures, but if they were themselves defeated, their conquerors would become "Chinese" or also fail.

The second lesson: rule yourself well or risk being ruled worse by others. In this respect, establishing, sustaining and improving self-governance, including advancing radical paradigm shifts when circumstances require, are unending and often exhausting tasks, while attempts to rule others are a fool's errand that will compromise your ability to rule yourself and therefore compromise your own sovereignty and security.

Indeed, is this not the lesson we've seen again and again throughout imperialism? Further, another lesson we have learned from imperialism is that invading and conquering others has often been led by technical innovations, such as a new weapon or tactics that can be used to exploit the vulnerabilities of others, and not innovations in governance like those advanced in China's ancient past and modern present. For example, Alexander the Great took a military advance innovated by his father all the way to India, but had no means for ruling and holding all the territory he conquered. More fundamentally, why did other empires, whether Roman, British or American ultimately fail? On the one hand, they never mastered the art of self-rule, which made their attempts to rule others even worse. On the other hand, they were often motivated to control others to make up for the short-comings of self-rule at home, to exploit if not rob others and likewise externalize their own domestic failures onto others, especially when fundamental inequalities are normalized as a "universal" zero-sum game, and above all when private property rights are enshrined as the first principle and the non-negotiable privilege of power.

The third lesson: you have to learn lessons from your own history and base your advances in your own culture. You have to do this otherwise you risk losing yourself altogether, as Kakuzo Okakura, author of The Book of Tea (1906), warns in the wake of Japan's near-total modern transformation in the late 19th century, through which Japan all but abandoned traditional values and culture aside from superficial performances of the same and rushed headlong to adapt the Western model.

Additionally, you have to base your developments in your own culture and values or risk repeating the mistakes of the West, again as Japan's imperialism did, and still later, finding yourself confronting a new era, unable to reform or adapt to new needs, and getting stuck, again as Japan has, in middle income and security traps. Further, you also risk becoming rooted in values and practices that gave rise to problems likes the Anthropocene and growing existential risks associated with climate change, including novel disease outbreaks.

Or you risk lingering for decades in a postcolonial malaise, unable to express an authentic identity or construct meaningful governance because you don't really know who or what you are, and you remain vulnerable to meddling from stronger powers, including your former colonial master, who preys upon your own insecurities, which he fostered in the first place.

Nevertheless, you also have to learn from others and share what you learn with others. China owes great debts to Marxism, to Leninism, and what some might describe as American Fordism and even American hubris. This is to say that China owes great debts to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even the global capitalist economy. But the dialectics of reason requires placing these debts in their proper place and contexts, and understanding that some of them, when possible, must be reduced in importance and even "negated".

The fourth lesson: whatever role that culture and values play in their idealistic forms, what lessons we learn from the past, the values of Chinese governance are a transhistorical concrete universal that always seeks their roots in material forms. This is a key lesson in Marxism but it's also one of the first lessons I learned when I came to work in China in 2010: the base determines the superstructure, and the material shapes the ideal. Reconcile the words you read, hear and say with material facts. And in this respect, the material facts of Chinese governance qua development and progress, at home and abroad, past and present, have proven the words true.

The fifth and final lesson: China, with a strong and effective government, contrary to negative speculation, is not a threat to others but the opposite. The stronger and more effective China becomes, the more it reflects on Chinese history and its own experiences, the more it understands its own limits, the more it embodies the deeply held cultural value of good governance, then the greater likelihood that China will tread carefully with others, even to the point of supporting if possible others' advances as a means for ensuring greater security, development and a shared future for all. This is the trend we've seen accelerating over the past decade with the BRI as well as others, including the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative, and it's the only logical way forward for a country that emphasizes good governance as China does.


(Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University and a senior research fellow at the Institute for the Development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics at Southeast University and the Hainan CGE Peace Development Foundation.The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.) 2023-11-15
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