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Updated: May 21, 2013 11:38 IST

Change in unchanging China

Swaran Singh
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Contemporary Chinese Political Thought
Debates and Perspectives: Edited by Fred Dallmayr and Zhao Tingyang;
KW Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 4676/21, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 780.

The uncanny aggressive behaviour of China against its neighbours has ignited fresh debates on deconstructing the quintessential Chinese mindset. Beijing’s sustained posturing against Japan, Vietnam, Russia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and now India are often interpreted as reflecting the transitory disjunctions between China’s political and military leaders; or worse, its military top brass and field commanders. Experts though increasingly allude to the rising groundswell of nationalism which carries deeper systemic implications.

It is in this backdrop of intensifying scrutiny of rising China that this collection of essays by top-ranking Chinese scholars, titled, Contemporary Chinese Political Thought: Debates and Perspectives, presents a vital new source that promises to help untie some of these formidable knots complicating China’s ties with its immediate neighbours and other major powers.

Editors Fred Dallmayr and Zhao Tingyang underline at the very outset how, while the world remains obsessed with China’s staggering growth rates, a steady integration of Chinese intellectual life into the global market of ideas has gone unnoticed.

The stage was set as far back as in the reformist instincts of Deng Xiaoping that softened China’s traditional tensions between progressive and conservative streams thus creating room for ‘plurality’ in intellectual enquiries. But while aspects of liberal progressivism was allowed to enter freely into the economic arena, strands of traditional Chinese thought of Confucianism experienced resurgence in China’s cultural and religious life as the post-Maoist New Left emerged dominant in China’s politics and international relations (IR).

Chinese traditions

All-under-heaven (Tianxia) system is presented today as the core of China’s grand strategy for the 21 century world. Zhao Tingyang, now a famous philosopher of the Tianxia system, takes Deng’s ‘pluralism’ further deep to ancient China’s Zhou dynasty (221 BC) that sought, not rigid unified ‘state’ as in western tradition, but a multidimensional and harmonious blend of different tribes and ethnic groups. Chinese word for politics (ZhengZhi) means ‘justified order’ with emphasis on ‘harmony’ and Chinese conception of Individual (Ren) literally means ‘of-two-persons’ which underlines ‘mutuality’ as central to life. Western discourses instead were grounded in territorial and contractual nature of state and resulted in repeated episodes of individual dominance rather than evolution of a universal order. This makes Tianxia model far more holistic and sustainable.

In contrast to Zhao Tingyang’s cosmopolitanism, Zhang Feng sees IR as a recent discipline in China and one patterned on American paradigms. But he notices Chinese academics now facing tensions of globalism and localism. Contentions persist because leading contemporary experts grew up during Mao’s time with weak training in Chinese tradition and learnt their IR in Western universities in 1980s. Chinese IR theories have visibly shifted away from orthodox Marxism and other ‘thoughts’ of China’s paramount leaders towards deeper Chinese traditions of Confucianism.

The rise of China has further facilitated and necessitated such an enterprise. How China’s leaders Think (Kuhn 2011) shows how China seeks to detach itself from its recent past and offer itself as civilisational model for the developing world. Flawless delivery of Olympics in hypermodern stadia with high-tech artistry was the most recent advertisement of the China Model. As early as 2004, highlighting the economics of China’s new internationalism, Joshua Ramo, former editor of Time magazine, had coined the term ‘Beijing Consensus’ to underline China’s commitment to innovation, sustenance, and experiments at equal distribution of wealth. Frank Fang, an economist from Chicago, instead calls it ‘one party constitutionalism’ which underlines increasing institutional limits (like age limit and meritocracy) on China’s communist leaders in contrast to China’s ‘dynastic rulers.’

All this becomes especially noticeable as it stands against the ‘Washington Consensus’ that was coined by John Williamson in 1989 and entailed a Bretton-Woods-institutions’ supervised process to ‘stabilise, privatise, and liberalise’ growth-hungry developing countries.

While ‘Washington consensus’ approach of ‘one-size-fits-all’ failed to account for local knowledge and needs, ‘Beijing consensus’ is pegged on China’s continuing growth rates in the face of global economic slowdown and presents a unique system of mixed ownership of basic property rights and heavy government intervention.


For Qin Yaqing, the power of China model lies in that it is rooted in local culture, historical tradition, and practical experience. He though clarifies that it does not promote nationalism or establish Chinese discourse hegemony but seeks to enrich existing global body of knowledge and to validate universal appeal of Chinese discourses.

Liu Shuxian’s chapter examines the resurgence of Confucianism that lies at the centre of China Model. He traces its origins from the founding period of Confucius and Mencius to the ‘Neo-Confucian’ reformulations of Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529) to the recent resurgence as ‘New Confucianism’. Institutionalised Confucianism had degenerated into rituals and rites and ended with end of Qing dynasty in 1908 and was only revived as Contemporary New Confucianism (XiandaiXinRuxue) in 1986. But China bashers and democracy baiters have since used the authoritarian stands of Confucianism to malign and arm-twist China.

Frank Fang, blames the neo-liberal mantra for its unfettered privatisation that has resulted in “disappointing if not disastrous” outcomes for several developing countries. Democratisation for Frank requires strong state-centric political stability to ensure growth. But for Wang Shaoguang, economic growth driven China model cannot be the sole guarantor of democracy which needs a vibrant civil society and civic culture and most of all a potent and efficient state-apparatus.

For Wang, liberal democracy only focuses on how political regimes obtain authority and not on how they exercise it. He calls this ‘infrastructural power’ which consolidates democracy by administering basic human rights, rule of law and energises civil society. In the end, he also calls democracies-minus-strong-state as no more than electocracies that shun deliberation to head-counting and horse-trading.

Critics of China Model, on the other hand, find such eulogies of strong state as utopian. Marketisation of politics has caused serious degeneration of the moral side of politics in China. Marxist scholars condemn Confucianism as a feudalist ideology, worse than bourgeois democracy. But Kang Xiaoguang shows how both Confucianism and democracy have multiple interpretations.

Recent trends of village level elections, struggle for human rights, open protests and intra-party debates are cited as evidence of blending of Confucian traditions and democratic decision making. Chinese experts contest the conventional association of Confucianism with authoritarianism as only political that does not sufficiently cover the spiritual and social side of it.

They cite examples of Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, as success cases of blending soft authoritarianism with democratic systems. They also cite democracies with weak state resulting in unmitigated disaster. Strong state remains at the core of their new consensus. The more China changes; the more it remains the same.

(Swaran Singh is Professor for Diplomacy & Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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The dates are wrong. Confucianism dates from 400 BC. It became the major political thought and philosophy of the Han Dynasty from ~ 200 BC after Legalism (political realism and a strict rule of law) under the Qin Dynasty 221BC. The Zhou dynasty is NOT from 221 BC - it is from ~1000 BC and continued into its weak latter periods of weak central authority from 600BC onwards where feudal lords battled each other for personal territory in the name of the King.

This history of weakness with a weak central government is historical and borne of 3600 years of written history, and 2232 years of a centralised imperial authoritarian administrative empire. Afterall, the British formed a system of ministries based on the Chinese model, and Europeans formed a central bank based on China's national bank model of the past. The US has lasted only 227 years, barely the length of a single dynasty (ie. one family's rule). The Chinese know their stuff. Otherwise a very fair article and kudos to the writer.

from:  Sean
Posted on: May 21, 2013 at 06:43 IST
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