Henry Tam is the author of Time to Save Democracy: How to Govern Ourselves in the Age of Anti-Politics (Policy Press, 2018). He has taught at the University of Cambridge, the University of Hong Kong, and the UK’s Civil Service College. According to available records, he was the first undergraduate of Chinese descent to read PPE at Oxford (the Queen’s College, 1978).
The resurgence of China on the global stage has fuelled suggestions that illiberal rule is the way forward for governments in the 21st century. This trend has been reinforced by the fact that many Western political candidates who promote jingoism and xenophobia over respect for human rights have attracted wide public support.
China’s political establishment, having had enough of being lectured about human rights by the West, gleefully observed that the chaos and divisiveness surrounding the Brexit vote and Trump’s election were unavoidable outcomes of democratic governance.
But should we seriously consider any authoritarian model that – in the name of pursuing order and national prestige – will leave no room for dissent, contest over policy options, or safeguards against the abuse of power?
If we look back on the last 3,000 years of governance in China, rather than just the last 30, what lessons should we really take from China’s political experience? What stands out most is the recurrent doubt raised over the rulers’ mandate to govern.
When the Zhou Dynasty began to lose its grip (late 6th century BC), it provoked intense political debates among thinkers in China over the next 400 years. Best known were Confucius and his followers, whose teachings emphasised the role of traditional rites in reinforcing proper behaviour so that rulers would look after the wellbeing of their subjects, and the ruled would obey their superiors. Almost as famous were the Daoists who believed that a ‘do-nothing’ state would somehow pave the way for spontaneous harmony in society.
The most infamous were the Legalists who taught – 1,900 years before Hobbes – that the only way to have effective rule and stability was through concentrating power in an absolute leader who would maintain order through strict commands backed by severe sanctions. Least known today but widely considered the main rival to Confucius by their contemporaries was Mo Zi, the egalitarian thinker/military strategist, whose school would advocate mutual care and the protection of the vulnerable against aggressors.
The Qin Emperor, whose reign succeeded the Zhou’s after he defeated all the other warring factions, subscribed to the ideas of the Legalists. While he was credited with establishing a strong centralised state that went a long way to shape China’s national identity, Qin’s ruthless authoritarian rule was considered by most scholars, past and present, the reason why that dynasty was so swiftly overthrown.
The Han rulers who took over from the Qin adopted the rites and formalities recommended by the Confucians because such practices would supposedly habituate people into behaving respectfully towards one another. Unfortunately, in any hereditary authoritarian regime, those with inherited power could all too easily get away with treating others without the slightest respect. In 9 AD, the regent, Wang Mang, decided the Han reign was letting the people down badly. He took the throne himself to establish a new regime to bring in egalitarian reforms Mo Zi would have approved. He planned to radically reduce the disparity between the rich and the poor through land redistribution, price controls, and expanded public provision of grain. But the general population knew little about his plans or how their implementation would help them. Instead, many among the wealthy elite stirred up a large-scale rebellion against him, and like the Gracchi brothers of Rome, his reform agenda ended with his murder.
Many other rulers of China would follow with each dynastic cycle ending inevitably in decline, violence and chaos. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, reformists in China concluded that thousands of years of political boom and bust could only be superseded by giving the people the power to rule themselves. During the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the rallying cry was for China to learn from the two great teachers – ‘Science’ and ‘Democracy’.
Despite the absurd suggestion made by some cultural relativists that democracy may not be suited to Chinese people, by the 1980s/90s Taiwan and Singapore, both with Chinese-majority populations, had developed extensive democratic political systems, while civic activists in Hong Kong and Macao had become more, not less, vocal in pressing for democratic reforms since becoming special administrative regions in China.
Chinese and Western advocates for democracy alike seek to draw attention to the flaws in any system for allocating political authority; the dangers of misleading information circulating unchecked; and the need for sufficient safeguards against power falling permanently into the hands of an unaccountable elite. Britain in the 19th century, and the US in the 20th, both had to learn that becoming a global economic and military superpower would mean little if it was not matched by sound democratic development to empower their own citizens to have real control over their destiny. The same lesson will not be lost on China in the 21st century.
Henry Tam is Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge