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The Importance of China’s “Characteristics”
Ron Huisken
2016-09-25
Region : AsiaNorthEastAsia China,
Issue : ,
I. Introduction
China is an ancient and accomplished nation with an essentially unbroken tradition of authoritarian governance. China’s contemporary governance arrangements, which include a fondness for qualifying an objective or commitment with the words ‘with Chinese characteristics’, have both deliberate and inadvertent consequences that should be an important consideration in the policy settings other states adopt toward this huge country.
II. Policy Forum by Ron Huisken
On the Significance of China’s “Characteristics”[1]
In 2014 an internal Chinese Communist Party paper fell into the hands of a local journalist, Gao Yu, who shared it with selected international agencies. The paper, called Document no.9, called for an intense struggle to counter a range of ‘subversive ideas’ deemed to be gaining some traction in China, namely constitutional democracy, press freedom, an independent judiciary and universal human rights. These propositions constitute a thumbnail sketch of the system of governance that we in the West take very seriously and go to a lot of trouble to protect. Earlier this year (2015), Gao Yu was sentenced to 7 years jail for revealing state secrets (but intends to appeal).[2] When Barak Obama or Tony Abbot or Angela Merkel come home from an international commitment like an APEC or G20 meeting, they more or less seamlessly get on with their domestic chores. There will be speeches to give, press conferences to conduct, parliamentary business to deal with, cabinet meetings to chair and so on. As politicians, they appreciate the importance of being seen, regularly, to be doing their job. Equally, the public and the media expect these leaders to be available more or less routinely and to be across whatever issues are engaging their attention.Things are rather different in China. When senior leaders return from overseas they seem simply to disappear into Zhongnanhai, their secluded compound near the Forbidden City in Beijing. There appears to be neither an instinct on the part of the leaders nor an expectation on the part of the public and the media for the leaders to get about and be seen. Public speeches and, especially, press conferences are rare (the Premier gives one press conference each year, answering only questions submitted in advance), the National People’s Congress (or parliament) is not an institution that generates much in the way of on-going business, and meetings of the Politburo are utterly private. The current President, Xi Jinping, is proving to be somewhat of an exception, particularly in engaging ordinary citizens, but the contrast remains vivid and it is far from clear that this will be a deep and enduring change in leadership practice.Clearly, the relationship between the governors and the governed is very different in China from that anywhere in the West. In China, the governing elite seem to exist as a species utterly separate from the citizens. One understandable and potentially legitimate response is to say, so what? That, surely, is the business of the Chinese. China’s citizens are not in open revolt. There is no large-scale, violent suppression of dissent going on. Moreover, they are a talented people who have been in the business of governance for a long time. That should be enough for any state to do whatever business it wishes with China and to take overtures from Beijing – be they of a security, economic, political or cultural nature– at face value. Equally, however, such an attitude might be naïve be and short-sighted. Sovereignty and culture combine to make international relationships endlessly fascinating but difficult to manage. Even states that share ethnicity, language, traditions and institutions often find it hard to fully understand each other’s behaviour. Today’s China is an authoritarian one-party state that inherited a 2000-year tradition of governance by an emperor with absolute power over ‘all under heaven’. China is certainly among the oldest civilisations on the planet but, as far as we know, its people have never even been asked what they think of the form of governance that we and so many others have found the most attractive. The contention here is that it is prudent to look more closely at the significance of the starkly different ways that China goes about conducting its affairs, and at the possible implications for the collective challenge of keeping our broader region dependably stable and peaceful.
The China we have to expect
Within a decade or so, China will surpass the US and become the largest single economy in the world. How much larger than the US it will eventually become is anyone’s guess: a Goldman Sachs forecast suggests that 50% larger by 2050 is probable. What this makes clear is that all the ways in which China has newly intruded on our consciousness over the past several decades will become steadily more apparent for decades to come. Chinese corporations will be the largest and most ubiquitous across an expanding range of products and services, and able to make proposals we can’t refuse. China’s demand for our exports and its competitiveness in meeting our demand for imports will become crucial to our economic prospects and therefore first-order political business in Canberra. The same will be true of how and where Chinese corporations, not to mention individual Chinese with surplus capital – a cohort that could in time run into the hundreds of millions – elect to invest their funds. The big seminal projects that will shape the scope and direction of our region’s economic future – in exploration for resources, transport, infrastructure, telecommunications and so on – can all be expected to have significant, often dominant Chinese involvement. And any big-picture proposals that a regional leader might consider launching – whether on the political, economic, security or cultural front – will have to give careful attention to how it might be received in Beijing.China has become the most important trading partner for nearly every country in greater Asia, as well as a strong source of direct investment for many. And all of these magnitudes will grow dramatically in the decades to come. China’s political influence has developed every bit as quickly as its economic credentials, not only with its individual trading partners but also in the key multilateral bodies involved in managing global economic affairs – WTO, IMF, World Bank, G8, G20 and so on. And China’s aspirations – or at least the aspirations of the CCP – have steadily expanded along the way. A state as large, old and famous as China is not inclined to modesty. It has become steadily more clear that China is not interested in simply lifting the material well-being of its people and enjoying the power and influence naturally associated with generating economic magnitudes that weigh heavily in the political calculus of other countries. China aspires to have a defining influence on the regional and even global scene. It sees this as resuming the position and influence it had during the Han, Tang and Ming/Qing dynasties, however uncertain contemporary Chinese may now be about how it felt to be the hegemon or about how these periods of pre-eminence emerged and were sustained.

China has invested lavishly in its military and related capabilities (especially its space program). The importance of the military in the genesis of the People’s Republic is seen in the fact that, even today, the most consequential official post is chairman of the Central Military Commission rather than President or General Secretary of the Communist Party.[3] China has also gradually exposed foreign and security policy settings aimed at re-shaping the existing order in East Asia to support its longer term aspirations. Similarly, China has set out to remind the world – notably through a global network of Confucius Institutes created at great speed- that it is a massive and ancient civilisation that has in the past shaped the trajectory of the human race and is poised to do so again in the 21st century and beyond. All of this means that, even in distant places like Australia, every facet of people’s lives will be under constant and intensifying pressure to evolve in ways sympathetic to the Chinese way of doing things. And this will be an inescapable process – gradual, often imperceptible, essentially voluntary, but ultimately inescapable. It is not in itself an alarming prospect but it will not always be consistent with local preferences. Of course, none of this is certain. More than 30 years of breakneck growth has resulted, inevitably, in a great deal of social, economic and even political stress that could push China off its trajectory if not managed well. The imperatives of on-going economic reform are likely to clash ever more strongly with instincts to preserve reliable political control. And there are questions whether a system anything like the Chinese one can climb to the cutting edge across a wide range of endeavours and start breaking new ground. But for everyone in East Asia the primary question has been, and remains, whether to position themselves for a China that remains at least broadly successful and displaces massive strategic weight or a China that stumbles badly and falls short of becoming the primary influence on regional affairs. It would be folly, in my view, to bet on the latter.[4]
Too much of a good thing?
State’s in China’s position – especially the position we expect China to be in by mid-century and beyond – often face the temptation to simplify their lives and suppress opposition to their preferred course of action, simply because that option exists for them. States in China’s position have also typically developed a national hubris that, in polite circles, is called a sense of exceptionalism. Moreover, in China’s case, much of the historical record would suggest that China has been a serial offender in allowing its sense of superiority to become such an alienating force that it has been a key to explaining the extravagant cycles that have characterised its fortunes as a state. China’s neighbours, now including Australia, may again find its sense of exceptionalism difficult to bear. As was the case in the past, the governance of China at the present time is relatively free of what experts call internal checks and balances on the power and ambition of the state. This can make engagement with China singularly challenging and even hazardous. It also has ramifications that extend to the international arena. The relative absence of checks and balances within China means that other states are more likely to be attracted to forming precautionary external coalitions which, in turn, will colour China’s security perceptions. All things considered, too much China looks more like a distinct possibility than a remote contingency.
Chinese Exceptionalism
China’s particular version of exceptionalism is based on a spectacular and turbulent history of imperial rule that reaches back some 2500 years. Emperors were divinely endorsed and granted absolute power. There were extended periods of glittering pre-eminence, especially under the Han, Tang, and Ming/Qing dynasties, when imperial expansion, trade, technology, culture and language flourished synergistically. The other pre-eminent states we are familiar with –America, the UK and so on –have all had one stint at the top. China is arguably the top seed for its fourth appearance. Today’s China has abandoned the imperial system but it remains an authoritarian one-party state. The constitution of the People’s Republic of China declares that the Communist Party of China is the only permissible custodian of political power. This is the source of a profound conundrum for the rest of the world in thinking about how to engage with China, as well as for China itself. An entity that is the only permissible government must project itself as the best imaginable government. Inevitably, this transitions into the belief that it is the best imaginable government. There is a strong echo of Confucianism here, that most enduring of Chinese political philosophers who is once again solidly in vogue. Confucius is identified with the thesis that acceptance of hierarchy and maximising one’s contribution within the hierarchy was the key to a society functioning harmoniously and achieving its full potential. The hierarchy culminated in an all-powerful leader. Confucius had a lot to say about the qualities the leader needed to exhibit to allow the entire system to function smoothly and effectively but he did not question the need for such a leader. Importantly in the present context, Confucianism supports the CCP’s contention that a hierarchical structure with an all-powerful and self-disciplining head can deliver the best imaginable governance. This is probably the basic point of divergence with the political philosophy that animates the Western world. For democracies, the starting point is that governments are necessary but they are also dangerously powerful and need to have a sufficiency of checks and balances to preclude the emergence of an all-powerful leader, be it an individual or a group. Democracies attach more importance to ensuring that the people remain the ultimate source of political power (or, at least, to precluding dictatorship) and do not pretend that the governance that emanates from these contradictory impulses is likely to be ideal. It is simply preferred to the risk of a single individual or group becoming powerful enough to impose their views on everyone else. The instruments employed to accomplish the objective of a sufficiency of governance, albeit untidy and inefficient, while retaining basic individual freedoms include: a separation of powers, especially an independent judiciary, not least to ensure that all the key players –the executive, parliament, media and the public have both equal access and equal exposure to the law; a parliament with powers to make it a compulsory partner for the executive in devising and implementing policies; a free press, to make it as difficult as possible to keep anything secret; and, of course, the ultimate sanction of periodic elections to cleanse, refresh and re-legitimise the political elite.
[To begin to think, somewhat crudely and superficially, about what the absence of internal checks and balances really means, let’s take three recent examples of China’s experiences in the foreign policy arena:
Between mid-2014 and mid-2015, China implemented a carefully pre-planned program of constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea capable of supporting sea and air operat

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