There Was a Myth Called “China Will Get Richer and Democratise Over Time”
There was a myth called “China will get richer and democratise over time.” Not until recently did people realise how spurious this discourse was. Regrettably, blind optimism leads to a myopic attitude that lures people to constantly pacify an assertive authoritarian superpower which has a long record of violence and human rights abuse.
China is the second-largest economy and the most populated country in the world. It is also one of the few Socialist countries that have lived through the 20th century, but many are anticipating change.
Some say that the middle class will be a push factor for a democratic transition when certain social and economic conditions are met. It is very unlikely. Contrary to speculations, the Chinese new rich rely on the status quo more than anyone else to secure their wealth as any kind of political change will inevitably lead to domestic upheaval.
Instead of liberalising the country, extracting profit from China’s ever-growing economy seems to be a more sensible choice for the middle class, which is yet a minority. Not to mention a handful of government officials and party members have moved their assets and family overseas. Those who have jumped on board are the most reluctant to change. The assumption of sufficient economic growth bringing about a bourgeois revolution, for a country as gigantic as China, is nothing but a deceitful conception.
In a country with a long history of authoritarian rule, the Communist Party has built a governing structure characterised by centralisation of power and massive social control programmes modelled after the Leninist party-state. From civil war, purge and famine to today’s economic prosperity, Democracy has never been an alternative to autocracy; due to patriotic sentiments constructed through decades of education and propaganda, any form of government other than the Communist rule seems unimaginable.
Even one who staunchly advocated democratic reform in China had to admit that “China would need 300 years of colonialism,” Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned until his death in 2017, remarked sarcastically, after commenting on how Hong Kong had progressed over 100 years of British rule compared to China.
After all, nationalism is the glue that seams the supposedly insurmountable discordance between authoritarianism and economic growth. After having undergone the mass destruction of classics, iconoclasm, denunciation of traditional values in the Cultural Revolution, and the upsurge of materialism since the Reform and Opening-up in the 80s, the Chinese state is looking for a substance to fill up the spiritual vacuum as people have already abandoned their ideologies. Now, Xi’s government aspires to consolidate national pride by summoning a notion at the very core of the anti-imperial revolution in the early 20th century — nationalism.
Nationalism is a rather recent import. Yet it has long dominated China’s national narrative and has given momentum to the revolutionaries, the Nationalists and subsequently the Communists, who envisioned a unified Chinese state built upon the relics of the Qing Empire a hundred years ago.
Now, the Chinese nationalist discourse has become more blatant than ever — the nation’s survival is the buttress of state legitimacy. National progress is tightly linked to the Party’s leadership who claims to represent the general will and the inevitable return of the bygone eminence; Socialism with Chinese Characteristics under one-party dictatorship is the panacea to all of the past sufferings and foreign humiliations. Had it not been for the Communist Revolution, China would never have achieved prosperity and regain integrity, as the Party so declares.
For this rationale, patriotism amounts to an endorsement to the party-state. Even the most outspoken dissidents become the most earnest patriots when it comes to “national crises” framed by state media, such as territorial disputes. Given the lack of freedom of speech in the country, Chinese nationalism, with its robust impulse of unification, unrelenting irredentism and deep-seated ethnocentrism, serves as an outlet for translating social discontent into sanitised public opinion aligning with the national discourse. The more nationalism agitates, the more delusory it becomes to make people think they are allowed to speak up when they are actually not.
This phenomenon has sprawled across the world as Hong Kong’s uprising continues. Clashes during face-offs between groups of Chinese and Hongkongers in overseas rallies, internet feuds with Daryl Morey and the NBA, hate speech and disinformation on social media accusing foreign intervention in China’s home affairs, the glorification of the state’s power and Chinese students abroad exercising freedom of speech, which they do not enjoy at home, to protest against those who demand freedom — all caught on camera and drawn .
Hysterical these behaviours might seem, but the widespread agitation and collusion with the state revealed something important — a considerable part of those who have the privilege to live in the free world and access uncensored information falls in line with the official nationalism, instead of adhering to the liberal ideals as some might have predicted.
On top of that, Chinese espionage in the West is nothing new; individuals and civilian companies collaborate with the state to assemble information, from the academia, business sector and scientific research, used to benefit the state. Even the educated ones act in such manners. When nationalism becomes a greater political motivator than freedom and democracy, how are we supposed to have faith in China getting democratised? How much more do we have to cede to appease the abuser? How long does the world have to wait until this giant converts to liberal values?
Others might have more time to think about that, but Hong Kong has only a few decades, if not years, left. 28 years until the city’s autonomy formally dies in 2047, the youths are growing impatient. This sentiment is fuelled by the Chinese government, which has unabashedly propagated its own definition of national identity while accusing democratic movements of separatism and foreign aided subversion.
Being upset with both the Chinese authority and the pan-democrats, Hong Kong’s conventional opposition who had labelled themselves as pro-democracy Chinese patriots for decades, the city’s younger generation began to conceive themselves as another group of people. A different identity, a different consciousness and a different kind of political allegiance diverting from Chinese nationalism. The resistance is striving for Hong Kong’s democracy, not China’s.
As a means of social control, it is often said that China’s official nationalism supplements obsolete ideologies of Marxism and Socialism. Western imports might have already faded away, but remnants of age-old imperial authority are being revived. The doctrine of China’s national discourse, as manifested in its latest constitutional amendment, is to provide the necessary means to the “implementation of Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “great resurgence of the Chinese nation.” In essence, it is the Communist Party’s destiny to lead the nation to progress and prosperity.
The philosophy behind the Chinese nationalist currents is to somehow “make China great again.” But thousands of years of Sinocentric, imperial legacy have given the slogan a slightly different interpretation — China does not only wants to be great, but it also wants to be superior again, in terms of military strength, economic power and geopolitical influence. Here, the mandate of heaven is recreated through modern political rhetoric while the ancient empire disguises itself in the novelty of a nation-state and the tributary system in the “Belt and Road Initiative”.
It is the pretence of nationhood that has been keeping the superstate intact. If China were to become democratic, it would mean the end of communist rule as well as the collapse of the unitary Chinese state. Rather than fantasising China getting democratised, longing for its disintegration seems more prudent.
The lack of democratisation in China is certainly an anomaly in political history that some Western liberal analytics fail to grasp. In the Chinese algorithm, economic freedom does not necessarily incentivise the pursuit of political freedom, instead, the ephemeral triumph of the prior depends on the perpetual absence of the latter.
If there is any key takeaway from this — what happened to the Tibetans Uyghurs, Hongkongers and innumerable dissidents in Chins — it would be “China will still get richer and stronger anyway but it will NOT democratise.”