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Chinese history: “stopped” for 3700 years

May 13, 2011

There will be a lot to unpack from this Jeffrey Goldberg interview with Hillary Clinton, but I would like to zoom in on one of its more arrogant and historically wrongheaded moments.

I noted that the Chinese seem frightened by the possibility that the forces unleashed by the suicide of a Tunisian peddler could reach Tiananmen Square. “They’re worried,” she said. “They’re trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it, but they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

I have already written a post on why I think this sort of rhetoric is silly, but in this case, using it is particularly laughable. For most of the 20th century, it was the communists, not the capitalists and democrats, who most strongly believed in the historical immanence of their political philosophy. Certainly examples of overestimating capitalist democracy’s vulnerability and the Soviet Union’s durability are replete in Cold War thought. Even Reagan, who was confident of the US’s ideological and material superiority to the Soviet Union, was influenced by Team B which wildly overestimated Soviet military and technological capability and factored Soviet visions of historical triumphalism into their criticism of MAD.

Now, however, since Fukuyama and his many disciples (many of whom cling onto distortions of his thought he never held or has since recanted), have taken the stage of political philosophy, Hegelian inevitability is on the side of democracy, not any kind of autocracy. It is quite funny to think that fifty-five years after Khruschev boasted of the inevitability of his country’s ideological triumph, the chief American diplomat is castigating the Chinese Communist Party for failing to understand historical inevitability.

Clinton’s argument that democracy and free government is an inevitability in China is, quite simply, a poor reading of history. Since the rise of Chinese dynastic governments at least 3700 years ago, China has “stopped” history. Or maybe it did not get “started,” or it’s been “insulated” (which, given 3700 years of non-history, means China has a really high R value). One could really simplistically look to Yan Fu, then Sun Yat-Sen, and then Tiananmen Square and draw this sort of easy conclusion of Chinese democracy being inevitable, but Chinese democracy is no more inevitable than Chinese fascism. Indeed, the two have often been related, as, since Yan Fu, the uglier ideas of Western civilization (Social Darwinism, for example) have come in with the good. Sun Yat-Sen’s political successor Chiang Kai-Shek and his US-educated wife brought about the New Life movement, which combined communism, neo-Confucianism, authoritarianism and more than a hint of fascism. Let us also note that communism, too, began as a Western import. Today, Chinese political scholars absorb not just Strauss but Schmitt. There are plenty of reasons to think that even if democracy does prevail, or, at least, the CCP falls from power, that nationalist and authoritarian forces will rise to the forefront of Chinese politics.

A country less than 250 years old, no matter how powerful, should not lecture another great power with 3700 years of history about historical inevitability just because the data points from those past 250 – or, let’s be generous, 400 – years seems to be playing out its way, particularly when we acknowledge the contingency of democratic expansion on necessarily contingent things such as the outcomes of wars and power struggles. Democracy was not inevitable in Europe – certainly the death of Athens and the Roman Republic, and the relegation of relatively representative institutions to the Icelandic Althing or the oligarchic Venetian republic do not speak well for the inevitability of democracy in Europe.

Fortunately, this sort of sentiment does not stop Clinton from advocating US interaction and cooperation with non-democratic powers. However, while generalized triumphalist rhetoric is fine for home consumption, specifically identifying a country’s leadership which is extremely sensitive to concerns about being an equal, respected great power as relegated for doom is totally inimical to such engagement. As James Fallows noted, it undoes the work the US must constantly do to reassure a paranoid Chinese leadership that America welcomes China’s rise and views the CCP as a legitimate governing entity. So speaking of history this way, especially in such a demeaning and provocative way towards a major power, is not just historically simplistic, it is damaging, and stating the inevitability of democracy in China will only strengthen the CCP’s efforts to hold on to power.

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