Once again, Western media misunderstands China’s political system.


A recent commentary from The Sydney Morning Herald’s international editor, Peter Hartcher, described China (along with Islamic State and Russia) as “fascist,” sparking an angry response from China’s Foreign Ministry. Yet the piece likely sparked cheers among people with similar views. There’s no problem with being so straightforward, even as China celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in the “World Anti-Fascist War.” But the logic behind this piece does not stand firm.

The article gives three defining characteristics of fascists to support its argument: authoritarianism, highly centralized power structures, and exalting the nation above the people.

Becoming authoritarian was not the inevitable path for China to stand as an independent, sovereign state after being forced open by the West. Why then is China’s political system this way? As Martin Jacques explains, China is a unique civilization-state, rather than a Western style nation-state. If people attempt to analyze China through a Western lens, there will always be problems. Criticizing China for its political reality, developmental model, and “non-cooperative” behavior is easy, but seeing and truly understanding the differences and divergences between civilizations is far more difficult — so much so that quite often people choose not to even try. Instead, they import a Western concept (in this case, fascism) to try and conceptualize a non-Western system.

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Hongkongers aren’t protesting because of economic resentment toward mainland China.

As Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” continues, Martin Jacques and others commentators have tried to pin the underlying causes on purely – or primarily – economic factors.  Although quality of life issues undeniably played a role in building up public discontent, the emerging narrative – which seeks to portray Hongkongers as ingrates resentful of Mainland China’s newfound economic success – is incomplete and misleading.

Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.”  Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests.

This skewed institutional framework is a major contributor to a whole host of quality-of-life issues.  For example, the dispute over the high-speed rail public works project in 2010 – railroaded through the legislature despite significant public opposition – is a vivid illustration of the consequences of a political system in which business interests can run roughshod over other considerations.  Successive chief executives, too, have been able to ignore quality-of-life issues affecting the general public precisely because they are accountable only to their “constituents” and not the general electorate.

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For some time now, it has been fashionable to say that we have begun what will be a “Pacific Century.” We have seen a flood of books of late, variations on the theme of When China Rules the Worldas one put it. Certainly, in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis and Great Recession, this has been the conventional wisdom, a view shaped to a large extent by linear thinking. One of the most celebrated proponents of such views is the prolific former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, who has written a series of well received books on Asia’s rise such as The New Asian Hemisphere.

In a recent article, Mahbubani has taken this linear logic to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective) with the premise that America’s slide to number two economic status is “inevitable by 2019.” His premise appears to be that the prospect of yielding the top spot to China appears horrible and unnatural in the collective U.S. psyche:

In 2019, barely five years away, the world will pass one of its most significant historical milestones. For the first time in 200 years, a non-western power, China, will become the number-one economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms… it will take longer for China’s economy to overtake America’s in nominal terms but the trend line is irresistible.

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Air-Sea Battle and the pivot seem an overreaction to China’s rise, given the number of challenges Beijing already faces.

Westerners are nothing if not breathless about China. Books describing its rise often have titles like When China Rules the WorldContest for SupremacyEclipse(of the U.S. by China), and so on. China is such a preoccupation that the U.S. has now “pivoted” to Asia. And the U.S. Department of Defense, eager to cash-in on the China hype in an era of sequestration and domestic exhaustion with the “Global War on Terror,” tells us now that the U.S. must shift to anAir-Sea Battle concept (ASB).

In a not-so-amazing coincidence, ASB is chock of full of the sorts of costly, high-profile, air and maritime mega-platforms the military-industrial complex adores. China’s single, barely functional aircraft carrier—the second one is not due for awhile—is a god-send to hawks and neo-cons everywhere. Even as the U.S. scales back in the Middle East, defense can seemingly never be cut. Indeed, the terrible irony of the pivot to Asia from the Middle East is that ASB platforms like satellites, drones, up-armored aircraft carriers, stealth jets and littoral ships will cost so much that staying focused on the Middle East may well be less expensive. (For a running debate on ASB, start here.)

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Global business leaders are voicing increasing concern over heightened political tensions between China and Japan, sparked by a maritime dispute in the East China Sea. They fear an escalation may have a spill-over effect on their regional operations and damage trade ties between the world’s second and third-largest economies.

Company executives, diplomats and analysts told CNBC that supply chains across China and Japan and regional trade flows are at risk if the territorial dispute between the north Asian neighbors – believed to be the worst in decades – deepens.

“This could really be something that causes a huge economic dislocation,” Mike Splinter, chief executive officer at Applied Materials told CNBC. “If import barriers go up, it could affect our business.”

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This is my last entry as editor of The Diplomat. As many readers will have spotted from the notice on our website a few weeks ago, I will be leaving to take up a broadcast media role in New York, and so I’ll be handing over the reins at the end of today to Joel Whitney. I wish Joel the best of luck and hope he finds working with The Diplomat as exciting as I have done.

I’ve been involved with The Diplomat for a few years now, first as a freelance contributor when The Diplomat was a print publication based in Sydney, then as part-time web editor, and since September 2009 as full-time editor when the magazine relaunched and moved completely online.

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The tailored gents marching in perfect step toward the podium have reason enough to smile. Led by Premier Wen Jiabo and Supremo Hu Jintao, China’s gang of nine are entitled to feel pretty satisfied with their nation’s recent economic performance.

Wen’s remarks to the annual National People’s Congress were chosen with care to balance the good news with a warning against national complacency. His talk of destabilizing problems on the horizon, though, could not disguise the self-congratulatory stuff. China is doing very nicely, thank you.

China’s extraordinary statistics tell a decidedly different story from the doom and gloom in Japan and the West. While the G-8 nations fear a double dip recession and voice concerns over happens next once all the massive state funding is removed, China sails regally on.

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The ascent of China will most likely be the biggest geopolitical drama of the 21st century. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, discusses China’s military expansion, the longevity of the country’s ‘peaceful rise,’ and the effects on global governance and international rules.

Question: I remember a couple of years ago the CCTV aired a program called “The Rise of Great Nations” that featured the histories of Rome, Great Britain, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. What implications do these lessons have for China?

Answer: I think the consensus here is that economic growth is the key to becoming a rising power. The Chinese have also concluded that to sustain economic growth it is also necessary to maintain political stability. In the rise and fall of great powers, one lesson the Chinese always learn is that aggression will not pay.

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