This talk was delivered by Martin Jacques at the Third Symposium on International Ccpology at Fudan University on November 24 2018.

There is a profound ignorance in the West about Chinese governance. The dominant attitude is still essentially dismissive. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that Chinese governance is based on entirely different values and principles to those that inform Western governance. The idea of Western democracy has been the main calling card of the West since 1945 and, for countries like the US and the UK, much longer. In Western eyes, the legitimacy of any political system is measured by the extent to which it approximates to universal suffrage, a multi-party system, the separation of powers and the rule of law. Such is the commitment to these notions that it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Western democracy is viewed in terms that are akin to the ‘end of history’. They are regarded as indispensable for good governance and cannot be improved upon in their essentials. The second reason is the legacy of the cold war, which continues to exercise a profound influence on Western thinking – and elsewhere too, though usually to a rather lesser extent. Communism and Communist Parties are still deeply associated in the western mind with the history, experience and fate of the CPSU.

The rise of China has served to shift Western views about China in some degree, most obviously a respect for the country’s economic progress and the huge reduction in poverty; in terms of attitudes towards Chinese governance, though, there has been little or no change. This is evident in a numbers of ways: the priority given in the West to the Chinese record on human rights, the speed with which China is condemned and demonised for its present policy in Xinjiang, and the gathering hostility towards China in the United States, with its political system occupying a crucial place in the increasing antagonism. The conclusion I would draw from this is that any fundamental shift in Western attitudes towards Chinese governance in a more sympathetic or benign direction is very unlikely over the next decade and probably much longer.

And yet there are much deeper forces at work that will require – and will eventually serve to compel – precisely such a shift in Western attitudes. These can be summarised as follow.

First, the extraordinary economic rise of China cannot be separated from China’s governance. On the contrary, China’s governance has been absolutely fundamental to this achievement. It could not have been attained without it. This irresistible fact will continue to gnaw away at perceptions of China: in the long term facts speak far louder than ideological prejudices and assumptions.

Second, the West is in deep relative decline which has been greatly accelerated by the Western financial crisis from which it has barely emerged. The Chinese economic crisis that was widely forecast in the West never happened – instead it happened in the West. And, as we have seen, this then predictably led to a profound political crisis in Europe and the United States. The people have lost faith in the governing elites and their institutions, and the consequences of this still remain deeply unclear. The political systems in the West now face by far their greatest challenge since 1945.

Third, we should look at these two developments in a broader context. The rise of the West to a position of global hegemony lent Western political leaders and institutions great status and prestige amongst their peoples. The authority, power and influence they enjoyed on the global stage served to greatly enhance their position at home. The precipitous decline of the West, in contrast, is having – and will have – exactly the opposite effect, serving to undermine, weaken and diminish the status of their leaders at home. My own country, the UK, is a classic example of this phenomenon. British political leaders enjoy hugely diminished status, power and influence both internationally and nationally. This can only serve to weaken the respect, trust and faith that people have in their political systems and institutions. Exactly the opposite is the case in China. The rise of China has greatly enhanced the respect the Chinese people have for their leaders and institutions. The fact that China now has the second largest economy in the world, that it enjoys a quite new kind of global influence, that the country feels increasingly aligned with the great achievements of earlier periods of Chinese history, lends its leaders and institutions, above all the Chinese Communist Party, with a new kind of authority, charisma and respect which is only likely to strengthen further as China’s rise continues in the future.

These three factors together are bound to progressively weaken the standing of Western governance and enhance that of Chinese governance, both at home and abroad. In other words, we must see attitudes towards Western and Chinese governance in the context of a much longer timescale and in an essentially dynamic way. Western attitudes may seem to be relatively static, even frozen, but from the vantage point of, say, 2040, it will surely look very different.

Which brings me to the Chinese Communist Party. Comparisons with the Soviet Communist Party serve to obfuscate rather than enlighten. They are profoundly different just as, if you like, Russia and China are profoundly different. One of the most important differences, probably the most important, is that the CPSU never enjoyed widespread popular support – it was concentrated in the very small industrial proletariat and extremely limited amongst the peasantry who constituted the great majority. The CPC was exactly the opposite: its support was overwhelmingly amongst the peasantry and very limited in the very small proletariat. The CPC, as a result, had very broad support and very deep roots, which gave it great confidence. In contrast, the CPSU from the outset depended on coercion and authoritarian rule to get its way.

A classic illustration of the CPC’s strength was Deng’s reforms in 1978. China, at that point, was not in a good place and yet Deng felt able, willing and had the courage to introduce what represented a fundamental shift in CPC philosophy. Such profound shifts can only be undertaken by parties that are deeply rooted and enjoy great historical self-confidence. This, of course, brings us directly to what might be described as the birth of the modern era of the Chinese Communist Party.

The significance of Deng’s reforms has, in historical terms, been greatly underestimated. They involved two major changes in communist thinking. Hitherto, socialism had been seen as synonymous with the state and planning. Deng now redefined socialism to include the market. His second innovation was to abandon the idea of socialism in one country, or socialist autarchy, and embrace the concept of a single world with China seeking to integrate itself, and become interdependent with, the rest of the world. The novelty and courage enshrined in this shift was to have huge consequences, economic, political and intellectual. It required so much to be rethought, not just economically but also politically, a different kind of state had to be constructed, with a different role based on a different mindset and skills. Deng’s radical thinking unleashed a quite new intellectual energy which over time was to utterly transform the thinking and energy of the people. It was to create a new mentality, in effect a new people. It is impossible to explain China’s rise without understanding the intellectual dynamism and innovation that lay at the heart of the reforms.

One of the great problems of the communist tradition had been the tendency for it to ossify, to become backward-looking, to become akin to a tablet of stone, the belief that victory was inevitable, that success was historically guaranteed. This was the very antithesis of Deng’s thinking: nothing was guaranteed, China had to make and invent its own future. The result was not only the transformation of China but increasingly the transformation of the world as well. While the West betrays growing signs of a hardening of the arteries, a retreat into the past, a failure to embrace the future other than as a retread of the past and present, China is exactly the opposite. This is the huge achievement of the Chinese Communist Party.

It is inconceivable that Western countries could adopt a Chinese-style political system – it runs counter to their history, traditions and beliefs – just as, for the same reasons, China cannot and should not be expected to move towards a Western-style political system. Western countries can and should learn from the Chinese way of doing things, as China has over time learnt much from the West. Over the last two centuries the major direction of travel has been from the West to China. Increasingly that will be reversed, as China rises and becomes the home of modernity, and the West declines. And the Chinese political system, including the pivotal importance of the Chinese Communist Party, will be no exception to this.

What are the key attributes of the Chinese Communist Party in this respect?

First, the most challenging single aspect of Chinese governance is the demographic size and geographical spread of the country. Finding ways to bind such a huge country together and ensure inclusivity, an area where the US and the UK, far smaller though they may be, have been found deeply wanting, is one of the great strengths of Chinese governance, in which it enjoys a unique understanding. The fact that China, moreover, is, in effect, a sub-global system in its own right, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s population, means that the CCP has a special insight into the demands of governance in the era of globalisation, as the Belt and Road project illustrates.

Second, the Chinese Communist Party’s ability and capacity to transform a developing country is second to none: it is the exemplar for all others. In an era in which the imperative of transforming the developing countries, home to 85% of the world’s population, is arguably the greatest task of our era lends a unique significance and special responsibility to the role of the CPC.

Third, it is clear that the Westphalian system faces a growing and multifarious crisis. The nation-state form was a Western invention, specifically a European invention, which spread as a result of Western influence to assume an almost global universality, though in many respects it was, and has proved to be, a poor fit for many countries outside the West. The fact that China is primarily a civilization-state and only secondarily a nation-state gives it a special insight into and sensitivity about this question. As China’s global influence grows apace, these attributes will become increasingly important in seeking to find ways of resolving a myriad of problems around the world. Again, this lends the CPC a special role and capacity. 

Four, it is becoming increasingly clear that China is to the fore in the practice and the concept of modernity: its bold and ambitious attitude towards and relationship with technological innovation and the industries of the future, its recognition of the pivotal importance of climate change to the future of humanity, and its embrace of globalisation, multilateralism and the developmental challenge are three examples. This stands in stark contrast to the trend in the United States epitomised by Trump which rejects globalisation, climate change and even reason, and sees America’s future in terms of a return to some golden age in the past.

Five, the CCP has pioneered a new kind of competence in statecraft which has raised the global bar in terms of governance. All countries will need to learn from China in this respect. A combination of accountability, experience, competence, education and meritocracy have underpinned the remarkable achievements of the Chinese government with, of course, the CCP being the key to this.

Finally, a word of caution. The rapid deterioration in relations between the US and China is very unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon. We have almost certainly entered a new era characterised by growing enmity between the two countries, thereby bringing an end to the long period of relative cooperation which dates back to 1972. We can already feel the draughty winds of a new cold war-like assault on China emanating from Washington. An integral part of this will be an attempt to demonise and smear the Chinese Communist Party. So far, the rise of China has taken place in relatively benign conditions; for the foreseeable future, something more like the opposite is likely to be the case. This will present the CCP with a great challenge, one very different from both the Deng era and the more recent Xi era. China will be faced with the imperative of seeking friends and building bridges with as many countries as possible as the US seeks to isolate it.