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.

Now, is China centralized? In general, yes — but how centralized? Actually, China is far less centralized than many outside observers assume. To cite one example: for years, fiscal decentralization between the central government and local provinces has played a critical role in the unbalanced flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the Chinese market. This decentralization has had several readily observable consequences, including different levels of economic growth and green development among the various regions. In his 2012 book, Pierre F. Landry described China’s political system as “decentralized authoritarianism.”

As for the final point, the nation (and the family) has a uniquely important role in China’s contemporary political philosophy. But this is not new, much less an invention of the current regime. Reverence for authority, emphasis on leaders’ moral quality, and collectivism have all been rooted in China’s political culture for thousands of years and these concepts have had natural and inevitable impacts on contemporary Chinese politics. Yet somehow this has made China unpopular in the eyes of the West and some Western media.

To many in China, the West seems only interested in making demands on China. First, the West wanted a market, cheap labor, and raw materials. As China grew richer, the demands changed to calls for investment as well as Chinese participation, cooperation, and coordination on various regional and global issues. But still the West is not satisfied with China.

It’s popular in the West to conceptualize state behaviors based on certain value judgments, particularly when evaluating the rise of China. Viewed through the prism of Western values (which are still dominant), China’s arguments and behavior on various issues, even when based on solid historical facts, are seen as pale and valueless.

This singular deductive approach hinges on one assumption: since China is different and does not behave as we want, it is wrong, evil, or even “fascist.” And if China is assumed to be “evil,” that implies that every single claim — be it territorial, political or ideological — by other parties against China must be righteous and lawful. This approach quite often fails (or simply refuses) to understand why China is different and how China has been changing in the past decades, both domestically and internationally.

China has benefited from the world order in the past decades. Meanwhile there are serious challenges for China to face, some of which are so significant that they could doom either China or the ruling regime if not successfully solved. We have seen change and progress, particularly taking into account the huge geographic, economic, and demographic divergences across the country. The progress to date is not enough and is arguably insignificant from a certain perspective. So changes and reforms in China, including the on-going anti-corruption campaign, will have to continue.

China is interwoven into the international community and unfortunately its rise inevitably has caused concerns across the region. China needs to seriously address these issues, including the possible negative impacts of its behaviors. But the world needs to understand as well that China is changing. The reforms will go on regardless of external critiques, urges, and pressures — even accusations of “fascism.”

— Jin Kai