Westerners need self-reflection before criticizing China

In an afterword to the 2006 edition of The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama depicted a possible scenario of world politics: the victory of an authoritarian type of capitalism over liberal democratic capitalist states. While this is not his preferred destination, it is moving in that direction.

The West seems to be annoyed by a series of events: China’s cyber attacks on Western computer networks, disputes with Google, crackdowns on human rights activists, execution of a British citizen, and its unhelpful role ranging from the climate change talks to Iran’s nuclear program. The list goes on. Pundits point to the increasing threats posted by an increasingly self-confident China.

But before going on criticizing China, let’s view the matter from another angle: The West’s response to China’s economic reform and opening. It plays an important part in fuelling China’s self-confidence, one of the key themes discussed in posts by Chinese scholar Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤) on BBC Chinese Web and Lu Di (芦笛) on Bullogger.com.

China’s great gamble

Deng Xiaoping, China’s legendary reformist leader, once said, ‘no matter black or white, it is a good cat as long as it can catch a mouse.’ It is this pragmatism that underlies China’s economic reform in 1978 after the disastrous decade of Cultural Revolution. China’s embrace of capitalism, as Zhu Xueqin likens it, successfully turns itself into a cat that catches many mice, or Western capitalist democratic nations:


Xiaoping placed a bet on the cat. In the marriage between cat and mouse, the one being eaten is the mouse, not the cat.

Even at the most dangerous moment of the gamble, the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, China’s authoritarianism steered itself out of dangers, thanks to Western capitalists:


The dangerous moment of the gamble is between 1989 and 1991. With tanks on the streets, all mice were scared. Foreign investments retreated, GDP nosedived, and China faced imminent collapse. Comrade Xiaoping, during his Southern Tour, said ‘I don’t care if it is socialism or capitalism.’ With one strike, he reopened the floodgate for foreign investments again.


With Deng’s far-sightedness and welcoming of foreign capitals, the mice just could not resist. What tiny cost it is just to open up the market a bit! Capitalists, capitalists, I don’t believe that once capitalists come to China, their governments would not follow! Indeed, Western countries come in one by one for Chinese contracts. What’s more, those governments which secured too few contracts would be criticized by its own constituencies and media. The economic sanction was broken in this way, not to mention political isolation. The crisis of 1989 was resolved.

Capitalism and universal values

Reflecting on Zhu’s article, Lu Di is not so sure whether Western civilization could insist on the universal values of justice and freedom in face of China’s capitalism:


Actually, Lenin discovered this long ago. When Western civilization was boycotting Soviet Union, he judged that greed was the nature of capitalists. Sooner or later, they would come and do business with Soviet Union. The reason that Deng decided to bloodily suppress the Tiananmen protest of 1989, at a time when China was weak, was that he saw the hypocrisy of the West. No matter how noble or just your cause is, you just could not resist but bend down for coins.

He discussed his views on a number of recent cases:


Talking about Google and Yahoo, it’s sad to note about their difference, which is tiny: Yahoo completely accepted [Chinese government’s intrusion on privacy], and supplied communications information of dissidents, resulting in the heavy imprisonment of Shi Tao. Google had in principle accepted Chinese government’s right to control information, and only did not accept intrusion on privacy. This is the only difference, and it is uncertain whether Google could keep to this bottomline.


It is not difficult to see why the Chinese government dared to heavily imprison Liu Xiaobo: First, they knew that Westerners, for the sake of commercial interests, would control their reaction, at most mumbling a word or two. Economic sanction is a weapon the West no longer posses. Second, they knew that domestic elites would oppose to so-called ‘universal values’ out of their own interests. Therefore, no matter what the government does, there would not be strong backlashes.


What do these show? The weakness of justice in front of money. Universal values could not survive the ‘money offensive’, no matter how noble they are. The free world is not afraid of Soviet nuclear bombs, but has no choice but to surrender under China’s sugar-coated bullets.

Goodbye Google

Is the West’s hope that engagement with China economically will lead to political reforms merely wishful thinking? Zhu quoted some philosophical reflections on the relationship between capitalism and authoritarianism:


Market economy and modern constitutionalism do not necessarily have causal relations. The former is a necessary condition for the latter, but by no means a necessary and sufficient condition. In other words, without market economy, there is no modern constitutionalism. But market economy does not imply modern constitutionalism. Other conditions must exist.

Zhu ended his article with a pessimistic note:


The China Cat has transformed its DNA. Those which feed it are also those being eaten. The world now has a new species. Whether the mouse is within or outside it, they will all be eaten. Big mouse, Big mouse, this land does not suit you. Go back to America. Goodbye John Leighton Stuart, goodbye Google!


  • Oi-lin

    Yawn. Han Chinese people have skins that are too thin and point fingers because they themselves cannot self-reflect. It makes me embarrassed to be one.

  • gary jones

    I’m in Beijing. I just tried to access the link you mention in your third paragraph, when you said “discussed in posts by Chinese scholar Zhu Xueqin”.

    That link is blocked, so I can’t read what Zhu said.

  • Your point is well taken. Non-Chinese (which is what Chinese really mean when they say “Westerners”…Japanese, Korean, South East Asian, etc. also make the same criticisms of China) really should think more deeply about their own actions and how we got to the current political and economic situation. Too often, self-righteous, chest-beating so-called “defenders of freedom” are quick to criticize perceived injustices that happen a world a way without even a remote understanding of the history and socioeconomic circumstances of the society in question.

    That being said, the second half of the article is just a serious of relatively long quotes and fails to make a coherent argument for why self-reflection is needed. Such long quotes, especially when several of them are rather awkward when translated into English, really call for some explanation to give the reader a better idea of how the quotes back up your thesis.

    Thanks for the post!

  • I get that capitalist interests are being criticized as greedy, but otherwise I have no context for this piece. Does Zhu Xueqin represent a dominant strain of thought in China, or is this a radical position? There are many metaphors here; what does “the west” as “mice” mean? Is this a nationalist screed (“we will catch them all”) or a plea for cooperation (“one by one they will come to talk with us.”)

    I appreciate the translation effort but this is truly meaningless to me without more context.

    – Jonathan

  • CmdrR

    Share some thoughts on immigration:


  • Liz Mitchell

    Firstly, I have to tell how much I appreciate sites like this one which provide translation of crucial and current events. It’s been quite an ongoing education for me ( and I expect many others) launched by reading ESWN a few years ago and continually stoked by a growing number of excellent blogs. It’s helped clear the fog created by our western media, the idealistic expat and the opportunistic and critical expat living in China.
    Secondly, I am constantly amazed by comments from local chinese bloggers who show such a grasp of the bigger pictures in spite of our perceived view of their small world inside the GFW. These translations reflect striking insights.

  • bert

    We all should judge ourselves first. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Maybe all this “judgement” of China is a bit of a “karma” thing? I mean anyone who knows anything about China in the past 60 years knows that China judged “the West” pretty regularly up until it wasn’t so neccessary (economically) and anyone who lives in China today can still get a little dose of it. The “West” seems to take the judgement in stride but poor old China seems to have a hard time taking what it dished/es out. Maybe the party can just suck it up and continue to do what it wants no matter what “the West” or its own citizens have to say

  • […] “The weakness of justice in front of money: …the free world is not afraid of Soviet nuclear bombs, but has no choice but to surrender under China’s sugar-coated bullets.” ~ Discuss (0) ~ […]

  • no

    Good essay.

    The premise is quite simple really: Despite the talks Western Democracy cannot resist capitalism. China, by embracing capitalism has succeeded in leveraging its position as the more dominate force because it’s winning the economy game.

    To any non-biased observer it’ should be obvious that both democratic and non-democractic nations are run by national interests rather than political ideologies. If you think western democracies’ primary focus is to spread its political system elsewhere, simply look at the foreign policy decisions in the past; the US for example has taken down almost as many democratic institutions and replaced them with dictatorships as vice versa. If national interests are driven by pure capitalist greed, then China will prevail at the end.

  • I think it’s the war declared by savage capitalism to modern capitalism, or sing the same song, limited resources versus infinite population.

    It is a pity that you cannot stop this, or you are declaring the war to the humanity, and you will lose the war, definitely.

    Since so many peole on this planet wake up in the same century and are going to seek a better life, you cannot enjoy the resources ALONE anymore!

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