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!


  • […] Beitrag erschien zuerst auf Global Voices. Die Übersetzung erfolgte durch Hans H. Knauf, Teil des “Project Lingua“. Die […]

  • Paul Diezel

    Why do writers refer to such a huge group of countries as the ‘west’. Obviously there are major differences in economic values, foreign policy and culture among other things. Why do we never refer to ‘the east’. I think it is far too convenient for people to lump all of these so called democratic capitalist nations under one great label. Usually when people use grand generalizations and labels such as these, alarm bells start to ring for me.

    The devil’s in the details.

    It’s alot easier to argue with one giant mass of ideology rather than a great number of different view points. If this is true and all countries referred to as ‘Western’ countries (which when it comes to economic, environmental, military and sovereignty it usual involves Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Phillipines, Taiwan, and Vietnam) are ALL wrong. How is it that so many different countries have had diplomatic fallouts over a number of issues

    (Taiwan – sovereignty, Vietnam – island sovereignty, France – Tibet protests, America – Say no more, Australia – Rio steel debacle, meeting Ughur spokeswoman, Japan – south china sea sovereignty, old history, old old history, India – border sovereignty, Iran – cyber attacks, etc.)

    So ALL these countries are wrong? How many enemies does China need?

    When I lived in China (for 7 years) Any country that said anything negative about China was slammed in the media, and nationalistic fervor was encouraged e.g. carrefour. This seems like a natural reaction from the government in any country, but the media in most democratic countries, by and large, is not an arm of the government so the government is to some extent criticised by private mouth pieces and domestic media as much as foreign media e.g. public criticism of the Bush adminstration was more fervant in America than anywhere else.

    There are two sides to every story, In some cases you don’t hear them clearly in democratic countries, but if you want to know the other side you don’t have to look hard. In a place where there is only one officially allowed side of the coin, how can an opinion be taken seriously? Wouldn’t it be subject to bias in most cases?

    Please be aware again of broad generalisations such as ‘western’ media. Within any one democratic country you have a huge plethora of outlets where people voice there views on all kinds of issues and many of them are on opposing sides. So let’s not judge half the world by Fox (Faux) news.

    As a policeman, if you wanted to get the full personal profile of a person, you would go round to all the people that associated with that person and try to gather common answers or observations aswell as visit there living/working environment. Would this not be a worthy way of coming to some conclusion on China’s situation and dealings? There are thousands of different articles, books, blogs that discuss this topic from all over the world from many different people of different occupations. My point to this rave is, go around and try to investigate more countries perspectives on issues to do with China before drawing generalised conclusions.

  • Pablo

    Sorry for the double post. My point being is, if you’re talking about self reflection, I hear and see it all the time in many democratic countries. It comes under many guises; news, protest, voting, petitions, movies, music, art, the list goes on. All of these are apparati of the people who have self reflected are want to illicit change. Unfortunately money speaks louder than words in many recent instances so we can only try harder. Who’s trying in China? I’m sure they would if they could.

  • China’s economic reform in 1978 means what? (except at autumn first farmers alone risking own lives started to ignore nonsense system to survive)
    how China’s embrace of capitalism catches Western capitalist democratic nations?
    really it was Deng decided to bloodily suppress the Tiananmen protest of 1989?

  • Min Jiang

    I appreciate the piece. One quibble. The translation for 宪政民主 is constitutional democracy, not “authoritarianism,” which is exactly the opposite of what Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤) meant.

  • The subject matter is not clear to me. Would someone clearly write it down.

  • aha, i found: China’s economic reform in 1978 = declaration of ‘four modernizations’ in december

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