Understanding China

We in the West so often fail to understand China because in our arrogance we assume it fits into Western conceptions of the nation-state, ethnicity, and how state interacts with the individual. That’s the thesis of this excellent TED talk by Mark Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. Here’s the embed:

At the very end of the talk, Jacques rightly points out that the rise of China, India, Brazil and other developing nations herald a democratization of the world order. But anyone who watched the twenty minutes preceding that remark knows that he’s talking about a very specific kind of democratization which has little to do with Western-style liberal democracies and is wholly compatible with the sort of authoritarian paternalism central to Beijing’s governing philosophy. The world order may be democratizing, but that does not mean it is becoming more hospitable for democracy.

Last week I expressed my deep skepticism towards the notion that history will inevitably culminate in a state of enlightened democracy. I presented the philosophical case, but China’s ascension towards world power status strikes me as the empirical one. If, as Jacques predicts, China’s economy dwarfs all others in the year 2050, there won’t be many Western pundits left opining about the end of history. Indeed, the existence of a sinocentric world would leave open the possibility that in four or five centuries liberal democracy will be regarded as a historical fluke.

I pray that won’t be the case. Political legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed remains the most morally defensible justification for political authority we as a species have yet developed. But we need to appreciate that this thing we’ve built is as fragile as it is precious. More to the point, it’s not as quickly and easily exportable as we’ve assumed in the past.

At the same time, we need to understand that the death of liberal democracy likely wouldn’t be some apocalyptic, world-destroying event. It’s possible that when the end comes, most people won’t even notice, let alone mourn. Maybe that sounds a little bit fatalistic, but I’m not talking about inevitabilities. I only want to underscore that democracy’s death is no less preordained than its triumph, and that sheltering what gains we’ve made means humble, clear-eyed engagement with a world that thinks in very different terms.

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