Illiberal China22 min read

Josh Freedman reviews two new studies of Chinese political models

The past forty years of economic reform have vaulted China into the upper echelons of global wealth and power, but it has come at a high social cost. China is wealthier than ever, but inequality is rampant, individuals feel unmoored, and there is no sense of public trust.

Where can China go from here? In 2012, the prominent Chinese sociologist and public intellectual Sun Liping summarized the state of China’s intellectual discourse by outlining (in Chinese) four possible directions for China’s future. China’s leaders could return to the recent past, reviving the egalitarian populism of Maoist socialism. On the other extreme, the country could double down on privatizing the economy, “deepening reforms” along the lines preferred by the business class. Alternatively, given the entrenched barriers to any major transition, the Party-state could simply try to preserve the status quo. Or, finally, it could opt for a more comprehensive reassessment of the basic premises of reform, and forge a new path based on some combination of institutions that combine constitutional politics and economic fairness.

The intervening years have only complicated this picture. Voters in the liberal democratic West, also frustrated with inequality, alienation, and powerlessness, have expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box through Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has embraced the concept of illiberal democracy, citing, among other examples, the economic rise of China; and most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” The embarrassing public rebukes of liberal politics and economics around the world have reverberated in China and further emboldened advocates of a stronger one-party state, even as select liberalizing economic and social reforms continue apace.

There is no better time than now for the entire world to reckon with liberalism – which also means reckoning with its alternatives. Liberalism, of course, is a slippery concept, one which expands to fit the scope of any argument like liquid poured into a mold. At its core, however, liberalism usually encompasses a combination of pluralistic values, individual autonomy, and basic civil liberties. China’s political system is fundamentally illiberal, yet it often embraces liberal ideas. What can China tell us about alternatives to liberalism in today’s world? 

There is no better time than now for the entire world to reckon with liberalism”

Daniel F. Vukovich, an American scholar of comparative literature based in Hong Kong, believes that China’s illiberalism is something to be celebrated, not mourned. In Illiberal China: The Ideological Challenge of the People’s Republic of China, Vukovich – a fierce defender of the Chinese New Left school of thought – argues that liberalism, with its focus on individual rights, is a particular Western ideology that is irrelevant in authoritarian China. The Chinese state’s opposition to liberalism goes deeper than policy differences: it carries rhetorical significance as a rejection of a Western set of values. Vukovich ultimately advocates a “progressive illiberalism” that combines Mao-style mass mobilization with a strong, authoritarian state, a combination that he believes could be uniquely Chinese and more effective than liberalism has been in the West.

Vukovich’s argument, forcefully argued albeit often maddeningly circuitous, rehashes the standard claims of Chinese New Left scholars, who critique China’s market-focused reforms from the left. The real enemy is not the state, they argue, but rather neoliberalism: China’s social ills are a function of market logics that have metastasized into all parts of life and society, transforming individual citizens into de-politicized consumers bereft of their humanity. Meanwhile, the liberal ideal of electoral democracy, whose single standard is one person, one vote, fails in its fundamental democratic mission to represent the interests of the common people. Electoral democracy favors special interests and the desires of the rich and powerful, Vukovich claims with swagger; it is a “neutralizing, administrative mode of politics, a legal fetishism where laws are equated with justice and embody universal truth.” A strong state, in the New Left vision, is the source of a better society, not its enemy.

China is obviously “illiberal” in the most basic sense of the word: it does not allow for free speech or an independent civil society, and it is willing to jail and repress those individuals who it sees as threatening to its interests. Illiberalism can, and does, lead to excessive repression, Vukovich acknowledges. Yet he also dismisses critiques of state power as elements of a Western “orientalism” that refuses to allow Chinese particularities to grow. In other words, he is concerned only with the tyranny of the market, not that of the state, and sees criticisms of China’s illiberalism as an unwillingness to engage with China on its own terms.

A strong state, in the New Left vision, is the source of a better society, not its enemy”

In framing China’s relationship with liberalism, Vukovich ignores modern China’s own domestic tradition of liberalism, most notably associated with the May 4th movement of 1919, and instead focuses on a straw-man anti-state “Hayekian” liberalism committed to free markets and private property. He traces the Chinese Communist Party’s opposition to liberal ideas back to Mao Zedong, whose 1937 polemic ‘Combat Liberalism’ describes the ways in which liberal values are antithetical to the revolutionary zeal needed to save China. Liberalism promotes political restraint, gradual reform, and individual opinions – all ideas that are incompatible with revolution. Even after Mao’s death and the Party’s embrace of many liberal economic policies, Vukovich argues, the rhetorical importance of political liberalism as a point of opposition remained, this time as an expression of China’s unwillingness to submit to Western imperialism.

Vukovich’s anti-imperialist reading of both Mao-era and contemporary attitudes toward liberalism echoes that of some New Left intellectuals, but not the Chinese Party-state itself. Vukovich describes Mao’s denunciation of liberalism as a call to arms “aimed at the meaning of the revolution and not just fealty to the Party and proper, strict discipline”; Party ideologues, however, offer a more straightforward interpretation. An exegesis of “Combat Liberalism” published in the top Party journal, Qiushi, explained (in Chinese) in 2019 claims that Mao “is pointing specifically to a type of behavior or rhetoric that runs counter to Party discipline. This is not the same concept as the liberalism popular within Western capitalism.”

Vukovich ultimately wants to defend China’s ability to create its own political system and political theory, while rejecting the actual political system and theory that dominate; and he wants to promote New Left thinkers for coming up with alternatives, while dismissing non-New Left ideas that attempt to do something similar. To square this circle, he assumes that the leadership of the Chinese state is receptive to critical New Left ideas – a claim for which he offers scant evidence. Even he admits that the Chinese Party-state is moving further away from embracing the type of real mass democratic mobilization he supports. The highly circumscribed way in which he stakes his own position suggests the difficulty of actually believing it to be true: “A shift into what may be termed a ‘progressive illiberalism’ is, then, by no means bound to happen, but also by no means destined not to happen.”

Vukovich’s overall argument is provocative and challenging, and is worth taking seriously, especially for those on the political left who share his antipathy toward the global convergence on neoliberal capitalism. Unfortunately, Vukovich’s genuine revulsion toward neoliberalism, and his unwavering desire to do whatever it takes to oppose it, ultimately draws him into a thicket of indefensible claims reminiscent of some of the same fallacies that blinded a generation of Western leftists into an uncritical embrace of Mao a half-century ago. He identifies the right problems but asks the wrong questions, often basing his arguments on faulty comparisons. Vukovich’s argument resembles one of the “tofu-dreg” construction projects dotting the Chinese landscape: it may look sturdy on the outside, but when pushed too hard it starts to collapse.

Vukovich wants to recast illiberalism as part of the current Chinese project”

Xu Jilin is no stranger to the arguments of the New Left. One of China’s leading intellectual historians, Xu, a professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, is a frequent public commentator on modern Chinese politics and society. Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique features eight of his essays, mostly published in the Sinophone world between 2010 and 2015, selected, translated and introduced by David Ownby, a professor at the University of Montreal and a cofounder of the ‘Reading the China Dream’ project on contemporary Chinese intellectual thought. These essays lay out Xu’s comprehensive attempt to articulate a version of Sun Liping’s fourth reform future: a new political order based on a few select universal principles.

Xu is a liberal, as the book’s subtitle suggests, but he bears little in common with the proselytizers of free market utopias that Vukovich describes. Xu agrees that marketization and privatization have left people in modern China unmoored. He suggests an alternative, albeit idealized, path forward, one that preserves core elements of a liberal political order but is compatible with Confucianism or other social values. Xu’s vision affirms the importance of universal values, but refuses to grant a monopoly over them to the industrialized, liberal West.

Xu’s argument, drawing from a dizzying range of sources in both Chinese and Western political thought, is built on differentiating the notions of “civilization” and “culture.” Civilization is composed of a set of universally relevant values, a set of moral claims rooted in human nature that seeks to answer the question “what is good”; culture is a set of characteristics particular to a given nation-state, a unique set of traditions that is, for each group of people, “what is ours.” New Left intellectuals, who reject the possibility of universal values and instead call for a particularistic China model, are confusing culture for civilization, Xu argues; the result is a worldview that is both historically inaccurate and a surefire path to a despotism that only Nietzsche could approve of. Xu writes:

“If the proponents of the China model only want to imitate the West to obtain wealth and power while in terms of civilizational values and institutions they cling to their own ‘unique’ culture, then even if they succeed in creating a unique Chinese path, it will only be a bizarre combination of universal capitalist utilitarian rationality and the East Asian authoritarian tradition. Will this be a new Chinese civilization 2.0? Or rather another short-lived Mongol Yuan dynasty, possessing only the material power to conquer, yet lacking the spirit necessary to create a new civilization?”

If for him the “China model” is an extension of pure moral relativism, its opposite – orthodox liberalism that sees Western values as the only legitimate universal values – is rooted in an equally problematic moral absolutism. The End of History missionaries wield a worldview in which a universalist conception of civilization crowds out culture. Xu instead navigates a path between these two poles of relativism and absolutism by focusing on pluralism, bringing in the “value pluralism” of the late political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Xu sees the possible existence of multiple universal modern values, which may be overlapping, exclusive or even contradictory. All of these values are equally true in their own right, but not any value is defensible as one that could be universal. “Cultural pluralism,” Xu writes, “accepts universal values within the streams of different histories and cultures; universal values can take on different cultural forms and concrete expressions.” Universal values, he claims, are always in flux:

“What we call universal civilization is a composite built out of common features of different particular civilizations, the basic values permitting humanity to achieve peaceful coexistence and healthy development. Universal civilization is not a fixed, unchanging state, but instead evolves with the times and with the addition of more civilizations.”

Modern societies cannot reject universal values, which include freedom, democracy and equality, but can choose which universal values to prioritize. China’s explosive post-Mao economic rise has been successful in accruing material benefit, Xu notes; its task now is to build a civilization, not just a money-making machine. China should choose which universal values to establish as the core of its civilization, and then work to convince others of the validity of these choices. To suggest, as Vukovich does, that any notion of universal values is infeasible or a sign of “orientalism” is as simplistic as it is unhelpful. Xu sees it as a vacuous, defensive posture that does nothing more than separate “us” from “the enemy.” It is useless for building a legitimate set of values on which the Chinese nation can actually thrive and assert its place in the world.

Xu puts forth a positive vision of China as a tolerant, open society whose commitment to universal values would echo the ancient Chinese understanding of the world as tianxia, or all under heaven. Tianxia, Xu argues, was a civilizational order and set of values above and beyond the state that held society together, regardless of whatever particular dynastic ruler was in charge at the moment. In other words, “the state could be destroyed, but tianxia could not.” Whereas tianxia was hierarchical and centered on China as the center of the world, Xu envisions a “tianxia 2.0” in which China reclaims a set of civilizational values that respects pluralism, both within its own borders and among international peers. He compares China under a new tianxia to the Confucian ideal of the “superior man” (君子), who “acts in harmony with others but does not seek to be like them.” 

Xu does not reject the state, nor does he adopt the extreme liberal view that the state is merely a necessary evil whose role should be minimized. “The state is not merely a tool designed to realize individual rights and interests and collective well-being, but instead has its own general will and common good,” he writes. Where he objects to the New Left, however, is in the idea that the state can be everything, the only source of value in society. Without some other moral framework besides state rationality, Xu argues, the state is a vessel barrelling headlong toward destructive nationalism and tyrannical rule. 

Each building block of Xu’s argument is expertly crafted, integrating careful readings of scholarly works spanning time and place (and, in one case, the movie Inception). He shows both the promise and limits of liberalism, reaffirming the dangers of ignoring the existence of some universal values, while also addressing the concomitant dangers of ignoring cultural distinction. But his construction as a whole, as sturdy as its foundation is, leaves one important question unaddressed. He correctly argues that unchecked state power always has the potential to devolve into despotism, but what is there to ensure that liberal political values will not inherently overpower all aspects of society, as critics like Vukovich fear? 

Modern societies cannot reject universal values, but they can choose which ones to prioritize”

Xu’s argument is sharpest in its deconstruction of the arguments of the New Left and the New Confucians, the two main alternatives to liberal thought in post-Mao China. Although Xu disagrees with the New Left, he is quick to praise their position as it existed in the 1990s. In ‘The Specter of Leviathan,’ Xu’s most powerful essay in this collection, he directs his ire at the transformation of the New Left by the late 2000s, when it abandoned its critiques of power in all forms and instead “began to move to … a near-complete embrace of the state, and the extreme left wing was transmuted into a conservative statism.” The New Left is right to critique neoliberal excess, Xu argues, but its single-minded crusade against marketized power left it vulnerable to other sources of power. As soon as the state began to express a rhetoric opposing liberalism in the name of sovereignty, according to Xu, the New Left transformed from critical intellectuals to worshippers of centralized power:

“While China’s New Left strongly opposes power, in its heart its real enemy is Western neoliberalism. When the state and neoliberalism make common cause, the New Left is the critic of the state, but once the state distances itself from the “erroneous” neoliberal line, and returns to the “correct” socialist path, then in the eyes of the New Left the state is transformed into the hope of the people.”

Vukovich praises the New Left for playing a role as both critical intellectuals and scholars who have the ear of the state, but Xu’s explanation reveals the contradictions within such a claim. While Vukovich assumes away any tension between being both critical and influential, Xu’s logic instead suggests an inverse relationship: if leaders are as willing to listen to New Left scholars as Vukovich claims, they only do so insofar as the New Left scholars have abandoned many of their original critiques of power. 

In one passage, Xu pushes back against the arguments of New Left scholar Wang Shaoguang, who attempts to recast the meaning of democracy away from a focus on electoral procedures and towards how well it can respond to citizens’ demands. Western electoral democracy is inherently “oligopolistic” and “aristocratic,” Wang argues (accurately, by and large); it is tilted in favor of the rich and unable to address the needs of the masses. Through its myriad ways of gauging public opinion and responding to grievances in order to stave off unrest, Wang argues, the Chinese state is practicing what he terms “responsive democracy.”

Wang’s provocative claims help elucidate the multifaceted – and often effective – nature of Chinese governance, but Xu offers a more critical take. Writing off electoral democracy because of its imperfections, however, does not automatically prove the alternative to be better. Xu rejects Wang’s idea of “responsive democracy” on the grounds that it is impossible to tell if the government is truly responsive to the people without any institutionalized accountability. Even if the Chinese system is responsive to some demands, it is still a system in which “political initiative remains always in the hands of the government … if they do not respond or adopt, then there’s nothing to be done, as there are absolutely no systemic constraints.” To Xu, this is the epitome of de-politicized governance that treats people not as citizens but as administrative subjects. 

Vukovich, too, is concerned with the rise of a de-politicized citizenry, but he wants to avoid putting too much blame on the state. One chapter of his book analyzes the protests that rocked the southern Chinese village of Wukan in 2011, in which villagers took to the streets for months to protest local corruption, until higher levels of government intervened and adjudicated the issue in the villagers’ favor. He interprets the incident as both a success and a failure: the Wukan villagers’ actions represents an effort “toward making the state respond and work in its own terms,” yet many aspects of the state response further highlight the overall goal of suppressing citizen participation and trying to “neutralize politics and protests via economics/prosperity/money/development.”

Much of Vukovich’s analysis of Wukan is clear-headed and nuanced, but his reasoning falters when he tries to draw the conclusion that electoral democracy is irrelevant. Even as he rightly takes issue with Western critics for misreading and oversimplifying the nature of Chinese politics, he ends up doing the same for politics more broadly, thus nullifying the value of the argument he is trying to make.

Writing off electoral democracy because of its imperfections does not automatically prove the alternative to be better”

Wukan’s protests, he says, were more effective than the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York — which he claims were “entirely ignored” by the government. This statement is simply false. Barack Obama (the president of the United States at the time!) publicly voiced his support for the movement, and many people credit the movement with propelling a sea change in American politics that brought inequality back onto the political agenda – not to mention the indirect tangible impacts through movements such as the Fight for $15 campaign, which has roots in Occupy and has resulted in minimum wage increases in a number of American states.

Such a blatant misreading is indicative of a broader flaw of Vukovich’s argument, which in its attempts to destroy the shibboleths of modern politics often becomes so exaggerated as to elide key differences. In seeking to dismiss the charge that illiberalism is synonymous with repression, Vukovich claims: “All states are by definition authoritarian (with a ‘monopoly on violence’ as Weber famously put it), if unevenly so.” In other words, differences between authoritarian and democratic regimes are different in degree, but not in kind. He then goes on to defend this position by arguing that the United States exercises implicit censorship by ostracizing critical figures. “The New York Times will not even review a book by Noam Chomsky,” he claims, “let alone give him editorial space.”

Regardless of where the exact line is between an authoritarian and non-authoritarian regime, there is an obvious difference. Political scientist Milan Svolik, for example, suggests that an authoritarian regime is defined in part by a lack of an independent authority to enforce political agreements, which means the institutionalized “rules of the game” are never fully secure. Real life examples illustrate this point: the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in Canada, regardless of justification, followed institutionalized judicial processes; but when the Chinese police arrested two Canadians in retaliation, it detained them in an undisclosed location, prevented them from seeing lawyers or family, and kept them in solitary confinement. It also appears to have flouted its own legal procedures to sentence another Canadian to death. America may be a deeply flawed country that egregiously runs afoul of its own stated moral principles, but to pretend there are no institutional differences between types of political regimes is disingenuous – and makes productive analysis of substantive differences more difficult. Also, Noam Chomsky was given editorial space in The New York Times as recently as 2017. 

If China is to offer a convincing ideological challenge to the liberal world, Xu suggests that Confucianism could play a role”

If Xu argues that a true value pluralism could include values beyond those seen in contemporary liberal democracies, what might other “civilizational” values be? Vukovich identifies one way in which the current Chinese Party-state elevates a different but widely accepted value to the top of its agenda: an emphasis on improving livelihoods. China’s modern leaders have consistently prioritized creating a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会) that lifts citizens out of poverty and improves quality of life for the poor. This, surely, qualifies as one of Xu’s civilizational values, right alongside freedom and equality, as a shared and universalizable claim to legitimacy. Yet Vukovich, who points out the effectiveness of this state agenda, also dismisses the importance of livelihoods on the grounds that it is still rooted in a de-politicized consumerism. An emphasis on material well-being is good, Vukovich tells us, because it is more “Chinese” than Western, yet it is bad because it still reeks of neoliberal hegemony. 

Xu floats the possibility of Confucianism as one alternative. Xu opposes Confucianism as a political doctrine, but sees its promise in the social realm: he suggests that Confucianism could play a role as a “civil religion” whose purpose is to establish social norms. For Xu, the principles of liberalism are irreplaceable in the political realm, but they must stay in their place and not stray too far into the private or social areas of life. In turn, the values of a Confucian social order cannot infringe upon a fair, institutionalized political order. All of this together, Xu states, could serve as the mix of civilizational and cultural values that China embraces and offers to the world.

As Ownby, the translator and compiler of Xu’s essays, notes in his introduction, it is unclear whether Xu’s speculative, grandiose vision of a new tianxia, or his suggestion to combine liberalism with Confucianism, are meant to be taken seriously as political theories or just as provocations. Regardless of their intent, Xu’s ideas are critical for pushing us to think about the proper balance between state, market, and society – not only in China, but in the West, amid our own reckoning with liberalism and its discontents. It is too easy to dismiss liberalism as a failure; the challenge, evident in Xu’s own thinking, is to search for alternative value frameworks that can both coexist with political liberalism and constrain it in the economic sphere.

Xu’s specific cocktail of liberalism-Confucianism-pluralism may not be exactly the right mix for China’s future. By dispensing with the constraints of existing recipes, however, and blending ingredients from both Chinese and Western sources, Xu shows us the potential of thinking beyond the stale categories defining contemporary political debates. Xu reminds us that some space for political liberalism is vital for a polity built on fairness and justice, but that liberalism alone cannot be the answer. Core liberal tenets should not be abandoned, but they must be constrained to their proper sphere, prevented from suffocating all individual and social relationships.

Much of the liberal democratic West may be too deeply committed to an ideology of unrestrained individualism and the supremacy of markets to be able to think through these questions clearly. Xu’s perspective – and Vukovich’s, at times – offers a chance to imagine more fully a set of political arrangements that preserve core values of liberalism while balancing them with other social and cultural values, not just those of markets or individuals. That, not an outright rejection of liberalism, is the true illiberal challenge of the People’s Republic of China. ∎

Illiberal China: The Ideological Challenge of the People’s Republic of China, by Daniel F. Vukovich (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique, by Xu Jilin (trans. David Ownby) (Cambridge University Press, 2018).