Can China find its way amid internal and external challenges?

Chinese academic Huang Yuan says the recent Summit for Democracy is part of the US's strategic efforts to create a democratic alliance against China. The US's united front is swiftly changing China's external environment. Meanwhile, China is also facing challenges in further modernising its governance system. Huang describes China's internal and external battles and asks if the Asian giant will be able to move forward and contribute to humanity in the future, like what the US has done in the past.
Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard on a street in Shanghai, China, on 5 October 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard on a street in Shanghai, China, on 5 October 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

The inaugural Summit for Democracy initiated by the US has ended, after setting up the three main themes of defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. It is an important effort by the Biden administration to bring the US — reviled during the Donald Trump era — back to a global leadership position to resist China and Russia.

Biden wrapped up the summit by saying the US is “committed to working with all who share those values to shape the rules of the road” towards democracy, adding that he hoped to hold an in-person second summit next year.

One significant difference between Biden and Trump is that the latter was big on “America First”, thinking that the US was unbeatable. Biden’s invitation to over 100 countries and regions to join the summit was clearly to build a strategic platform that would be good for mutual consensus on international politics, and construct a global strategic alliance in line with its values. Biden seems to realise that building a democratic alliance is currently the best way to stand up to China.

US’s alliances and China's response

Building alliances is a winning formula in US global strategy. Over its 200-year history, the US way in global affairs and development has focused heavily on alliances.

From US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I proposing a “general association of nations”, to the Cairo and Yalta Conferences during World War II, to the “international trade organisation” charter proposing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO); from planning and building of the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), implementing the Marshall Plan, to putting together regional military and political frameworks in recent years such as the Quad, AUKUS, and the earlier Five-Eyes alliance, every step the US has taken has been “alliances first”.

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US President Joe Biden and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive for a 'Quad nations' meeting at the Leaders' Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework held in the East Room at the White House in Washington, US, 24 September 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The US’s united front has shaken the world. What should China do? China can respond in a couple of ways.

First, push for national and social governance to follow the market and rule of law. Even if it is still one-party rule, it should implement whole-process and whole-sector democracy, and also democratic elections and policymaking within the party as well as legislative, executive and judicial branches.

This will help improve national governance and modernise the system, so as to respond to the trend of diversity, multipolarity, and sustainability in global governance. And China can then become an advanced global leader in national governance and development.

Alternatively, it will have to manage and harmonise its relationships with other countries and not close itself off and self-isolate and grow rigid.

Only with these two responses can the people be rejuvenated and rise up, and the push for building a community with a shared future for mankind will fall in place.

The US has made contributions

Will the world go from capitalism versus socialism to democracy versus non-democracy? Or will there be a third camp of countries that have a mix of democracy and non-democracy? It seems there is no easy path to human peace and amity.

The merits or otherwise of an ideology, a belief, a system or a country, depend on the level of social governance and the inclinations of the people, as well as the positive and sustainable contributions they can make to human development.

We can also say that without the US, who knows how many other countries would become bullies?

One should say that in its 200 years of existence, the US has made enormous contributions to human development in terms of building quality frameworks, effective social governance, and global development capabilities; this cannot be ignored, despite its various problems.

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A man holds a US flag as he stands outside the West Lawn of the US Capitol building in Washington, DC on 19 November 2021. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

During the Three Kingdoms period, Cao Cao swept away all other warlords with his army; after settling northern China, he lamented: without him, how many others would call themselves rulers? We can also say that without the US, who knows how many other countries would become bullies? In Asia alone, there is Japan and India, and even the small countries of the Korean peninsula might try to be the boss.

For China, while the US is unwelcome due to its bullying behaviour, it is not all bad. The US is China’s opponent as well as its protector. China has much to thank the US for. The fact is, China and the US are a contradictory compound that stands opposed yet united, which in fact is the most stable atomic structure.

Different beliefs and ideologies will not get in the way of connections and needs between China and the US, nor will the Taiwan issue cut off mutual interaction and interest. Interaction and mutual needs will always come first for both countries; disagreements and differences and even conflicts come second.

The US will understand that it cannot block the reunification of mainland China and Taiwan, and it cannot cut off contact with China over the mainland taking back Taiwan. No truly wise US political leader would fail to understand what China-US interaction means to the US’s fundamental interests.

With serious differences in resources, costs, market, and even legal status, how state-owned capital co-exist and peacefully prosper alongside private capital is an inevitable social revolution for China in the process of modernising its national governance.

China is in battle

We also have to see that China is in battle, both internally and externally. Externally, it has to fight US-led democratic politics as well as a national governance system characterised by total marketisation and the rule of law. This battle could only intensify. Internally, at the very least it is facing the new challenge of a self-revolution in national governance, driven by marketisation and the rule of law.

Jack Ma’s verbal bombs at the second Bund Finance Summit in October 2020 that led to the failed listing of Ant Group was in fact a tussle between the government and private capital for the right to speak on national development, a question of whose words count in China’s development framework and direction.

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People cross a road in the central business district in Beijing on 16 December 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)

With serious differences in resources, costs, market, and even legal status, how state-owned capital co-exist and peacefully prosper alongside private capital is an inevitable social revolution for China in the process of modernising its national governance. Its economic growth in the third quarter of this year plunged below 5%; apart from the pandemic, this has to do with the chain reaction for self-preservation caused by subjective regulatory actions taken to contain the private economy.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has followed the theory of the political economy and the ideas of national governance of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; whether this can handle the fighting in the above aspects and open up a way forward will be a true test of the CCP’s ability to govern and reform itself, and may also impact the survival of this 100-year-old party.

People like democracy because it reflects the voice of each social entity, and is relatively fairer and freer — at least the rights, obligations and opportunities of each member of society, as established by law, are completely equal. People like autocracy because once one is that autocrat or part of a vested interest group, one has an elevated social status and many unearned benefits. And since both systems have their supporters, one has only to ask the entire community to get a clear answer as to which is better in terms of social governance.

Right now, the US is the most powerful country in the world, with the strongest military, business, and technological development. The US, being so powerful, should commit itself to the correct path of fair, orderly, and sustainable global development, and not build its power on crushing the foundations of others.

If the Summit for Democracy was held to drive global governance and towards fair, orderly, free, and sustainable development, then of course, it is creditable and would gain much support; but if it is about pulling together a gang to beat down another group, that would be petty, and whatever democracy and freedom was spoken of would just be a fake front.

Related: Will the Summit for Democracy unite or divide the world? | A low-confidence US, an unconvincing democracy summit | Invite list for Summit for Democracy shows true calculations in American foreign policy | US democracy summit: Taipei is invited, Beijing is not included | War of words: China and the US tussle for speaking rights on democracy