China’s reform and opening up needs a breakthrough

Commentator Wei Da says that the rise and fall of civilisations across history have demonstrated that the management of the government’s power, the protection of individual property rights and the independent judicial system are the indispensable trinity of modern civilisation. Will China be able to learn these lessons amid its reform and opening up?
A member of the People's Liberation Army in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square ahead of the closing of the Second Session of the 14th National People's Congress in Beijing, China, on 11 March 2024. (Bloomberg)
A member of the People's Liberation Army in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square ahead of the closing of the Second Session of the 14th National People's Congress in Beijing, China, on 11 March 2024. (Bloomberg)

Regret is a bitter pill, yet one must learn from the lessons of experience. The most important lesson for China is that unless its reforms and opening up are comprehensive, in-depth and thorough as well as pervasive within its systems, the outcome will not be real progress and advancement in civilisation but merely a recurrence of fate. 

Three systemic changes must occur in order for outcomes to be comprehensive, in-depth and thorough. First, elections, checks and balances, and supervision of power must be systematised. Second, there must be the rights to ownership, exchange and inheritance of individual property within the system. Third, independent functioning of the judiciary must be systematically implemented, protected and developed.

Control and supervision of power

Neighbouring Russia mirrors the recent and modern historical development of China. From the first shots fired in the October Revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev 32 years ago, to President Vladimir Putin’s current domestic and global hysterics of a caged beast, China can easily trace its footsteps in Russia’s course.

A recent, major event in Russia has shown an accelerated downturn in the fortunes of this nation and its people. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had long been persecuted, allegedly poisoned and imprisoned by the Putin administration, has died of mysterious circumstances in prison. The West has commented that the dictator Putin has finally ripped off the last fig leaf of Russian democracy, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The average person may wonder why Navalny, who was already imprisoned and banished to faraway freezing Siberia, had to be poisoned and killed. It seems a dictator’s thinking defies conventional logic. To a dictator, the possession of supreme power is his destiny and his security is of utmost importance. Therefore, any existing and potential threat to his power must be immediately eradicated and eliminated.

The Navalny incident once again reminds the modern world, including China, that systems and cultures in modern civilised nations are not products of casual and thoughtless remarks.

People pay tribute at the grave of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the day of Russia's presidential election in Moscow on 17 March 2024 (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)
People pay tribute at the grave of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the day of Russia's presidential election in Moscow on 17 March 2024. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)

Putin is in his early 70s but Navalny was only 47. Navalny was obsessed with opposing Putin’s regime and had the support of many followers and the West, which undoubtedly posed a potentially enormous threat to Putin’s monopoly of power. Of course, in the fallacy of the dictator’s extreme thinking and logic, he forgot that turning Navalny into a martyr could be a greater threat than letting him live. With the relentless passage of time and events, Putin has pushed himself and his regime into “garbage time”.

The Navalny incident once again reminds the modern world, including China, that systems and cultures in modern civilised nations are not products of casual and thoughtless remarks. The superiority of political systems can be determined from the effectiveness of the control and supervision of power, especially supreme power.

... the Oriental despotic society is highly stable as the masses are supportive of the authoritarian dictatorship at the top, which creates its specific cultural environment and barriers against change.

In 1957, Karl Wittfogel, a German-American sinologist, published his magnum opus, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. This book is regarded by the international intelligentsia as “a must-read for all serious scholars of human society” and has even been compared to Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy and Max Weber’s Economy and Society.

Wittfogel’s theory on Oriental despotism actually follows up on Marx’s account of the Asiatic mode of production. In his 1859 publication, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx pointed out that society’s development goes through several stages, including the Asiatic mode of production, slavery, feudalism, capitalism to communism. Wittfogel argued that China has remained in the Asiatic mode of production, which could also be called Oriental despotism, without going through slavery, feudalism and capitalism, as in the evolution of Western societies.

Monopoly of power at the core of authoritarianism

The Oriental despotic society has the following characteristics. First, there is a high degree of concentration of political power and authoritarianism, and so China has always been monarchical. Second, monarchy dictates that the resources for production, such as the land and rivers, are entirely owned by the emperor or the person with supreme power, and therefore true individual rights to ownership of land and finances are almost impossible. 

Third, there exists only the nobility appointed by the emperor instead of a relatively independent noble class. Fourth, the state monopolises and controls the economy and livelihoods. Fifth, there is no independent law, and the autocratic monarch’s will is the law. Last, the Oriental despotic society is highly stable as the masses are supportive of the authoritarian dictatorship at the top, which creates its specific cultural environment and barriers against change.

The traditional concept of power remains an insurmountable chasm for contemporary China.

Workers are seen on a rooftop of a residential building under construction in Nanjing, in eastern China's Jiangsu province on 7 March 2024. (AFP)
Workers are seen on a rooftop of a residential building under construction in Nanjing, in eastern China's Jiangsu province, on 7 March 2024. (AFP)

The above characteristics show that monopoly of power is at the core of authoritarianism. Wittfogel’s ideas were explicitly banned in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, and all discussions of the Asiatic mode of production were forbidden. 

Similarly, these ideas were prohibited in China for a long time. When the Chinese translation of this acclaimed book was published in 1989, it was roundly criticised and condemned by left-wing scholars. Evidently, the influence and effects of Oriental despotism remained prevalent. The traditional concept of power remains an insurmountable chasm for contemporary China.

Some always denounce US democracy as being hypocritical, as there are indeed undemocratic occurrences in the US. However, criticisms are not taboo in the country, and it is certainly not a crime to criticise US democracy. The real hypocrisy is putting something on the pedestal of good and correctness when it is in fact appalling but cannot be criticised. 

In contemporary civilisation, there must be checks and balances, and therefore limitations to power. Power cannot be above the law and must be subject to supervision, criticism and inquiry by the people and public opinion, without which a nation’s politics is absurd, hypocritical and deceitful. The final outcome is the nation’s demise.

Protecting individual property rights

Due to its traditional lack of the actual concept and practice of individual property rights, some of the left-wing political principles and slogans that emerged in the early days of modern capitalism easily penetrated China’s society. Individual property rights were labelled as “private rights” to be restricted, opposed, outlawed and banned. 

The fundamental fallacy of this approach is that the rich-poor disparity (with some becoming affluent before others) and the unfair oppression and exploitation in the early capitalist society were attributed to private ownership. In reality, they were a result of weak industries and poor distribution of benefits as well as under-developed rule of law and democracy.

Vehicles drive along a street at the central business district in Beijing on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
Vehicles drive along a street at the central business district in Beijing on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

Individual property rights are the basis of modern civilisation. This means that individual property rights are the fundamental rights of the people as individuals and as masters of society. The denial and undermining of these rights for any reason is regressive and barbaric, which will certainly dent and destroy the holistic development and progress of society and civilisation, and be fatal to society and culture. 

A car with a problem can be repaired by replacing its parts or upgrading its technology, but the extreme and paranoid would want to dismantle and discard the car’s engine, and revert to using the horse-drawn carriage. Instead of solving the car’s problem, this approach will drive equipment and its applications to a more obsolete, backward and primitive state, which can only lead to more absurd failures.

If the ancient Roman empire’s prosperity and might were due to its systems that protected private property under the relatively democratic Senate rule, then its subsequent decline was a result of the abolition of commercial freedom and private property protection after the centralisation of power by the monarchy. 

This has happened not only in ancient Rome but also in many nations where the civilisation’s progress is disrupted by strong centralised governments. The more centralised power is, the weaker civil rights become and the more barbaric and regressive the society will be.

Individual property and rights are the true origins of human civilisation, and the only right way to sustain its development.

Trinity of modern civilisation

The awakening of modern civilisation in Europe began with the Renaissance in the late Middle Ages. The rise and development of civilisation was helped by political inaction. Italy, southern Germany and the laxly governed England gained much during the Renaissance from the decline of the monarchies and warlords as well as the commercial prosperity in the Age of Sail.

People visit the Bund promenade along the Huangpu river in Shanghai on 6 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People visit the Bund promenade along the Huangpu river in Shanghai on 6 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

English philosopher John Locke proposed more than 300 years ago that property must not be publicly owned and power must not be individually wielded. Locke’s ideas remain profoundly relevant and bring much clarity today. Defending the fruits of the people’s labour is to defend fundamental freedom and human rights. Legal recognition and protection of private property mark the beginning of civilisation. The standardisation of reasonable rules for acquiring property rights is critical to the morals of civilisation and society. 

Individual property and rights are the true origins of human civilisation, and the only right way to sustain its development.

In conclusion, the flourishing and decline of civilisations in different periods of history have fully demonstrated that the management of the government’s power, the protection of individual property rights and the independent judicial system are in fact the trinity of modern civilisation. They are indispensable in an organic system. 

If there are no breakthroughs and substantive progress in the above-mentioned three areas in China’s reform and opening up, then China will revert to a closed nation, and authoritarianism will once again heap atrocities upon the people. How many more generations of China’s people will have to swallow the bitter pill of regret?

Related: Do the Chinese need democracy? | Where is China now?