China and Western Liberalism — the great political disillusioning
“The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feelings.”
These are the words of an American table tennis player after visiting China in the 70s in an event called Ping Pong diplomacy, which was depicted in popular culture by films such as Forest Gump. After years of violent struggle, the nation was left exhausted, craving for political stability that hadn’t been achieved in more than a century.
This was no doubt in Nixon’s mind when he visited China in 1972, and liberalism may just be the cure for it. After all, it had worked everywhere else. Liberal triumphalism was on the rise towards the end of the cold war, reaching its peak in the 90s when Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, claiming liberalism to be the endpoint of ideological development.
When Clinton advocated for China’s membership to WTO in Capitol Hill, it’s with the same triumphalism that he hoped free trade would bring an end to China’s authoritarian regime. But little did they know, seeds for Authoritarianism in China was already planted years before Nixon’s visit, and its roots are now almost impossible to remove.
So why didn’t liberalism work?
Ping Pong diplomacy was a hopeful moment amidst one of the darkest times in Chinese history — the cultural revolution. After a decade of endless political campaigning, the nation was further impoverished. Education was brought to a halt. Students were sent to countrysides for communal work. Academics were purged, many by the infamous Red Guards. What started as Mao’s struggle to retake control turned into ten years of trauma, which eventually led to the abandonment of Maoist ideas in the 80s.
Contrary to western beliefs, the event was never forgotten. The more censorship they impose, the more people remember it, like a secret gossip passing between groups of curious friends. In hindsight, this was the most substantial turning point of ideological development in China. Intellectuals were silenced, fearing their outspokenness would become their downfall. Books were burnt, and antiquities were destroyed as symbols of feudalism. A generation of young men and women grew up without receiving sufficient education to establish their own beliefs.
But more importantly, the cultural revolution led to an aloof attitude to all forms of political activism in Chinese society, whether it’s socialist, conservative, or liberal. The calls for stability and development soared after the cultural revolution, and ideologies were quickly replaced with pragmatism. The development of this pragmatic approach was accompanied by China’s miraculous development in the three decades following the death of Mao, and activism was quickly left in the past.
The Chinese people distrust any political involvement, because they have seen the worst of it, or to quote from Thomas Hobbes, “the war of all against all.” To them, politics is not the Declaration of independence, not Lincoln freeing the slaves in the South, and not Churchill making eloquent speeches during the war’s darkest moment. Politics is turmoil; politics is violence; politics is the red guards dragging old professors onto the streets and hit them until their last breath. They are more than willing to tolerate an authoritarian government to avoid repeating the past, and China’s economic success also strengthened this belief.
But was Nixon and Clinton completely wrong? Liberalism did manage to establish a foothold in China, especially in the late 80s. Scholars and intellectuals openly reflected on the cultural revolution, the private sector started to thrive in the free market, and freedom seemed finally within reach. However, it was short-lived. In an incident that ended in tanks and bullets, the last attempt of political activism became nothing but a forbidden history. What’s more ironic is that many who took to the streets in 1989 have now become loyal supporters of the regime, hoping for a secure and stable government, whether it’s democratic or not.
The great disillusioning of political involvement was evident in China. People don’t see themselves as political beings, but the subject of a higher power which brings peace, stability, and development, lifting more than half a billion people out of poverty in merely 40 years. Rather than taking matters into their own hands, many Chinese people today are content with letting the politicians do the work, while they carry on with their lives away from political involvements.
Globally, liberal triumphalism was also met with criticism, especially after the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to establish a stable and functioning democracy. Is liberalism a one size fits all solution to all political problems? It’s still too early to call.