In his landmark 1993 “Clash of Civilizations”essay, Samuel Huntington argues that “conflict between civilizations willsupplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form ofconflict” 1 in the21st century and beyond. Huntington’s thesis has as its foundation thebelief that “non-Western modern civilizations’…values…differ significantlyfrom those of the West” and thus “for the relevant future, there will be nouniversal civilization.
“2 This foundationalbelief constitutes a rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” school of thought,which posits that we have reached “the end point of mankind’s ideologicalevolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the finalform of human government.”3 Whileevents have since proven Fukuyama’s conclusion premature, the debate continuesto rage over the degree to which liberal democracy has universal appeal, andover whether the future will bring a world of shared values in which non-democraticgovernment ceases to exist.4 Inthe hopes of contributing to this debate, this essay examines the People’sRepublic of China (PRC), which is often described as a salient counterexampleto Fukuyama’s argument. The essay finds that China’s development model—mostnotable for authoritarian governance combined with a moderately free-marketeconomy—is not as historically unique as some of its proponents suggest, andthat consequently a shift to democratic rule would not be surprising in thelong term. Indeed, over more than a few generations’ time span, the essay findsthat history is not supportive of Huntington’s thesis. Yet, at the same time,it finds that the Chinese people do differ significantly from the West withrespect to their core values. This difference in values casts uncertainty overChina’s future trajectory and uniqueness, but should not be confused withlong-term incompatibility with liberal democracy.
Theessay is structured in three parts. The first reviews the key arguments for andagainst the idea that Western values—in particular, democratic governance—areuniversal to the human race. The second investigates China’s development model,discusses whether a unique political-economic “China model” exists, andexamines the implications of this discussion for the Fukuyama-Huntingtondebate.
The third section of the essay discusses what further research,conducted under the auspices of this course’s second module, could shed more lighton the “China Model” debate, and, transitively, on the “Clash of Civilizations”debate. Western Civilization: Guardian of UniversalValues?V.S.Naipaul, the Trinidad-born British writer of Indian descent, suggests thatWestern civilization is “the universal civilization” that “fits all men.”5 Heargues that Western civilization…impliesa certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit….So much iscontained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the lifeof the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. Itis an immense human idea.
It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannotgenerate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other morerigid systems in the end blow away.6This is a concise summation of thecommon Western belief that democracy, and the Western7 style of civilization thatgoes with it, will eventually “blow away” all other systems of government as liberaldemocracy becomes “known to exist” by people throughout the world. The belief indemocracy’s eventual and absolute triumph is founded on the idea that that allpeople have an innate desire to have a say in how they are governed; that democracyis the world’s only governance system that adequately satisfies this desire;8 and that, as a result, byforce or by their own will, every non-democratic government will eventually bereplaced by a democratic one.
Instark contrast to this view, many other scholars argue that liberaldemocracy—let alone Western civilization—is just one of a number of the world’scultural traditions that will persist for a long time to come. As Huntington putsit, Thepeople of different civilizations have different views on the relations betweenGod and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parentsand children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relativeimportance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality andhierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear emphasis added.9A corollary is that liberal democracy willnot spread across the globe because it will not find fertile soil outside theWest.
10Huntington takes this a step further in arguing that these differences invalues will lead to widespread inter-civilizational conflict. Huntingtonthus founds his argument on three key assumptions: that values do not differsignificantly across civilizations; that civilizational values cannot changequickly; and that liberal democracy cannot arise in countries with valuessignificantly different from those of the West. If these three assumptions donot hold water, Huntington’s thesis loses credibility.
How to test them? AsFukuyama correctly notes, “the real subtext underlying the apparent jumble ofcurrent events is the history of ideology.”11 Inother words, the answer to the Fukuyama-Huntington-Naipaul debate overuniversal values boils down to a few simple questions concerning ideology: howdifferent are human ideologies? How quickly do ideologies change? If ideologiesdo not change quickly, can different ideologies give rise to similar politicaleconomies? And, finally, what sort of cases might we investigate to answer thesequestions? As is explained below, the People’s Republic of China presents onesuch case. The China Model and the Fukuyama-HuntingtonDebate Indeed,since 1978, despite being ruled by an authoritarian government, the PRC hasenjoyed unprecedented economic growth thanks to an increasingly capitalisteconomy. By all accounts, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which sits astridethe country’s levers of power, is quite popular domestically, with the centralgovernment boasting satisfaction ratings above 80% since at least the early2000s.
12 Anumber of commentators have extrapolated from China’s economic success andgovernment popularity that a “China Model” of development, characterized byauthoritarian government and state-led capitalism, has emerged, and that thisChinese approach is as legitimate and successful as Western liberal democracy(or perhaps even more so).13 Theseauthors posit that Chinese are more than happy to trade disorder and povertyfor an authoritarian government that brings with it stability and economicgains, and that a difference in Chinese and Western values makes the CCP’s rulesustainable and welcome in China. A related belief is that democracy is not asdesired in China as it is in the West. Consequently, China seems to provide akey counterexample to Fukuyama’s thesis, and a key piece of evidence in favorof Huntington’s. Before awarding marks to Huntington, however, a thorough and rigorousexamination of the above assertions is in order.Totest the above hypotheses of the “China Model” proponents, we must settleseveral questions. First, do the Chinese people have a different set of valuesfrom the West? Specifically, do the Chinese have an innate desire for ademocratic governance system, as suggested by Naipaul and Fukuyama? Huntingtonbelieves that there is little or no such innate desire: “Western ideas ofindividualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty,the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state,often have little resonance in…Confucian…cultures.”14 Thisbelief seems to be somewhat backed by more contemporary and systematic research:Elizabeth Perry finds that “For over two millennia, Chinese political thought,policy, and protest have assigned central priority to the attainment ofsocioeconomic security.
As a result, the meaning of ‘rights’ in Chinesepolitical discourse differs significantly from the Anglo-American tradition.”15Therefore, despite these authors acknowledging that Chinese do care aboutdemocracy to some lesser degree than Westerners, we might state with someconfidence that Chinese do in fact have a different set of values than those inthe West—and this assertion is further backed up by empirical researchconducted by the World Values Survey.16Second,then, is the question of how quickly these sorts of values change. On the onehand, Huntington is quoted above as stating that civilizational differences”will not soon disappear,” and Perry’s work communicates the sense that twothousand years of a unique ideological tradition will not evaporate in ageneration.
On the other hand, the empirical data suggests that values canshift quite quickly—indeed, the World Values Survey has found significantvariation in countries’ cultural values over only the past thirty years.17 V.S.Naipaul puts this finding in more human terms: “I don’timagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the ideaof Western civilization.”18 Indeed,it seems that in only a few generations democratic values have taken root quitefirmly in the Confucian cultures of South Korea and Taiwan, suggesting thatChina, too, could provide liberal democracy with fertile ground. If, however,we take as our benchmark Naipaul’s assertion that cultural values might need twogenerations to complete a shift, China still has a generation or two before itscitizens might embrace and call for democratic governance.
Thisbrings us to the third question: could China shift to a liberal democraticsystem while still holding significantly different values than those in theWest? It seems that the answer is a resounding “yes” if we consider thehistorical examples of Japan and (West) Germany, which switched rapidly fromauthoritarian to democratic governance following World War II, and of Taiwanand South Korea, which transitioned from authoritarian to democratic governancein the final decades of the 20th century. In all of these cases, thestates in question completed governance transitions in periods of only a fewyears, during which it would have been unlikely for cultural values to changedramatically. As Shaun Breslin notes, China’s development model is in fact “avariant of a relatively well-trodden statist development path, less peculiar oratypical than appears at first sight.”19 Breslineven goes so far as to include the United States in his grouping of states thathave previously walked a similar path.20 Fromthis initial investigation of the questions underlying the “China Model” and”Clash of Civilizations” debate, it seems that Huntington may be better servedby looking elsewhere than China for a good counterexample to Fukuyama andNaipaul’s argument. This is not to say that China’s current situation provesFukuyama and Naipaul right—it certainly does not—but it is to say that the China case certainly does not prove these two intellectualswrong, as the clock is still ticking, and China is still undergoing rapid andsignificant social and economic transitions that make its future difficult topredict.
Discussion of Further ResearchHowto shed light on this difficult-to-predict future? While the realities of theChinese political climate prevent direct research into perspectives ondemocracy and the Western values undergirding it, field research conducted inspring 2018 might be able to employ oblique methods to delve into the thirdquestion raised above: could China shift to a liberal democratic system whilestill holding significantly different values than those in the West? Keyto answering this question is whether Chinese citizens are motivated to pushfor a different governance model. The answer most likely lies in the economicrealm. As Ling Chen and Barry Naughton note, “Advocacy of a China model almostalways relies on an appeal to China’s remarkable economic growth.”21 Inother words, proponents of China’s political-economic model suggest that itseconomic success is what makes it sustainable. The implication is that wereChina to stumble economically, its citizens might be less willing to acceptauthoritarian rule.
Relatedis the question of whether this economic rationale for Chinese citizens’ supportfor their regime will remain relevant at higher levels of per capita GDP. Indeed,the World Values Survey (WVS) argues, “As long as physical survivalremains uncertain, the desire for physical and economic security tends to takehigher priority than democracy. When basic physiological and safety needs arefulfilled there is a growing emphasis on self-expression values.
Findings fromthe WVS demonstrate that mass self-expression values are extremely important inthe emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions in a society.”22 Is this the case forChina, too? If so, where is it on the path to satisfying the physical andeconomic security needs of its citizens?Springsemester research might dig into the issues raised above by asking: to whatdegree is Chinese citizens’ satisfaction with government performance linked toeconomic growth? Are certain groups more or less satisfied with the economy?Why or why not? These questions could be investigated using survey data,interviews, and secondary research. It is likely that these questions will needto be broken down into more manageable chunks so as not to touch on sensitivetopics and so that they are discussable in the field. Researchcould focus on mega-cities in Eastern China to which a wide range of Chinesefrom across the country have immigrated. In so doing, research would hopefullybe able to tease out latitudinal differences in opinion on the economy bycomparing geographic origin; wealth; and age of study subjects. A preliminary hypothesisis that wealthy and young subjects will be less concerned with the economicperformance of the government (validating the WVS’s argument) but that Chinesecitizens disproportionately link their satisfaction with government performanceto economic growth (compared to Western citizens). This would simultaneouslyvalidate both Perry’s thesis and the assertion that shifts in values may takeseveral generations.
Investigation of the relationship between subject age andvalues would offer further insight on the hypothesis that values may shift inthe matter of only a few generations. Regardlessof its findings, the research outlined above would contribute to a critical andfascinating academic debate that has earth-shattering implications for policymakersand ordinary citizens around the world. Students of China; of internationalrelations; of economics; and of world history should consider this essay aclarion call to engage in further research on this most consequential oftopics.1 Huntingon, SamuelP., “The Clash of Civilizations?,” ForeignAffairs, Volume 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 48.
2 Huntington, 49.3 Fukuyama,Francis, “The End of History?,” TheNational Interest, Summer 1989. 4 See, for example,Fukuyama, Francis, and Zhang, Weiwei, “The China Model: A Dialogue betweenFrancis Fukuyama and Zhang Weiwei,” NPQ,Fall 2011, pp. 40-67 and Osnos, Evan, “Making China Great Again,” The New Yorker, January 8, 2018.?5 Naipaul, V.S.,”Our Universal Civilization,” The NewYork Times, November 5, 1990. 6 Naipaul 1990.
7 Indeed,proponents of this view would not dub it “Western” civilization but simply”humanity’s” civilization or, as Naipaul does, “universal” civilization.8 Of course, thisview does not hold that liberal democracy is perfect; as Churchill famouslysaid, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those otherforms that have been tried from time to time…” (Churchill, Winston, Speech before the House of Commons,November 11, 1947). 9 Huntington 1993,25.
Deng Xiaoping added his own thoughts in 1979: “Our concept of FourModernizations is not the same as your concept of modernization. What we seekto realize is an economically comfortable family, not democracy.” Quoted inPerry, Elizabeth J., “Chinese Conceptions of ‘Rights’: From Mencius to Mao—andNow,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol.6, No. 1 (Mar., 2008), p.
37.10 See Huntingtonquote on page 5. 11 Fukuyama 1989. 12 The Economist,”Opinion polls: The Critical Masses,” TheEconomist, April 11, 2015.13 See, for example,Bell, Daniel, The China Model: PoliticalMeritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, (Princeton University Press,2015), and Zhang, Weiwei, The China Wave:Rise of a Civilizational State (World Century, 2012). 14 Huntington 1993,40. 15 Perry thus concludesthat any Chinese protests over “rights” are not as threatening to the CCPregime as they might appear from the outside.
Perry, 2008, p. 37.16 See World ValuesSurvey, Findings and Insights, 2016.Available online at http://www.
worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp. 17 See World ValuesSurvey, Findings and Insights, 2016. Viewlive World Values Survey cultural map at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABWYOcru7js. 18 Naipaul 1990.
19 Breslin, Shaun, “The’China model’ and the global crisis: from Friedrich List to a Chinese mode ofgovernance?,” International Affairs 87:6,2011, pp. 1325.20 Though the UnitedStates was never authoritarian, the U.S.
government did employ a more statistdevelopment model in the past.21 Chen, Ling, andNaughton, Barry, “A Dynamic China Model: The Co-Evolution of Economics andPolitics in China,” Journal ofContemporary China, Vol. 26, No.
103, 2017. 18.22 World ValuesSurvey, Findings and Insights, 2016.Available online at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp.