In his landmark 1993 “Clash of Civilizations”
essay, Samuel Huntington argues that “conflict between civilizations will
supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of
conflict” 1 in the
21st century and beyond. Huntington’s thesis has as its foundation the
belief that “non-Western modern civilizations’…values…differ significantly
from those of the West” and thus “for the relevant future, there will be no
universal civilization.”2 This foundational
belief 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 ideological
evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final
form of human government.”3 While
events have since proven Fukuyama’s conclusion premature, the debate continues
to rage over the degree to which liberal democracy has universal appeal, and
over whether the future will bring a world of shared values in which non-democratic
government ceases to exist.4
the hopes of contributing to this debate, this essay examines the People’s
Republic of China (PRC), which is often described as a salient counterexample
to Fukuyama’s argument. The essay finds that China’s development model—most
notable for authoritarian governance combined with a moderately free-market
economy—is not as historically unique as some of its proponents suggest, and
that consequently a shift to democratic rule would not be surprising in the
long term. Indeed, over more than a few generations’ time span, the essay finds
that 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 with
respect to their core values. This difference in values casts uncertainty over
China’s future trajectory and uniqueness, but should not be confused with
long-term incompatibility with liberal democracy.
essay is structured in three parts. The first reviews the key arguments for and
against the idea that Western values—in particular, democratic governance—are
universal to the human race. The second investigates China’s development model,
discusses whether a unique political-economic “China model” exists, and
examines the implications of this discussion for the Fukuyama-Huntington
debate. The third section of the essay discusses what further research,
conducted under the auspices of this course’s second module, could shed more light
on the “China Model” debate, and, transitively, on the “Clash of Civilizations”
Western Civilization: Guardian of Universal
Naipaul, the Trinidad-born British writer of Indian descent, suggests that
Western civilization is “the universal civilization” that “fits all men.”5 He
argues that Western civilization
a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit….So much is
contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life
of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It
is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot
generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more
rigid systems in the end blow away.6
This is a concise summation of the
common Western belief that democracy, and the Western7 style of civilization that
goes with it, will eventually “blow away” all other systems of government as liberal
democracy becomes “known to exist” by people throughout the world. The belief in
democracy’s eventual and absolute triumph is founded on the idea that that all
people have an innate desire to have a say in how they are governed; that democracy
is the world’s only governance system that adequately satisfies this desire;8 and that, as a result, by
force or by their own will, every non-democratic government will eventually be
replaced by a democratic one.
stark contrast to this view, many other scholars argue that liberal
democracy—let alone Western civilization—is just one of a number of the world’s
cultural traditions that will persist for a long time to come. As Huntington puts
people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between
God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents
and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative
importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and
hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear emphasis added.9
A corollary is that liberal democracy will
not spread across the globe because it will not find fertile soil outside the
Huntington takes this a step further in arguing that these differences in
values will lead to widespread inter-civilizational conflict.
thus founds his argument on three key assumptions: that values do not differ
significantly across civilizations; that civilizational values cannot change
quickly; and that liberal democracy cannot arise in countries with values
significantly different from those of the West. If these three assumptions do
not hold water, Huntington’s thesis loses credibility. How to test them? As
Fukuyama correctly notes, “the real subtext underlying the apparent jumble of
current events is the history of ideology.”11 In
other words, the answer to the Fukuyama-Huntington-Naipaul debate over
universal values boils down to a few simple questions concerning ideology: how
different are human ideologies? How quickly do ideologies change? If ideologies
do not change quickly, can different ideologies give rise to similar political
economies? And, finally, what sort of cases might we investigate to answer these
questions? As is explained below, the People’s Republic of China presents one
The China Model and the Fukuyama-Huntington
since 1978, despite being ruled by an authoritarian government, the PRC has
enjoyed unprecedented economic growth thanks to an increasingly capitalist
economy. By all accounts, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which sits astride
the country’s levers of power, is quite popular domestically, with the central
government boasting satisfaction ratings above 80% since at least the early
number of commentators have extrapolated from China’s economic success and
government popularity that a “China Model” of development, characterized by
authoritarian government and state-led capitalism, has emerged, and that this
Chinese approach is as legitimate and successful as Western liberal democracy
(or perhaps even more so).13 These
authors posit that Chinese are more than happy to trade disorder and poverty
for an authoritarian government that brings with it stability and economic
gains, and that a difference in Chinese and Western values makes the CCP’s rule
sustainable and welcome in China. A related belief is that democracy is not as
desired in China as it is in the West. Consequently, China seems to provide a
key counterexample to Fukuyama’s thesis, and a key piece of evidence in favor
of Huntington’s. Before awarding marks to Huntington, however, a thorough and rigorous
examination of the above assertions is in order.
test the above hypotheses of the “China Model” proponents, we must settle
several questions. First, do the Chinese people have a different set of values
from the West? Specifically, do the Chinese have an innate desire for a
democratic governance system, as suggested by Naipaul and Fukuyama? Huntington
believes that there is little or no such innate desire: “Western ideas of
individualism, 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 This
belief 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 of
socioeconomic security. As a result, the meaning of ‘rights’ in Chinese
political discourse differs significantly from the Anglo-American tradition.”15
Therefore, despite these authors acknowledging that Chinese do care about
democracy to some lesser degree than Westerners, we might state with some
confidence that Chinese do in fact have a different set of values than those in
the West—and this assertion is further backed up by empirical research
conducted by the World Values Survey.16
then, is the question of how quickly these sorts of values change. On the one
hand, Huntington is quoted above as stating that civilizational differences
“will not soon disappear,” and Perry’s work communicates the sense that two
thousand years of a unique ideological tradition will not evaporate in a
generation. On the other hand, the empirical data suggests that values can
shift quite quickly—indeed, the World Values Survey has found significant
variation in countries’ cultural values over only the past thirty years.17 V.S.
Naipaul puts this finding in more human terms: “I don’t
imagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea
of Western civilization.”18 Indeed,
it seems that in only a few generations democratic values have taken root quite
firmly in the Confucian cultures of South Korea and Taiwan, suggesting that
China, too, could provide liberal democracy with fertile ground. If, however,
we take as our benchmark Naipaul’s assertion that cultural values might need two
generations to complete a shift, China still has a generation or two before its
citizens might embrace and call for democratic governance.
brings us to the third question: could China shift to a liberal democratic
system while still holding significantly different values than those in the
West? It seems that the answer is a resounding “yes” if we consider the
historical examples of Japan and (West) Germany, which switched rapidly from
authoritarian to democratic governance following World War II, and of Taiwan
and South Korea, which transitioned from authoritarian to democratic governance
in the final decades of the 20th century. In all of these cases, the
states in question completed governance transitions in periods of only a few
years, during which it would have been unlikely for cultural values to change
dramatically. As Shaun Breslin notes, China’s development model is in fact “a
variant of a relatively well-trodden statist development path, less peculiar or
atypical than appears at first sight.”19 Breslin
even goes so far as to include the United States in his grouping of states that
have previously walked a similar path.20
this initial investigation of the questions underlying the “China Model” and
“Clash of Civilizations” debate, it seems that Huntington may be better served
by looking elsewhere than China for a good counterexample to Fukuyama and
Naipaul’s argument. This is not to say that China’s current situation proves
Fukuyama and Naipaul right—it certainly does not—but it is to say that the China case certainly does not prove these two intellectuals
wrong, as the clock is still ticking, and China is still undergoing rapid and
significant social and economic transitions that make its future difficult to
Discussion of Further Research
to shed light on this difficult-to-predict future? While the realities of the
Chinese political climate prevent direct research into perspectives on
democracy and the Western values undergirding it, field research conducted in
spring 2018 might be able to employ oblique methods to delve into the third
question raised above: could China shift to a liberal democratic system while
still holding significantly different values than those in the West?
to answering this question is whether Chinese citizens are motivated to push
for a different governance model. The answer most likely lies in the economic
realm. As Ling Chen and Barry Naughton note, “Advocacy of a China model almost
always relies on an appeal to China’s remarkable economic growth.”21 In
other words, proponents of China’s political-economic model suggest that its
economic success is what makes it sustainable. The implication is that were
China to stumble economically, its citizens might be less willing to accept
is the question of whether this economic rationale for Chinese citizens’ support
for their regime will remain relevant at higher levels of per capita GDP. Indeed,
the World Values Survey (WVS) argues, “As long as physical survival
remains uncertain, the desire for physical and economic security tends to take
higher priority than democracy. When basic physiological and safety needs are
fulfilled there is a growing emphasis on self-expression values. Findings from
the WVS demonstrate that mass self-expression values are extremely important in
the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions in a society.”22 Is this the case for
China, too? If so, where is it on the path to satisfying the physical and
economic security needs of its citizens?
semester research might dig into the issues raised above by asking: to what
degree is Chinese citizens’ satisfaction with government performance linked to
economic 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 need
to be broken down into more manageable chunks so as not to touch on sensitive
topics and so that they are discussable in the field.
could focus on mega-cities in Eastern China to which a wide range of Chinese
from across the country have immigrated. In so doing, research would hopefully
be able to tease out latitudinal differences in opinion on the economy by
comparing geographic origin; wealth; and age of study subjects. A preliminary hypothesis
is that wealthy and young subjects will be less concerned with the economic
performance of the government (validating the WVS’s argument) but that Chinese
citizens disproportionately link their satisfaction with government performance
to economic growth (compared to Western citizens). This would simultaneously
validate both Perry’s thesis and the assertion that shifts in values may take
several generations. Investigation of the relationship between subject age and
values would offer further insight on the hypothesis that values may shift in
the matter of only a few generations.
of its findings, the research outlined above would contribute to a critical and
fascinating academic debate that has earth-shattering implications for policymakers
and ordinary citizens around the world. Students of China; of international
relations; of economics; and of world history should consider this essay a
clarion call to engage in further research on this most consequential of
1 Huntingon, Samuel
P., “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign
Affairs, Volume 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993), p. 48.
2 Huntington, 49.
Francis, “The End of History?,” The
National Interest, Summer 1989.
4 See, for example,
Fukuyama, Francis, and Zhang, Weiwei, “The China Model: A Dialogue between
Francis 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 New
York Times, November 5, 1990.
6 Naipaul 1990.
proponents of this view would not dub it “Western” civilization but simply
“humanity’s” civilization or, as Naipaul does, “universal” civilization.
8 Of course, this
view does not hold that liberal democracy is perfect; as Churchill famously
said, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other
forms 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 Four
Modernizations is not the same as your concept of modernization. What we seek
to realize is an economically comfortable family, not democracy.” Quoted in
Perry, Elizabeth J., “Chinese Conceptions of ‘Rights’: From Mencius to Mao—and
Now,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol.
6, No. 1 (Mar., 2008), p. 37.
10 See Huntington
quote on page 5.
11 Fukuyama 1989.
12 The Economist,
“Opinion polls: The Critical Masses,” The
Economist, April 11, 2015.
13 See, for example,
Bell, Daniel, The China Model: Political
Meritocracy 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,
15 Perry thus concludes
that any Chinese protests over “rights” are not as threatening to the CCP
regime as they might appear from the outside. Perry, 2008, p. 37.
16 See World Values
Survey, Findings and Insights, 2016.
Available online at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp.
17 See World Values
Survey, Findings and Insights, 2016. View
live 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 of
governance?,” International Affairs 87:6,
2011, pp. 1325.
20 Though the United
States was never authoritarian, the U.S. government did employ a more statist
development model in the past.
21 Chen, Ling, and
Naughton, Barry, “A Dynamic China Model: The Co-Evolution of Economics and
Politics in China,” Journal of
Contemporary China, Vol. 26, No. 103, 2017. 18.
22 World Values
Survey, Findings and Insights, 2016.
Available online at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp.