Behind the differences-A dialogue between Mr. Cui Liru and Mr. Einar Tangen

September 01, 2021
About the author:
Cui Liru, Former President, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
Einar Tangen, TIO Content Advisor, Independent Political and Economic Affairs Commentator

In this dialogue, Mr. Cui Liru and Mr. Einar Tangen, delves into the China-U.S. ideological difference and unravels the way one approaches “democracy” as opposed to the other. It examines the reasons behind such divergence on perception, and it comments on the key elements that have been obstructing mutual understanding between the two sides. In light of the current state of China-U.S. relations, this article offers a limited outlook on what to expect if the gulf between the two countries remains unaddressed and what should be done to facilitate effective communication.
E: One of the things that seems very prevalent in the China-US relationship is a difference in outlook on what democracy means and what governments are supposed to deliver. One way to approach these questions is by looking at the expectations of what liberal, democratic capitalism consists of and what it represents to the U.S., and what the government’s values are in China. In the U.S., democratic capitalism is understood as an end. In 1992 this was reflected quite clearly in U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the “last man standing”—the goal was to institute liberal, democratic capitalism because thereafter all issues and problems would be solved. Yet in China the same concept is approached in a different way. China has adopted capitalism. It has a representative democracy. But China has a very different political system, and the metrics by which it interprets democracy are completely different from those of the U.S. Rather than an end, China believes that democracy is a vehicle or the means by which governments are able to deliver on what they believe are the country’s goals, which in the Chinese context refers to socialism. How would you comment on that?
Cui: Let me start by sharing my personal understanding of democracy. In theory, democracy is an ideal that entails freedom and equality. It is what you suggest that the U.S. sees as the “end.” In practice it is a mixture of ends and means, because there is no such thing as absolute equality and freedom in the world. During the revolutionary period, when the Chinese Communist Party was still a revolutionary party, you could argue that democracy was an end for China. But when the Communist Party came to power, after it transformed into a ruling party, the immediate goal shifted to defending China’s national sovereignty, independence, and economic development. Within this context, especially during China’s political struggle with the imperialist powers, democracy became the means. Democracy is not a rigid concept. It can take on different roles and functions in the face of different national priorities. Now, democracy is still an ideal goal for China. Improving China’s practice of political democracy is still something that Chinese political reforms are trying to achieve. But for China to accomplish its national rejuvenation and realize the Chinese dream, democracy may at times become a vehicle so that existing issues can be efficiently solved.
E: Let’s break down liberal democratic capitalism, which is the espoused view of the U.S. It is essentially what the U.S. believes every country should attain by roughly following the U.S., though, as you pointed out, the U.S. system is unique. Let's talk about liberalism first. I propose two definitions of liberalism. The first is a willingness to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one's own. The second one is a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise. I would say that the U.S. sees its liberalism as adhering to the second definition, whereas China is more interested in liberalism as in the first sense. China's advancement appears to have been a process of incorporating very diverse ideas. China seems to want people to accept not only those ideas themselves but the success of these ideas, whereas the U.S. is holding on to a liberal liberalism in an illiberal way, where it is unwilling to accept different ideas. How would you understand these two definitions?
Cui: I think you can explain liberalism and the U.S.-China divergence on how to approach it in many ways. I would say that one key factors that distinguishes the Chinese view from its U.S. counterpart concerns the fact that the latter is based on the concept of individualism. In other words, U-S.-Americans often prioritize personal freedom over many other things. This is deeply rooted in their country’s history. China, however, is a socialist country that emphasizes the value of collectivism. This was evident when the Communist Party was leading the revolution for the founding of the People’s Republic. It has also been evident in China’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over time, collectivism as a social value has gradually taken on a political color and become a political culture, which is socialism with Chinese characteristics. You could even argue that collectivism is a fundamental component of the Chinese dream, because many people believe that their personal dreams depend on the realization of the collective Chinese dream.
E: The way I see it, the expression “with Chinese characteristics” doesn't have a lot of meaning in the West. Would you say that there is a semantic issue, a language issue, that arises because China tries to explain itself in English terms without necessarily developing a new vocabulary that explains the idea of collectivism versus individualism, or which takes precedence over the other?
Cui: I think you can understand the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as part of the rhetoric that helps China, Chinese theories and ideas, and our socialist principles adapt to the new reality. But what is the new reality? It is China building up the market economy. Before China decided to open its doors to the outside world and engage with the international community, it was marginalized because the post-World War II order was designed by the U.S. and dominated by the West. It was a capitalist system. But Deng Xiaoping realized that if we wanted to modernize our country, we had to open our doors and connect because we needed capital and technology, which we could only learn from Western countries. And if we want to engage with this world, we have to accept this capitalist world regime. Those reforms and the opening up thus marked the primary stage of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
E: Do you find it ironic that in terms of growth rates over the last forty years, China seems to have been better at capitalism than the West? How do you explain that?
Cui: Many people make the assertion that China is not a socialist country with Chinese characteristics. It is a capitalist country with Chinese characteristics. You can say it either way, it doesn't matter, but in China we insist that China is a socialist because upholding the socialist path is still the first among our four cardinal principles. This is not up for debate. But it should be noted that socialism in China differs from that in the Soviet Union. It is unique and it is appropriate to China’s own national situation.  
E: Along those lines, how would you comment on the U.S.? What are its goals? What shapes its desires? If China has socialism firmly in mind, what does the U.S. have?
Cui: As we discussed, liberalism is the fundamental idea and principle that defines U.S. political culture. This does not mean that equality is not important in the U.S. But compared with the Chinese, U.S.-Americans tend to prioritize freedom and liberty over equality when the two values are in conflict. Again, the two countries’ management of the pandemic offers a case in point. It has shown us that in the U.S. many people perceive their personal freedom as the most important thing, whereas in China, particularly in face of national emergencies, public safety and an orderly society always precede individual freedom. Another thing that I want to re-emphasize here is that for me the essence of democracy is equality. This holds true for both China and the U.S. While absolute equality would be a false ideal, equality is possible politically. This is where democracy comes in and plays a role in the U.S. It functions as a conduit through which people may achieve the goal of political equality, whereby everyone is granted the same political rights.
E: But how is that working for the U.S.? From the post-election chaos there, we see that one party was accusing the other party of trying to do away with the voting rights of individuals. That suggests that political equality is not being accomplished. Is “equality in politics” actually happening in the U.S.? Or is it going in the other direction?
Cui: I think it's currently going in the other direction. Indeed, U.S. citizens can exercise their right to vote during elections. But in the post-election period, or in between elections, although they can still voice their opinions, their concerns are rarely taken into consideration in real policy-making processes.
E: For forty years the U.S. has been moving sideways. The middle class is shrinking. The poor are growing larger in number. Inequality in terms of the ultra-wealthy is increasing. People have not been able to elect governments able to move on very serious societal and economic issues. While the U.S. is still saying that everybody should follow its example, from a Chinese perspective how is democracy working out for the U.S.?
Cui: I think the U.S. is having a political crisis, and this crisis will last for a while because politics is highly polarized there right now. The middle ground has disappeared, rendering bipartisanship a near impossibility. The two parties are caught up in a life-and-death political struggle and officials of one party often pass the buck to the opposing party when something comes up, creating a situation of “vetocracy” that in turn leads to political divisions and deadlocks. So U.S.-American politics is currently swinging like a pendulum, and the arcs are demarcated by presidential elections. With Joe Biden’s election, the political pendulum has swung from the extreme right to the center-left. If the Republicans come back in the next election, the pendulum will rebound wildly to the right again.
E: Recent census data suggests that Caucasians are now make up 57% of the U.S. population. At the state level, a party that has control of the legislature has the ability to gerrymander legislative districts for their own political power. Given the existing concentration of Caucasians in less populated states, the apportionment of two senators per state, and the overall decline of Caucasians as a percentage of the total population, is the U.S. in danger becoming a state where the largest minority controls the majority through the Senate?
Cui: I think it is a danger but not inevitable. The situation has been developing for more than a decade, and opposite forces have tried hard to fix the political system but failed. The larger picture shows that a new round of party realignment has been underway for years, but cannot be fulfilled because so many difficult and fundamental issues are involved. Since the 2020 election, the process seems to have entered a deadlock—what I call the political crisis. The U.S. system is still resilient. It has experienced political crises like civil war before, and I think it may still have the capacity to address the situation. But the current crisis is unprecedented in its complexity. I think part of the reason for the situation is that the U.S. is no longer young. The Civil War was part of the learning process, the problems of growing up, and much less about historical burdens. Now the U.S. is in a very different historical stage. As the global hegemon, after reaching its highest point of development and world dominance, it is now undergoing a process of relative decline with huge historical burdens internally and externally. It is natural that many people, especially young people, are easily losing confidence in its democratic system.
E: A lot of the standing of the U.S. over the years has been due to its economic hegemony, but that is under threat in today's environment. Washington seems to have responded to that threat in a way that is specifically directed towards China. Should the U.S. feel threatened? Is the U.S. playing king of the hill, or is there a fundamental existential threat to the very fabric of what it thinks the world should be?
Cui: Again, I think its problem is in essence that of a great power in decline, more internal than external. And part of the problem is that the U.S. economy has become too financialized, leading to negative developmental impacts—although it gives the U.S. huge international advantages and powerful tools to intimidate others. If people in Washington felt threatened, it is because the U.S. is becoming much less capable of managing increasingly difficult situations. In that context alone, a stronger China is regarded as a major challenge.
E: I’ve been struck by the fact that almost every U.S. president defines themselves in terms of the stock market, whereas Chinese leaders have been defining things in terms of people. An example is how the Chinese government recently took very proactive moves against what it saw as evils in society—the big players, in the tech field especially, who were monopolizing areas and killing competition. The Chinese government has also taken a very active stance on education recently, stating that it doesn’t want Chinese kids to be addicted to video games, and it doesn’t want them to study 18 hours a day and not get enough exercise. It has created regulations accordingly. This looks like a very stark difference. Is it irreconcilable?
Cui: Regarding the recent regulatory changes around education, I think the reform on cram schools was a needed one. Over the past few decades, the private education sector in China has become heavily manipulated by big capital. It was very easy for cram schools to raise funds in global capital markets and the resulting excessive after-school tuition was causing too much distress to parents, students, and the formal school system. The off-campus training sector has some serious societal implications as well. It could lead to more no-child families as young people can no longer afford a child’s education. The U.S. has a different system with a different political culture, so policy-makers may take different factors into consideration. But it is possible that Washington will make some adjustments to its market regulations because as big capital has become increasingly powerful, and has ample reason and more resources to sway government policy in favor of its own interests. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest would be a good illustration of people demanding such adjustments.
E: Previously, the Chinese government has been fairly reactive in its dealings with the U.S. But during the recent US-China dialogues in Anchorage and Tianjin, China was proactive about putting forward its own agenda, not accepting criticism in silence. Is this an indication that China has found its own voice and will no longer be responding to the agenda that the US has created in a tit-for-tat fashion?
Cui: Many analysts in China used to believe that Biden’s China policy would be somewhat different from the one that Trump promoted because Biden was thought to represent the conventional democratic establishment. Things have changed, however. Facing a rapidly rising China, a consensus seems to have been reached within Washington that China is a major rival, or even an adversary, to the U.S. China understands that the changing dynamic in U.S.-China relations is inevitable and that a certain level of US containment towards a more capable and competent China is unavoidable. Yet China does not want this relationship to be confrontational because that would create a lose-lose situation. It really hopes that the two can carefully manage their relationship so that it does not further deteriorate. During the Anchorage dialogue it was ready to do so, but the U.S. took an aggressive posture, issuing a warning that it is still the world’s greatest power; it has its allies and the West behind its back, and China should compromise and follow its footsteps. China’s strong attitude during the dialogue was a reaction to this. Those in Beijing who had argued that the Biden administration would have the capacity to manage US-China tensions were disappointed. Now the general impression is that while Biden’s approach to China may not be as irrational as Trump’s, the goal is essentially the same, and that is to weaken China. Another element that has fueled Chinese disappointment is U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs. Over the past decade the U.S. has become increasingly vocal in the international arena when it comes to criticizing China for what we see as our internal affairs, including defending our core national interests and our domestic politics. This can be seen in U.S. officials’ remarks on various occasions that China’s reform process has gone into reverse. I want to stress that China’s development has now reached a historical point. To press forward with reforms and chew the hard bones, so to speak, China has to take bold steps to ensure efficacy. We needed a strong and powerful government to address the challenges that had stymied reforms, and the Xi Jinping leadership has been mandated to do so. There may indeed be certain cases in which things are overdone. Yet when the U.S. has criticized China on these things, particularly China’s human rights practice, they often apply a double standard. The U.S. response towards the riots in Hong Kong and the January Capitol riots in Washington provides a case in point. When protesters attacked the legislative council in Hong Kong, Washington said that it was an act of democracy and the protesters had full U.S. support. But when the same thing happened to the U.S. Congress, the rioters were labeled domestic terrorists. This led to a momentous shift in Chinese public attitudes towards the U.S. Many people now believe that the U.S. simply does not want China to be better. It wants to weaken China.
E: China has weathered the pandemic very well. Do you expect China to do better or worse than the U.S. in terms of economic growth over the next two years?
Cui: It is possible that China will perform better than the U.S. economically in two years’ time. But the U.S. will have a strong impact on China’s economy because the two are interdependent, and China is deeply embedded in an international system in which US and other West countries still play a dominant role. U.S. policies that target Chinese tech companies, like Huawei, will also affect our economic growth in a negative way. We have to be prepared to confront such challenges and difficulties as the U.S. has set in place a long-term strategy targeting China as a major rival and adversary.
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