China’s Authoritarian Governing Regime – Evil in the eyes of the West, Necessary in the eyes of the East?

17 Apr

Until recently the West generally assumed that democracy was right for everyone throughout the world. Much of the condemnation of the Tiananmen Square massacre assumed that this was the work of a dictatorship desperately trying to cling to power; that the massacre was perpetrated in the interests of the ruling junta, not of the people as a whole. There was a clear assumption that such an event could never have occurred in a democracy, with George Bush taking the ‘democracy is best’ line when discussing the potential outcome of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It is interesting that at the time there were very few dissenting voices. More recently still, the ‘Arab Spring’ was hailed throughout the West (and further afield) as the almost inevitable triumph of democracy over the evils of dictatorship. There was an almost determinist zeal in the way that the downfall of Gaddafi and Mubarak was portrayed in some circles. Very few in the West have taken much note of what the people languishing under the dead hand of dictatorship really want. Our attitude has echoed that of Rousseau ‘on les forcera d’etre libre’. If only they knew what democracy was like, they would love it. Give them a little dose of it, and they will be hooked for good. It has almost become a moral crusade; it is our duty to civilise these poor wretches, whether or not they want to be civilised.

I am not arguing about the merits or demerits of democracy. It may well be that, as Churchill said ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time’. I am not even saying, as some do, that democracy will work when the conditions are right, so the key thing is to prepare the hearts and minds first. I am simply arguing that maybe, in the face of huge economic and social pressures, dictatorship is a better way forward than democracy. Take China’s ‘one child’ policy. It is inconceivable that such a draconian measure could have been introduced in a democracy. It is clear that problems have resulted from the introduction of this measure; there has been social dislocation and the shortage of young people threatens China’s economic miracle in the longer term. But it has reduced the population to manageable levels, and it has had an active hand in China’s economic modernization strategy. Many would argue that China’s astonishing economic growth so far owes much to the fact that they have a government which pays little or no heed to public opinion- inside or outside China.

When I was in China last year, I spoke extensively to many Chinese students about their perceptions of democracy. They asked me about the UK, and I was able to ask them whatever I wanted about China. They were unsupervised and unrecorded; they could speak completely freely. Their English was excellent, and they were very bright, politically aware individuals. I asked them about their aspirations for China. Did they want to see democracy? Overwhelmingly, they believed that democracy was a good thing, and they wanted to have a say in how their country was run. Were they critical of their government? Yes, they were. They knew about Tiananmen Square, and they condemned it. But surprisingly, the vast majority supported the government’s policies. They argued that the communist government’s policy of controlled economic development had been exactly right for China.

Consider China’s economic growth. China has been widely criticised throughout the world for undermining civil and political rights domestically in the vigorous pursuit of economic development. Clearly, to a Western this is ludicrous. How can a government get away with maintaining such distorted priorities? Yet when I spoke to many Chinese students, and asked them what their families and China’s people on the whole wanted most; to many it was wealth. China’s harsh but necessary growth tactics had managed to bring 400 million people out of poverty; a goal unparalleled by any Western country in such a short space of time.

Moreover, China’s authoritarian leadership was able to provide quick and effective economic management to protect the country and its people from the economic crisis, when other democracies neared ruin. Thus in the wake of the economic crisis, many Western leaders were left to question whether their own economic and political systems themselves were flawed. The economic crisis, argued U.S Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, has left “the American model…under a cloud.”  In contrast to the “roadblocks” of the American media, legislature and judiciary, which halted President Obama’s response to the crisis; China’s single party, centralised rule provided for almost streamlined, rapid decision-making. In response to the crisis, New York Times wrote that the “One party can impose politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward.”

China’s much maligned government, then, may not be what we like, but it may be what China needs, and what its people want, at least for now. China will inevitably face strong economic challenges as it attempts to restructure its economy towards a more consumption based model, and the success of this is yet to be seen. Yet to be able to do this without political contestation in itself is a remarkable achievement. It’s an interesting thought that China, with its communist dictatorship, may be much better equipped to face the challenges of the next twenty years than the West is, despite our wonderful democracy.


Overholt, William H. “China in the global financial crisis: rising influence, rising challenges.” The Washington Quarterly 33.1 (2010): 21-34.

Hoge Jr, James F. “A global power shift in the making: Is the United States ready?.” Foreign Affairs (2004): 2-7.

Naughton, Barry. “The Chinese economy: Transitions and growth.” MIT Press Books 1 (2007).

Stiglitz, Joseph. “What I learned at the world economic crisis.” Globalization and the poor: Exploitation or equalizer (2000): 195-204.

Chi, Wen-shun. Ideological conflicts in modern China: Democracy and authoritarianism. Transaction Publishers, 1986.


One Response to “China’s Authoritarian Governing Regime – Evil in the eyes of the West, Necessary in the eyes of the East?”

  1. jpt1g11 April 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    It’s interesting to note how differently the United States and other Western powers have dealt with China politically compared to other countries. Amongst the attempts made to convert countries into liberal democracies, China has never featured. The disparity between China and the U.S in political terms is probably what makes their relationship so complicated.
    I can’t really see a move away from the current system of government any time soon. It may be the case in the coming decades when China is on an equal standing in all aspects with the dominant world powers, but there’s not many signs of imminent change. There has definitely been progress since the dictatorship of Chairman Mao and while tribute is still paid to him, the current generation realise some of the mistakes he made. I’m also not sure how many people still consider China as a communist country – even Homer jokes in the Simpsons about seeing rudimentary free markets

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