The decision of China’s central government to put selective stipulations on candidates for 2017’s unprecedented one-man-one-vote election of Hong Kong’s chief executive has met with a chorus of righteous indignation, and some condescending condemnation, from America’s media, both on the left and right.
That Western, and particularly American, approaches in matters of this kind, when put into practice in places like Iraq and Egypt, have led to disaster and misery for the local people, and that a country and its people can adopt substantially different approaches, seems beyond the reflective powers of The Wall Street Journal and even Forbes.com.
As MIT professor Barry R. Posen put it recently in an excellent book on “grand strategy,” the United States may be uniquely incapable of accepting the reality of that other countries can – and usually do – possess deeply held, culturally and historically determined, attitudes and values different from Americas’ own, and that these values are reflected in indigenous political cultures and systems.
Such American blindness seems illogical, since the same people who would profess the validity of “universal” (read: American) values would be also be the first to proclaim “American exceptionalism.” Analysis of how something that is “exceptional” can (or should) also be “universal” quickly leads to the darker sides of national psychology: imperiousness, hauteur, and condescension, if not racism.
Americans, it seems, simply cannot suppress a desire (or need) to proselytize and promote – and occasionally to impose – their concepts of the right and the good on others.
A particularly blatant expression of this was the “America’s Future In Asia” speech by Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan B. Rice at Georgetown University last November, reviewed in China-US Focus on December 5, 2013.
America’s problem accepting other systems seems particularly pronounced in relations with China. This is partly understandable (if not forgivable, especially in people in positions like that of Susan Rice, or, while at the State Department, Hillary Clinton) difficulty in comprehending attitudes so starkly opposed to those one has psychologically internalized.
America’s political traditions and culture ARE, to put it plainly, almost the opposite of those of China. America was founded on the principle that political authority derives from the consent of the people. The tradition in China was that “Heaven” conferred authority on righteous sovereigns.
The American tradition has been one of valuing individualism, local autonomy, federalism, republicanism, and restricting the power of higher authority. Chinese tradition has been one defining and directing individual obligations in service to larger units of society, the family and the nation, with higher authority – acting within traditions of morality – the principal source of guidance.
These traditions have led to starkly disparate political cultures, which is to say expectations and demands of citizens toward their respective governments, and the nature of governmental legitimacy.
It is not to exaggerate much to suggest, as the eminent Sinologist John K. Fairbank did, that American and Chinese political cultures are virtually mirror images, that is, almost completely in opposition in many fundamental respects.
One respect would be expectations and demands by citizens toward government ordering of society, including – as in the case of Hong Kong – maintaining order while providing a mechanism for “democratic” political expression. Chinese tradition, and the overwhelming desire of Hong Kong citizens, requires that the ultimate result of political evolution not become a serious threat to social stability.
Chinese people look to their government first and foremost for personal and social security, especially security from the kind of social upheaval that was seen as recently as 40 years ago. Governmental authority and the legitimacy are one, unitary, emanating from the center (the national level in Beijing) to the provinces and localities.
In Chinese tradition, there is no concept of local sovereignty (nothing like American federalism). There is only one seat of ultimate sovereignty and it is in the central government in Beijing.
Chinese tradition, both political and cultural, invests responsibility and authority to set and enforce moral and behavioral values for individuals in higher orders of society: the family and the state. To an extent this is true in every culture and society, including America’s, but China’s tradition is in most cases deeper and richer, and therefore more deeply held, respected, and cherished by its people.
To emphasize the point: China possesses a rich and deep political tradition, that is in many respects very different to America’s, it is also that Chinese people are deeply and justifiably proud of and loyal to their tradition. The overwhelming majority of Chinese believe in the rectitude and appropriateness of their highly centralized, basically authoritarian system, a system currently and for the foreseeable future without significant multiparty competition.
So what should we make of the vocal protests of some Hong Kong activists and the sympathetic echoes in Western media toward Beijing’s stipulations regarding future candidates for Hong Kong chief executive?
It is almost certainly true – and has been reflected in recent polling – that the majority of Hong Kong residents firmly support Beijing’s prudential initiative.
Therefore, there is no proper basis for American journalists, commentators, or particularly, politicians, to express disdainful opinions about China’s policies in Hong Kong. That they seem so ready to do so says more about their ignorance and lack of perspective than about the realities of Hong Kong politics.
No authority, moral or other, is taking the interests of Hong Kong citizens to heart to a greater degree, and with deeper consideration, than the responsible authorities in the Chinese central government in Beijing. We might want to call this “Chinese exceptionalism.”
Stephen M. Harner has been a U.S. State Department official (FSO), banker, and consultant in China and Japan. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).