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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


A Stunning Chinese Performance

Hugh Peyman[1] asks and then answers the question “Why do many people misunderstand China? Unsurprisingly, it is because many look at China through Western eyes”. It seems that the Chinese should be like us! They should follow our rules and our thinking. Anything different is a challenge, and possibly a threat.

It should be remembered that in 1987, Australia’s then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke said that “By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty.” Thirty years later 731,000 Australian children continued to live in poverty[2]. In stark contrast, in China, the share of the population living in poverty has fallen over a 32-year period, from 88.3% in 1981 to only 1.9% in 2013. Hartcher[3] reports that in that period, 850 million Chinese people were lifted out of poverty. He produces some stunning statistics, but before doing so he remarks - “This is not just a piece of Communist Party propaganda. It’s a consistent result from surveys by credible international organisations.” He reports:

  • In the annual Edelman Trust Barometer published in January 2018, 84% of respondents in China said that they had trust in their government. India and Indonesia, both democracies, showed similarly high levels.

  • According to the World Bank, China has leapfrogged other wealthier countries in offering a social safety net to its people - “China has introduced an array of social protection programs at a speed that is unprecedented internationally”.

  • The success and durability of the one-party state point to China as a standing challenge to democratic countries.

According to Mahbubani[4], there is an inability in the West to see the explosion of new personal freedoms that the Chinese people enjoy. He points out that China, India and Indonesia are all led by exceptionally honest and competent leaders – Jinping, Modi and Widodo, and their societies are surging.

American Withdrawal

On 21 October 2018, President Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the 31-year-old INF Nuclear Treaty with Russia for the elimination of intermediate range nuclear weapons. Only months earlier the US President announced the intention of strengthening America’s nuclear capabilities. Arguably and frighteningly, this may have been the start of a new arms race.

Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the INF followed earlier pronouncements of America’s withdrawal from other international treaties including the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans- Pacific Partnership, the Trans-Pacific partnership, the Iran Nuclear deal the UN Human Rights Council. All this was in addition to Trump’s threats to withdraw NATO support from his European allies. And just in case the message was not clear enough, in his recent address to the UN Trump said, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism”. Trump’s embrace of nationalism has been widely condemned by the leaders of both France and Germany, Macron and Merkel.

Thus far, the US has not withdrawn from the ANZUS Treaty. However, despite Australia’s ongoing reliance on (clinging to) this Treaty, we should remember that:

  • This two-page Treaty (which came into force in 1952) makes no promises. Article III merely provides that “The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.” AND

  • More than two years elapsed after the role of US Ambassador was vacated, before an US Ambassador to Australia was eventually nominated.

So much for Australia’s ongoing and, in my opinion, misguided reliance on America. Allan Gyngell’s recent book, Fear of Abandonment hits the nail on the head.

Australia’s Shared Values?

Australia continues to cling to our so-called shared values with our long-standing US “ally and friend”.

At the same time, we and the rest of the world watch in horror, the frequent murders of schoolchildren, thanks to America’s constitutionally sanctioned gun laws. Only a matter of weeks ago, a stunned global audience witnessed the highly politicised US system for the appointment of a judge to the American Supreme Court. Just imagine Australia’s High Court Judges being subjected to this kind of crude public indignity. And let us not forget America’s wholescale withdrawal from international treaties. As well as that, Trump may have kicked off a new arms race, and VP Pence is widely regarded as having launched a new cold war, thanks to his belligerent speech on 4 October 2018.

What values, you might ask do we really share with America? True enough, Australia and US both have democratic systems. However, the values we share are becoming more and more tenuous. democracies are not all one and the same – US and Australia have different political systems. The US system has allowed an authoritarian demagogue to hold the American reins of power. Hungary, Britain, Russia, France are all “democracies” – but they do not have the same systems either.

China’s “Post-democracy”

In an insightful book, When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter (2018) John Keane[5] challenges the presumption that “liberal democracy” is the highest standard by which Chinese politics is to be measured. He suggests that the idea that democracy can be reduced to “free and fair” elections and that electorally governed polities such as the United States, Britain or France are the Alpha and Omega of democracy, is a mistake. He argues that democracy “made in China” may well survive and thrive. Keane notes that China has borrowed some useful elements of Western democracy and combined them with China’s 5000-year-old culture and civilisation. He suggests that China is better described as a one party dominated political system which has been nurturing experiments with a wide range of democratic tools. Keane points to Xi Jinping’s reminder to Chinese officials that the survival of the regime depends on winning and not losing public support. He refers to the Chinese system as ‘post-democracy’ and he suggests that the China model could be a higher form of democracy, mainly because its leaders are selected on merit.

In Part I (of a three-part series), The Land that Failed to Fail, published in the New York Times on 20 November 2018, the following observations are noteworthy:

  • China now leads the world in the number of homeowners, internet users, college graduates, and by some counts, billionaires. Extreme poverty has fallen to less than 1%.

  • China’s Communist leaders embraced capitalism even as they continued to call themselves Marxists.

  • The Party invested in education – China now produces more graduates in science and engineering every year than US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan combined.

  • China created a unique hybrid – an autocracy with democratic characteristics.

  • In December 2018, China will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the “reform and opening up” policies that transformed China.

What kind of threat does China really pose to Australia’s fundamental values. How seriously are our values threatened simply by the fact that China’s political system is different? Hugh White asks- Is the prospect of an Asia dominated by China bad enough to justify fighting a major war? What we fear (speculate?) is that China plans to impose a harsh and oppressive hegemony which would force fundamental changes to Australia’s political system, social order and economic prospects. There is no evidence of this. China’s territorial ambitions seem to be limited to the lands that China already occupies or claims, including Taiwan – but they show no desire to proselytise an ideology or to export their political system.[6]


In How Democracy Ends, Runciman[7] quotes the economist, Joseph Schumpeter’s writing in 1942, where he defined democracy as a competition between teams of salesmen to get the voters to buy their product. Runciman describes contemporary representative democracy as “tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual” and he contends that the absence of plausible alternatives has long been one of the forces holding democracy in place.

Critics of democracy, starting with Plato have always argued that it means ruling by the ignorant. As Runciman put it, there are echoes of this in the Brexit aftermath. Somewhat cynically, but perhaps realistically, he observes that democracy puts power in the hands of people who do not know what they are doing.

Runciman argues that the gap between what is promised and what is delivered leaves room for alternatives. The Chinese political system projects itself as meritocratic. The immediate advantage of rapid economic growth is real for many Chinese citizens and the regime understands that its survival depends on this continuing.

A recent Lowy Institute poll found that less than half of Australians aged under 45 agree that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

We, in Australia may not be remotely ready to abandon democracy (nor should we) but a more objective assessment of the Chinese model would not be out of place. Anxiety about the state of democracy proliferates - talks about the end of democracy and the crisis of democracy are more prevalent now than ever before, for good reason – democracy today is not delivering! Consider, for example the prevalence in Australia of “broken promises” and “pork barrelling”, and other political techniques used to pull the wool over the eyes of the voting public – I call this “political fraud” and yet, this is simply accepted as “the norm”! Just as China has borrowed useful elements of western democracy and combined these with China’s ancient civilisation, so might we in the west, look more closely at the many successful elements of the China model, and seek to blend these with the now stumbling western model.

[1] China’s Change – The Greatest Show on Earth, published 2018

[2] Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) -2017

[3] Peter Hartcher is the International editor, SMH – report on 27 Feb 2018

[4] Kishore Mahbubani (Former Singaporean Ambassador to UN)– Has the West Lost It? Published 2018

[5] John Keane is professor of politics at University of Sydney

[6] Hugh White is professor of Strategic Studies at ANU - his paper, Without America appears in the Quarterly Essay issue 68/2017

[7] David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, published 2018

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