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July 2013

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Changing China: How the U.S. Can and Should Seek to Influence China Toward the Rule of Law

By Steven R. Barfuss


In ancient times all-under-Heaven were considered the master, and the prince was the tenant.  The prince spent his whole life working for all-under-Heaven.  Now the prince is the master, and all-under-Heaven are tenants. That no one can find peace and happiness anywhere is all on account of the prince.

--Huang Zongxi,
Confucian scholar at the end of the Ming, beginning of the Qing dynasty


The Asian region, and indeed the world, has much at stake respecting the growing power, influence, and development of China, as well as in the possible effects of its challenges.  By sheer numbers, China’s influence is felt the world over, and a failed or unstable China or an overtly aggressive authoritarian China would be a crisis indeed.  Recent reforms and signs of progress have been promising, but despite capitalist reforms and its economic dynamism, China remains an unsettling influence in the Asian region and in the world.  China has a long history of totalitarian government, and while the current quasi-communist regime has not been exactly iron-fisted, what is clear is that whatever reforms or appearances the Chinese government chooses to put forward, China is ultimately ruled by the whim of a few—an inherent instability which is disconcerting in light of China’s challenges, and tragic in cases where its people come in conflict with the whim and will of the ruling party.  The most fundamental way for China to become the country it has shown it could be is for that to change, and for rule of law to honestly take root.  The way is fraught with uncertainty, potent cultural undercurrents, and tremendous challenges to work through, with no clear view by which the West can guide its actions.

Since the Tiananmen riots in 1989, the Chinese government has sought to substitute political reform with economic reform, and it has worked.  Millions have been lifted out of poverty, and there hasn’t been a repeat demonstration or great turmoil over the democracy issue.  What happens if the economy sours, however, or one of the major difficulties China must overcome reaches major crisis status?  What if the authoritarian liberalizers of the economy are replaced with authoritarian nationalistic despots?  As an answer to the problem of China’s instability, international institutions and Western trade partners have been urging China toward “good governance” and the rule of law.  “Good governance” is inconsistently defined, so it means little.  The rule of law is a sound concept, but can the rule of law really work in China? Some see great progress and potential, others see the concept as a poor fit for Chinese culture.

How about Natural Rights: can they be respected? That is a more difficult question, but it should be considered.  There may be more of a foundation in Chinese culture and tradition for rule of law, and even Natural Law, than most assume. Some are committed to the idea that international institutions are the key to influencing China toward better governance and rule of law; others think it will come about through market forces.  Although both of these obviously have a role, they will not be sufficient to solve the Chinese conundrum and bring about a securely stable country.  Unfortunately, Western countries, especially the US, are not in a great position to have influence on Chinese minds—they most often see us as imperialistic bullies—but Western business as well as NGOs could perhaps have greater success in communicating ideas and working for change.  Ultimately, the rule of law and perhaps even the concept of natural rights (along with a dose of democracy) must be strengthened in order for China to be stable and dependable—not a threat to its people or to the world.

China observers tend to focus on the few of China’s challenges, along with a few of the challenges China poses to the West, that serve their point.  When you consider them together, a daunting picture quickly arises.  The chief and overriding concern is the corruption that economic development has not stemmed, as some imagined, but instead has been exacerbated by the double-digit economic growth China has experienced.  “Today, no one, including the Chinese Communist Party leaders would deny that corruption has become a fatal problem of China's economy and a cancer of the Chinese society,”[i] writes one economist. Such statements are common, and the problem is widely known.  Party officials and leaders in the military are  “deeply entrenched in business operations,”[ii] profiting wildly at the expense of the people they are supposed to be serving.

This corruption (among other contributing factors) has led to popular discontent.  There were more than 87,000 large-scale popular protests (over 500 people involved) in China in 2005, and they have no doubt increased in each of the ensuing years.  That is up from only 11,000 just ten years earlier.[iii]  The protests are often focused on environmental concerns.  China’s rapid environmental growth, plus the corruption of officials (especially local), has created an ongoing and imminent crisis that threatens not only China’s “economic miracle,” but also the well-being of the people on a grand scale.  90% of the water supply is tainted, many of its rivers are becoming unfishable, and the air pollution has led to widespread respiratory illness.[iv] 

The discontent also arises from a growing urban/rural split, as the industrialized east coast takes off and leaves the rural west behind in poverty. Masses of young men, and especially young women, flock to the cities from the agricultural areas, forgoing any socialist government benefits in order to have a shot at the prosperity they imagine they will find in the city.  This population is either idle in homelessness, eking out an existence in the endless slums, or they get work in the factories, working ridiculous hours for low pay at great hazard.  Some have termed it “high-tech feudalism”.[v]  The demographic issues worsen in light of what has been termed “China’s missing girls”.   There are 120 men for every 100 girls born in China, and this ratio has potentially drastic consequences for Chinese society, creating packs of low-income earning males who are typically prone to violence and vice.[vi]  Then there is the gentrification of China—40% of the population will be over sixty by the year 2030, and there are decreasing state and family structures in place to care for the elderly.

These internal destabilizing factors are compounded in light of outside external pressures.  If you ask any school child in China who the enemy is, the answer would assuredly be Japan.  As China grows in power and influence, a more pro-active Japan becomes a harsh rival for markets and resources.  This builds on age-old animosity, especially “China’s version of WWII” (its costly and brutal war with Japan), and is exacerbated by Japan's moves toward re-armament as well as what the Chinese see as inappropriate actions by Japanese leadership that fails to express remorse for past Japanese atrocities.[vii]

Then there is Taiwan; and while there seems to be less likelihood of conflict than in the past, that is largely because of Taiwan’s economic interests.  Beyond that tie, and to some extent the cultural ties, there is still the fact that Taiwan savors its own identity while Beijing insists that Taiwan belongs to China.[viii]  If the economic interests change, it would seem that the threat of conflict would easily renew, along with tensions with the US over the issue.

An intensifying factor to the China situation is that is has grown its military by about 9% a year since 1989, and even more spending on military is likely happened off the books.  As of now, the Chinese military poses no real threat to the US and its allies, but they are in possession of intercontinental missiles that could reach the US, and they have seriously stepped up their nuclear program.  If, for some reason, the US dropped in military capacity, or China seriously set its sights on becoming a true naval power that could control the Asian Pacific, they could become a serious rival.[ix]

Article 51 of the current Chinese constitution reads, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the state, or of society.”[x] Although China has certainly reformed its judiciary (mostly to the demands of foreign or international companies doing business in China), and is in the process of reform, the process seems muddied by the fact that the state can at any point change the law, or issue policy that favors its perceived interests.  This inherently destabilizes and underscores all of China’s challenges, especially from the view of Western countries. Analysts draw linear projections of Chinese economic progress over the next thirty years, but when has anything stayed the same over thirty years?  A China that is not in economic increase, but that has developed the military power and the huge problems (environmental, demographic) from that former rise, could be a disaster - not just for the Chinese people, but for the world.  It is pointless to try to guess or project what might happen if the Chinese economy tanks (one thing all China experts seem to agree on is that predictions for China have been historically useless) but the chance that the crisis would result in authoritarian leadership that is at least as beneficent as the current authoritarian leadership doesn’t seem good.

China has a long history of dictatorial, tyrannical government, from the last several dynasties through the Mao era. Some experts and authors, and even leaders of Asian countries, have asserted that this is an inherent cultural trend and reality. “Invoking Confucius, they claim to favor consensus, group-oriented politics over the pluralistic, individualistic, ‘Western’ version of democracy.”[xi] That “consensus” has most often been expressed by an authoritarian regime of some kind, so that is what should be expected; so goes their argument. While the reasons, justifications and even the means of rule change drastically, the method largely has not.  China emerged from a 2,000-year history of monarchical dynasties; the last, the Qing, was a conquering Mongol regime.  While Confucian philosophy was the dominating and justifying philosophy of most of these dynasties, with a backdrop of feudalism, the result was not, certainly, liberty, but also not always tyranny.  Some scholars think that the Qing dynasty, in particular, used and bent Confucianism to consolidate power as an occupying foreign government.[xii]  China then came under the rule of the potentially democratic ( but in reality just as brutally authoritarian) KMT at the turn of the twentieth century.  China’s brush with democracy was cut short because of the ambitions of some of the early rulers, combined with Japanese aggressions.  The communists under Mao succeeded in gaining power by utilizing the peasant farmers, who thought that the KMT was not responsive to their needs.  Although the communist revolution succeeded, the hard-line communists never succeeded as a government to provide for the people in the socialist way.  Not until more pragmatic leaders came to power, granting limited freedoms, and eventually reforming the controls on the economy, did the current Chinese economic trends begin.[xiii]

Several commentators have observed that the western outlook on China falls into two well-worn paths.  The first is what has been named the “pro-incorporation” take, or the “soothing scenario”.  In this view, market forces and a growing Chinese civil society will inevitably bring about a stable western-style democracy a la South Korea and Taiwan, and that the allure and pressures of globalism will naturally keep Chinese leadership in line and build a stable and reliable world partner.  The other view is that China is a threat that will eventually destabilize Asia and then the rest of the world, that conflict is inevitable with China and its neighbors (and probably the U.S. as well) if it doesn’t break down from internal pressures first.  This upheaval, or “China Threat” school of thinking either leads to a newly founded Chinese democracy, or (more usually) a new and worse authoritarian regime, or a divided regionally autonomous China.[xiv][xv] The challenges facing China are too enormous to accept the first path, and the potential and positive developments are too intriguing to fully invest in the latter.

Globalization is certainly the backdrop for most of the ideas about China’s future, its troubles and its potential.  One commentator described globalization as "a powerful discourse that shapes domestic and international debates, a process which may change the state’s role to one of an ‘enforcer of decisions and/or outcomes which emerge from world markets’.”[xvi]  In that light, the “pro-incorporation” camp seeks to manage the Chinese situation with outside market pressures targeted at internal Chinese reform.  This intention is clear, for instance, in the effort to get China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which results in Chinese officials making statements like, “Poverty is the main barrier to the progress of human rights in the region.  Thus we have no choice but to consider development—improving economic, social and cultural conditions—as our most important task. In short we must use development to push forward the progress of human rights.”[xvii]  China has agreed to the ICCPR, but has yet to ratify it.  Of course this process is also seen in China’s membership in the WTO.

This process of inclusion and global pressure has worked to some extent, but the challenges are vast: “a legislative system in disarray; a weak administrative law regime; the lack of a robust civil society; the enduring influence of paternalistic traditions and a culture of deference to government authority; rampant corruption; large regional variations…”[xviii] The difficulties in establishing rule of law stem at least as much from aspects of Chinese culture as they do from the baggage of the hard-line communist regime and circumstance.  Outside influence toward reform through the pressures of globalism is limited.

One of the great ironies of the globalization phenomenon is that, at precisely the same moment that East Asia is being encouraged to embrace democratization and political liberalism, globalization itself appears to be fundamentally undermining democratic structures of governance and the capacity of national governments to represent the interests of the people within the political space over which they claim authority.[xix]

The globalization proponents seek to urge China toward reform, but fail to take into account the differences of culture and character that make China and Asia unique.  This isn’t to say that the world should give up, or that the rule of law, human rights, and good governance are not possible, it is just that if market forces and international institutions impose those reforms, they won’t ever fully take, and whatever progress is made will be temporary.  That temporary nature would be exposed in any kind of serious financial downturn or security crisis.

There has been significant progress, however, and that shouldn’t be discounted.  International and American business interests have demanded better legal protection in order to protect their interests in China, and that reform has spilled over to help protect Chinese Companies as well.  Legal action by Chinese citizens, even against the government (at least local) is abruptly on the rise.[xx]  Again, while this progress is promising, it is limited, and hasn’t strengthened or liberalized the laws in other areas, such as the media. 

There are also disturbing signs that China is seeking to use the global system and institutions to its own ends.  China has become a supplier of weapons to countries like Iran and others with whom the west has conflict.  They have extended trade and therefore influence into all parts of the globe, as we will cover later.  China’s influence in the UN is profound as a veto holder in the permanent Security Council.  Its potential to shape the world economy as a member of the WTO shouldn’t be underestimated.

The “China Threat” camp proposes a “get tough” policy toward China.  “Containment” is their main goal, as the economic, political, and military power of the Chinese increases.  Reviewing China’s challenges, and the difficulties that they may present the US, it is hard not to get swept up in this argument; China truly does represent a future challenge to the world.  A couple of specific incidents and areas bolster the China Threat argument.  First, the growing technological development and influence of the People’s Liberation Army.  Five years ago, by some estimates, PLA-owned companies account for $20 billion worth of trade per year from its roughly 20,000 companies; 12 PLA-owned companies are known to be operating out of the US.” In other words, China’s war machine is partially self-funding, and none of that revenue is reported in the terrific increase of spending by the PRC on its military.  China has since passed legislation to separate the military from private ownership of businesses, transferring the military owned companies to party faithful.  Still, it is unclear how much influence and independent wealth the military retains. China also gains technology from doing business in the US, and from US companies doing business in China; China’s recent development of intercontinental ballistic missiles is seen by many as a direct result.[xxi]  Concerns about the PLA are also raised by the recent anti-satellite missile tests that were conducted by the PLA apparently without the full consent and knowledge of Beijing.[xxii] Regardless of the policies of the PRC, it seems that the PLA has the growing ability, and certainly the resources, to instigate conflict on its own.

Another source for concern among many is Chinese arm sales to potentially dangerous or unstable powers such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria, especially nuclear weapons and technology.   The case is fairly sure that without China, Pakistan would never have developed a nuclear bomb, and it appears that Pakistan has been selling the technology elsewhere.  China could be doing the same for Iran.  This is especially likely because China needs Iran’s oil resources for its industrial development.[xxiii]  On a wider scale, China has developing relationships with South American countries that currently have antagonistic relations with the U.S.  Recently, a Chinese official in China’s Ministry of Security said,  “In the world, almost all enemies of the United States are China's friends," and then further stated the “doubtful” nature of Chinese-U.S. stability.[xxiv]

Although there is obviously some substance to and evidence of the “China Threat” theory, and this concept should not be ignored as some in the “pro-incorporation” camp seem to want to do, there are serious problems stemming from this line of thought.

Not only does this reductionist representation come at the expense of understanding China as a dynamic, multi-faceted country but it leads inevitably to a policy of containment that, in turn, tends to enhance the influence of realpolitik thinking, nationalist extremism, and hard-line stance in today’s China… ‘a policy of containment toward China implies the possibility of war, just as it did during the Cold War…’.[xxv]

By an attitude of open confrontation of China, we encourage hostile attitudes and actions that our not in our interest.  That is not to say that we should back down, or ease our military strength in the Asian region—there is evidence that the US is still a valuable key in the balance of power—but simply that loudly accusing China will ultimately make matters worse.


Before exploring what might the best policy or position toward China, it is helpful to understand some of the trends and realities of social and political life in China.  One thing is clear—true Marxism is extremely weak, perhaps largely because of the economic reforms.  One Marxist reporter went to a public meeting on private property rights.  Such meetings, where scholars and the public can express their views on a subject of widespread importance, have been rare.  He was amazed at how free market economics was being endorsed by the majority of the people (and party officials), only using Marxist terminology.  People said things like, “When an SOE (socialist operated enterprise) turned into a joint stock corporation with many shareholders, it represents socialization of ownership as Marx and Engels described it, since ownership goes from a single owner to a large number of owners;”[xxvi] This seems to represent a profound shift away from Marxist Leninist Mao Zedong thought, by the people and also by the party.

That leaves the party in an odd position: still wanting to maintain power, but moving away - in ideas if not in terms - from the justification of holding that power. 

Suisheng Zhao calls what the Communist leadership has promoted instead “pragmatic nationalism”, which “gives the Communist state the responsibility to speak in the name of the nation and demands that citizens subordinate their individual interests to China’s national ones.”  Zhao further explains with this idea: the state becomes more secure and popular as it is challenged and criticized by outside countries and institutions, and this has allowed to Communist party to actually consolidate power - though the Communist ideas themselves have been largely debunked.   At the same time, this nationalism could be a possible threat from internal critics of the government if they fail to meet national expectations.[xxvii]  China seems to be at a critical transition where the government and the people are somewhat open to ideas, and the ideology is somewhat fluid because of the rapid change in Chinese society.

Part of the nationalism that has arisen has manifested in a move back toward traditional Chinese thought that was discarded with the end of the dynasties, and especially with the advent of Communism.  “Now, almost a century after Confucianism first came under attack as an obstacle to development, it is being heralded as a solution to the many political, economic, and ethical problems China faces.”   Paul Mooney writes that there has been a great revival that has resulted in a rapidly growing amount of college courses and seminars surrounding Confucianism.[xxviii] The party has even seemed to embrace the movement.  Hu Jintao’s promotion of the idea of a “peaceful rise” has definite Confucian overtones.   This has led to a strange concoction of socialism and Confucianism that helps to make up the strange phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  Certainly there is a great deal to Confucianism that would seem to answer the problems of corruption and run-away materialism for China, but the government is likely taking up the philosophy because of its “respect for authority” aspect, as previously noted.

The world and particularly the U.S. obviously have a huge stake in the fate of China’s rise.  What can be done to help secure the establishment of a stable and non-threatening China now and in the future?  Clearly, the containment, “tough on China” approach is self-defeating.  Clearly, the global pressures on China are helpful in some ways, harmful in others, and in any case not a permanent solution given the cultural and historical undertones.  What China needs most, it seems, are ideas.  Ideas that can be justified from Chinese culture and tradition, but which also provide support for human rights, security, and continued development.  These ideas could be summed up under the headings of “rule of law” and “individual rights”, but if those ideas are imposed from a western viewpoint, they lack credibility and will be eschewed in the case of a crisis when nationalism kicks in and the current or future regime looks to consolidate its power in the name of stability or efficiency.

The challenge then, for anyone who values the freedom and human rights of the Chinese people or who looks to influence China toward peace and stability, is to bring into the arena of ideas ways to reconcile the concept of the rule of law, and perhaps individual rights, with Chinese thought and tradition.  There are scholars and experts that are writing and thinking about this, and they vary widely on how compatible China and the rule of law truly are.  Robert Berring writes that there can be no clear Chinese concept of the rule of law, and that the current Chinese leadership is simply using the idea as a means for power and to appease the forces of globalism. Basically, he sees the culture and mindset of the Chinese as so distant from the one that developed in the west (the rule of law being simply an aspect of that development) that the effort is difficult, if not impossible.  For instance, he notes that the Chinese have no example in their tradition of a judge who applies law, only a magistrate who was an extension of the emperor and therefore exercised unlimited power.[xxix]

Randall Peerenboom states “We need to keep our minds open to the possibility that China may develop an alternative to liberal democratic rule of law—a form of rule of law with Chinese characteristics, as it were… At the same time, we need to avoid the other mistake—that is treating China as so different from other states that none of the same rules and assumptions apply.”  This attitude is more helpful, but Peerenboom only accepts the concept of a “thin” rule of law for China.  In other words, a rule of law in which there is still an authoritarian leadership that holds itself accountable only in order to remain in power.  That idea isn’t without some historical backing.  The more ancient Confucian dynasties operated with a “censor” who oversaw the actions of officials, even the emperor, according to Confucian ethics and legal statutes, but these still operated under the authority of the emperor.[xxx]


Can you have just “some” rule of law? 

While China has implemented judicial reform, corruption has only gotten worse because, ultimately, government officials don’t feel accountable, and party officials can still influence or just outright manipulate judicial decisions.  China could make progress under this “socialist” or “consultative” or “thin” rule of law, increasing the security of its people while still maintaining single party rule; but even for that to happen there is a long road ahead with many obstacles.[xxxi]  Ultimately,  a case has to be made for the government to be somehow limited by the law. Chinese tradition doesn’t seem to lend itself directly to this Western view of the rule of law, but it can get closer:

China has no concept and practice of limited government in the Western constitutional form (or constitutionalism), imperial officials were nonetheless closely monitored and strictly supervised, all under Mandate of Heaven rules.  These heavenly mandate rules as translated into official conduct norms were comprehensively, clearly and precisely espoused by Confucius in the classics…These official conduct norms were every bit as demanding and exacting as any modern constitutionalism can muster.[xxxii]

So the idea of limited government exists, but the way that it was enforced was different.  There is the tradition of being held accountable to a sort of law, certainly more so than in Communist or Legalist thought, but still not in the way that we would be satisfied with in the West, and this self-accountable thin rule of law will probably not be enough to keep China viable as a modern state that respects its people’s human rights while “peacefully rising.” It would still be just too easy for a despotic regime to develop in a crisis or challenge—for the government to abuse its people in the name of progress or security.

There is at least one Confucian scholar in Chinese history whose teachings approached the ideas of limited government.  Huang Zongxi recommended institutions, such as a prime minister, which would check the power of the emperor in the name of the people.  Huang was widely quoted by turn of the twentieth century reformers in China as an indigenous Chinese and Confucian support for democracy.  The time that Huang wrote should be noted—right before and during a major crisis in China that brought about a change in dynasties and resulted in the heavy handed rule of foreigners.  Had Huang actually been able to publish his works at the time, or present his ideas to the emperor, would things have been different?[xxxiii]

It is entirely simplistic, then, for those in the West to point to Confucianism as entirely authoritarian and understand a China threat as entirely historical, even though there are historical and cultural aspects to it. It is entirely disingenuous for Asian leadership to look to Confucianism in order to consolidate their power, as if they were, or are even attempting to be the type of rulers that Confucius imagined, living Confucian principles and holding themselves to strict standards of virtue.

The way forward here is to allow for a plurality of ideas to exist and perhaps work with one another.

“'Narrow-minded nationalism' causes some scholars…to reject concepts such as democracy, liberty, and human rights ‘just because they originated from the West’…proponents of true Confucianism are open to many different concepts, seeing the philosophy as one of several ideas—including democracy, liberty, and human rights—that can help China. ‘The real spirit of Confuciansim…is rather rational that emotional, rather inclusive than exclusive.’”[xxxiv]

The practical nature of the Chinese, illustrated by Deng’s famous line, “will it work?” combined with the potential inclusiveness of Confucianism, may allow for reforms that would help to bring about a stable and reliable rule of law, at the same time respecting Chinese culture.

One noteable example of this kind of combination is found in Daniel Bell’s model of how a future Chinese democracy might be set up to respect the Confucian heritage, yet provide for the accountability of government to the people and to the law.  He imagines a two house legislature: a lower house that is voted in democratically, and an upper “House of Scholars,” which is achieved (rather than elected or appointed) through a series of tests designed to determine the “best and brightest” as well as testing such leadership traits as disinterestedness, public spirit, and virtue.  He has the lower house being able to check the House of Scholars with a plurality.  The proposal is cleverly named, “Democracy with Chinese Characteristics.”[xxxv]  How the judiciary would function in such a system is not answered, but with a fully developed “thin rule of law” in place (that is still a ways away), and a strong legislature like what is described above, many of the structural issues that destabilize China would be solved, at least to the point of stability.  The Confucian legacy is respected, but the people have a voice.  More thinking along these lines should be understood and promoted.

The same can be said of Individual Rights, or Natural Law.  It is clear that Confucius pointed to “heaven”, some kind of power beyond human from which the “mandate of heaven” came.  Whether or not this was God, or just some kind of universal principle, doesn’t matter.  It was the emperor who had the right to interpret the mandate, but it didn’t come from him.  Is it such a stretch that the “Mandate of Heaven” could be interpreted through elected officials, and codified so that all should be held to it by law - even the government? Turning to another side of Chinese culture, the traditions of Taoism are individualistic in nature, unlike Confucianism.  Lao Tzu was against giving powers to the state, because of “‘laws and regulations more numerous that the hairs of an ox,’ as the persistent oppressor of the individual, ‘more to be feared that fierce tigers.’”[xxxvi]  Perhaps there is a basis here for a kind of Natural Law and for Individual Rights.  There is at least the possibility of justifying such from these traditions.

Who might make this case—fully explore the possibilities of developing, discovering, and implementing the ideas that China needs, pulling from Chinese culture, philosophy, and traditions, while staying true to the principles of liberty which we “hold to be self-evident”?  Some academics are making the case.  Daniel Bell, a professor at Tsinghua University has a book coming out in Chinese detailing his “democracy with Chinese characteristics” that is due to be released in China.  He hopes that it will make it past the government censors.[xxxvii]  If read, this book may certainly influence readers along the lines that we have detailed.  There appear to be more in the “Asian values” camp right now, however, than that are believing that China can realistically move toward any kind of democratization or rule of law.  The Foreign Affairs article “The Rise of the Great Authoritarian Powers,” published earlier this year, is a good example of that.  While the ideas that China needs are out there, they will likely be drowned out by other voices. 

Part of the problem is that China is sensitive to any perceived outside meddling.  The idea is that because of British colonization and military defeat and domination of China in the eighteen hundreds, China wants to show that it is independent and can hold its own.  Many in China are defiant because they feel that they have finally arrived, and gained power enough to be taken seriously—and that this is China’s natural and rightful place in the world. “Many Chinese people are upset by US pressure on issues such as human rights, intellectual property rights, trade deficits, weapons proliferation, and Taiwan because they believe that the United States has used these issues to demonize China in an effort to prevent it from achieving great-power status.”[xxxviii]  Further, Chinese leadership has used the aggressive tactics of the U.S. in the Middle East as a contrasting point to show the superiority of the Chinese “civilization mode”.  About a conference on that topic one commentator writes, “As the conference proceeded, it became clear that… (to the Chinese participants) there was something different, and better, about the Chinese ‘civilization mode.’ And their foil for Chinese peace, harmony, and tolerance was Western—and especially U.S.—war, hegemony, and intolerance.”[xxxix]  There are definite obstacles to the United States ability to influence China in the realm of ideas, at least overtly and in the open.

On the other hand, there are some that think that the Bush administration has struck the right balance in Asia (even if has bumbled elsewhere) in coming away from its formerly confrontational stance “into a hard-nosed but cooperative dialogue” with the purpose of turning China into a “responsible stakeholder in the international system”. “The respect accorded to China through the stakeholder concept has allowed Washington to raise difficult issues such as democratic values.  Because the United States is not imposing its values, China seems more open to discussing the need for greater political liberties as it seeks its proper place in the world.”[xl]  I hope that this is true.  If it is, then the worst mistake we could make was to have that dialogue on “democratic values” from a U.S. or global viewpoint rather than from the viewpoint of what China needs, and how that can be drawn from, related to or integrated with Chinese traditions and culture.  Right now it seems the former is more likely.

Another way that these ideas can progress is through the influence of business and NGOs.  We have already seen that foreign and international business is driving a good deal of the legal reform.  Those doing business in China are the most welcome of ambassadors, as long as they are not openly critical of the government.  The struggle in Canada over how to deal and do business, with China is instructive.  Prime Minister Harper has taken “a tough stance” on Chinese human rights abuses, which has resulted in the limited ability of Canadian companies to do business there.  Businessmen are up in arms, calling the policy backward. "I'm a believer that the way you influence human rights is not by calling people names or poking a stick in their eye," says Thomas d'Aquino, the organization's president. "If a country like China is going to listen to us, it's important that we be seen as a trusted friend."[xli] While we don’t want to look the other way on human rights abuses, we lose the chance of influencing China through our ideas if we take the hard-line stance.  If business men are savvy to China’s need for rule of law, and there should be none else who can see it more clearly, they have the opportunity to help spread the ideas of rule of law from a Chinese perspective.  NGO’s as well have been touted as being a key to establishing a “civil society”; these people and organizations that know their rights, are educated on the law, have interests different than the state and serve as a balance against state power.  Of course, in China, there are serious restrictions on the NGOs—they operate only under the strict supervision of the state.  The U.S. government funds several NGOs that are working for democratic change in China, and there are many others that are there serving charitable purposes.   How effective NGOs and business interests are in spreading ideas is unknown.  However, if they can have an effect, it stands to reason that they will get much further in promoting the rule of law if they are promoting the strengths and benefits of Confucianism and Chinese culture at the same time.

An approach to China that emphasizes ideas does not mean that we back down in other ways.  It seems obviously critical that we maintain a strong US military presence in the Asian region to maintain security and a balance of power.  We should also maintain and strengthen our ties and alliances that we have with the Asian democracies, especially Japan. 

Where we should back down is in the rhetoric.  Politicians find an easy target for outrage and tough talk in China, as is likely to be the case in the coming presidential election year.  However, just like the two previous presidents found out, too tough a public stance toward China or a containment mentality just goes nowhere and is just seen by a culture that highly values its public honor as a bullying challenge . The U.S. presidents have in each case had to back down, much to their embarrassment.

If it is true that a space for dialogue has opened up in our relationship with China, then we need to take full advantage of it.  Every occasion should be taken to sit down with China’s leadership and decision makers and discuss the possibilities for the rule of law to be more widely implemented.  The key is that the case needs to be made that it is not incompatible with Chinese tradition, and a respect and deference for the Chinese perspective needs to be maintained.  Our politicians and diplomats need to be thoroughly schooled on this issue and present their case carefully.  There is, of course, no way that we can flat out tell the Chinese that the rule of law is compatible with Confucianism—that would be arrogant—but if this assumption were to be the background of understanding with we approached the situation, that respect would help both sides to move forward on a more constructive basis.

Many have noticed China’s admiration for Singapore, which is semi-authoritarian but with a fairly strong rule of law (although perhaps more of the thin variety), and have talked about the “Singaporization” of Hong Kong.  In other words, it is conjectured that Beijing would like to try the thin rule of law out in Hong Kong.  Seeing the much greater freedom of expression in Hong Kong, this would seem like the ideal arena for this debate - especially for the intelligentsia who espouse the idea of democracy and rule of law that is compatible, or that can be combined with, traditional ideas of Chinese governance.

The U.S. could establish an association of businesses that are based in the U.S. and do business in China, and offer these ideas to those who not only want their business interests to be more secure, but who care about the well-being of the Chinese.  The U.S. could also broaden the cultural exchanges between the two countries, such as the Chinese and Russians have sought to do the last couple of years with “The Year of China in Russia”, and vice versa, which was an effort to expand relations between the two countries with an extensive series of cultural events and exhibitions.[xlii]  If China were to feel that we understand or at least appreciate Chinese culture there would be a lot greater opportunity for the expression of ideas.

Just as we need to understand the China threat but not have that as the guiding light of our dealings with China, we need to be the example of a prosperous country in which the rule of law is respected, but not in anyway express that we are that example.  With this in mind, it would be helpful if the US would clean up its act on this score and keep our executive and our entire national government in check.  The rule of law is possible in China, and it is the hope of its people for lasting peace and prosperity and for emerging freedom.  Now may be a unique window in which to get these ideas across; and who if not the U.S. should take up that responsibility.  If any one of China’s challenges reaches crisis before the rule of law can mesh into the fabric of Chinese thought, then it will be too late.


Mr. Barfuss is a graduate student at George Wythe College studying Political Economy.


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