Late 1989 is rightly regarded as a singular historical turning point when geopolitical business-as-usual was unambiguously interrupted: The Berlin Wall opened up and then came down. Major changes to previous regimes across Eastern Europe swiftly followed and by late 1991, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had become Russia, again. The prominent American political scientist Francis Fukuyama led the field when he wrote ardently about the success of Western-American liberalism and the End of History after the opening of that wall. While there were critics, many other commentators endorsed Fukuyama’s central thesis. They were, as the British political philosopher John Gray notes in his 1995 book, Enlightenment’s Wake, intoxicated by what they were witnessing.
Fukuyama no longer cleaves to those sunny views of the definitive ideological accomplishment of Western universalism. He has published several articles in leading US journals which raise serious questions about the current, diminished condition of American liberalism and what the future may hold for it. One essay, in Foreign Affairs magazine, was titled “The Pandemic and the Political Order: It Takes a State”. It argues that the US, in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, “has bungled its response badly and seen its prestige slip enormously”. Another related essay in The Atlantic magazine concluded that “America’s deepening tribalism leaves few reasons for optimism.” (See, further, Richard Cullen, “Anxiety disorder”, China Daily, Sept 10, 2020.)
While these sober reflections from the chief spokesman for the end-of-history theory mark a major step away from belief in those earlier claims, the world has just witnessed another, relevant, primary historical turning point. The observance, recently, of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China surely does mark, definitively, the end of “the end of history” assumption that American liberalism had provided a paramount template to guide worldwide advancement to the endpoint of global political development.
What matters here, of course, is not the anniversary itself. That anniversary has, however, generated an apt and highly detailed review of what the CPC has achieved since its creation, and especially over the last four decades. The reviewing preoccupation is, if anything, more intense across the Western world than in China itself. All the leading policy journals strongly focused on geopolitics, such as The Economist, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, together with dozens of newspapers and other media outlets globally, have seen a remarkable surge in CPC and China-focused articles, triggered by the anniversary.
The usual China-thumping and sanctimonious censuring have continued as intensely as ever. But the anniversary reviews, often accompanied by much expressive hand-wringing, stand out. On July 17, The Economist provided no less than three heavily concerned items, an editorial, a briefing and a detailed article. They expressed the usual dismay at China’s claimed rights abuses. But even more dismay (combined with some taciturn admiration) was directed at China’s extraordinary positive achievements. And the dismay experience then extended to the ways in which the US lagged China — and was getting its response wrong. The bottom line in this worldview is that there has to be one primary winner (hegemon, in truth,) and surely that has to be the US. But how is this to be managed?
If the fall of the Berlin Wall set Western triumphal testosterone flowing, the CPC 100th anniversary appears to have triggered an exceptional surge of Western anxiety testosterone. This is genuinely concerning. John Bellamy Foster, in a recent extended essay called “The New Cold War on China”, perceptively argues why this is grimly so.
As “the end of history” narrative was crumbling, the rise of China gathered eye-catching momentum. This accelerated the demise of that narrative and energized the almost bipolar switch of the Western mood from triumph to trepidation. Foster notes certain factors which have animated the movement toward “the New Cold War”. These have arisen in response to China’s rise and include: disbelief, shock, envy and anger. Foster cites Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton when he argues that US — leading the “reigning powers” — aims to constrain rather than just contain China, backed up by the overwhelming military force it commands.
It is now clear that the US did not elect a statesman in 2020 to replace Donald Trump but, instead, more of a “crafty uncle”. Joe Biden’s fixation on bettering China, by containing it using whatever means come to hand, is an obstructive distraction which looks set to continue embittering the collective mindset of his administration, and poisoning any thought of Sino-US reconciliation in the near term. Underpinning this substantial, continuing level of improvident decision making is what may be the paramount anxiety: How to retain congressional power in the 2022 midterm elections, when history and current polling suggest this project is evidently ill-fated.
In his 1995 book, Gray argued, presciently, that the “most momentous political experiment in the world (is) underway in China”. He reasoned that a “constellation of market and state institutions” would likely emerge in China “that would be legitimate precisely because it owes little or nothing to Occidental ideologies and promotes the well-being of its subjects as that is perceived by them from the perspective of their indigenous cultural traditions.”
Foster concludes his essay by noting that the geopolitical conditions he has analyzed have placed the world within an era of almost unprecedented danger. Indeed, he says this formulation understates the gravity of the risk. The fact that there is zero sign that the Biden administration recognizes and accepts China, as Gray did almost 30 years ago, reinforces this assessment. In short, what America cannot admit today is that China is, fundamentally, a rightful and widely welcome member of the global family of nations, the equal of any other (including the US,) and the fact that is different from the US and is now far more prosperous than it was, cannot possibly alter this truth.
It was the US, we now know, that drew up contingency plans (never implemented) to drop one or more nuclear bombs on the Chinese mainland in the 1950s. Today, it is unfortunately fair to say that although the use of such horrific weapons of war remains unlikely, if anyone were to pull that appalling trigger first, it is more likely to be the disconsolate, glowering US than China, which looks to the future — and the next 100 years — with conspicuously well-grounded, affirmative expectations.
The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law, the University of Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS