Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
In this article, I argue that China’s image is perpetuated as a “dictatorial state” compared to the “free” and “democratic” West.
When I addressed the Mao era previously, my topic could be paraphrased as: “Okay, if Maoist China worked so well, why do people still have a negative view of Mao and China itself?”. This question is the subject of Mobo Gao’s 2018 book ‘Constructing China’, which I’ll rely on to answer this.
The short answer is that a negative, monstrous image of China serves Western geopolitical interests. Possibly too cliché to agree with initially, consider the following explanations and judge for yourself. This part covers authoritarianism.
China as Construct
Gao’s premise concerns the problem of knowledge, its production and “rights” to it. An example of this “right” comes from the Maoist-CCP dictum: ‘you have no right to speak about something if you have not done any research on it’ (p. 2). This sounds sensible but assumes ‘that knowledge can be gained by study, that knowledge gained from the study is the truth’, which ‘does not embrace the complexity of knowledge in its context: that knowledge is constructed and that there are no independent facts or theory’ (p. 9). Further, even ‘the truth of physics is found by postulates and then has to be proved or falsified’ and ‘solid empirical statistics need to be interpreted so as to be considered knowledge’ (pp. 9-10).
Those subscribing to this belief ‘have yet to understand that social phenomena can be evaluated from different perspectives and therefore different knowledge can be produced from the same phenomenon’, that ‘China is never completely knowable [and]whether one has a friendly attitude towards China is political’ (pp. 9-10). This isn’t strictly a question of knowledge but rather how knowledge is constructed, interpreted and disseminated.
Authoritarianism vs Democracy: A False Dichotomy
Attempts to gain fresh insights on China like “the Beijing Consensus” and the “China Model” were made but not taken seriously, precisely because of Western hegemony over the right to knowledge. These perspectives on China cannot be accepted as it disrupts the ability to manipulate its image for Western dominance, and China’s ability to resist. As Gao explains, this ‘hegemony does not have much to do with restriction of freedom or even overt power of imposition’. ‘I am practising my freedom now by questioning Western hegemony’ (p. 11).
The power of Western hegemony is that it doesn’t have to impose overt restrictions. In contrast, ‘The Chinese impose restrictions on academic freedom precisely because they don’t have the hegemonic right to knowledge [which…] delegitimizes their discursive qualifications’, creating a vicious cycle promoting the West as virtuous compared to the Chinese, where human rights and democracy create a paradigm used to lecture the Chinese, the “Democracy Thesis”, which serves Western interests (pp. 8-9). We can see the ironic Western hostility in a 2017 report advising the US Trump regime on Asia. It suggested to:
- Address North Korea (NK), making it give up nuclear weapons or be sanctioned.
- Trade with China: Focus on job losses from unfair trading with a need to “level the playing field”.
We need to realise that:
“‘Dictatorship’ does not mean here the opposite of democracy, but democracy’s own underlying mode of functioning – from the very beginning, the thesis on ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ involved the presupposition that it is the opposite of other forms of dictatorship, since the entire field of state power is that of dictatorship […] one should use the term ‘dictatorship’ in the precise sense in which democracy also is a form of dictatorship […where] even the most ‘free’ elections cannot put into question the legal procedures that legitimize and organize them, the state apparatuses that guarantee (by force, if necessary) the electoral process” (Slavoj Žižek, in ‘Terrorism and Communism’, pp. xv-xvi).