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Opinion

Defenders of the 'Chinese way' are off the mark

Hillary Rodham Clinton's insistence on a democratic approach to controversies involving China has brought out similarly insistent statements from defenders of the 'Chinese way.' They point to flaws of democracy while touting China's special Confucian values. This is dangerous thinking.

By Kevin Carrico / September 5, 2012

Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, right, hands a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, during a bilateral meeting in Beijing Sept. 5, 2012. Op-ed contributor Kevin Carrico writes: 'The notion of Chinese characteristics portrays the people of China as so unique, on account of their longstanding cultural traditions, as to be immune to the political and cultural change that has swept the world in recent decades.'

Jim Watson/AP/pool

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Ithaca, N.Y.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is in China again, this time trying to nudge Beijing toward a collaborative, multinational solution to its many territorial disputes with its neighbors. But predictably, the Chinese government is claiming its unique status to do things its way, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying China has the “obligation to safeguard its territories” and an editorial in The China Daily proposing an “Asian” approach to the issue.

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Secretary of State Clinton last visited China in May, as a blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, sought refuge in the American Embassy from years of state persecution. Then, visiting Mongolia in July, she denounced countries that imprison dissidents and deny citizens the right to freely choose their leaders.

Her insistence on a democratic approach to controversies in the region has brought out similarly insistent statements from defenders of the “Chinese way.” In the op-ed sections of The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere in the American media, these defenses point to the flaws of democracy while touting China’s special Confucian-communist meritocracy or Confucian culture and history, all the while heralding the legitimacy and popularity of the current regime as the natural choice for China.

Such ideas are part of a much larger discussion of “Chinese characteristics” in recent decades. Promoted by the state and state-friendly intellectuals, the notion of Chinese characteristics portrays the people of China as so unique, on account of their longstanding cultural traditions, as to be immune to the political and cultural change that has swept the world in recent decades. And while supposedly determining China’s sole proper path for handling any and all issues, these unique characteristics, according to their proponents, remain conveniently unable to be fully grasped by outsiders.

Whether applied domestically or internationally, this is a harmful line of thinking.

The primary political effect of these ideas is to deny the inevitable trend of democratization in recent decades – in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Arab countries. Ironically, however, the notion of Chinese characteristics appeals to many of those whom it would deceive and ultimately disenfranchise. Internationally, it rationalizes authoritarianism under the guise of cultural sensitivity to a uniquely Chinese way. Domestically, it fulfills a desire for uniqueness and exceptionalism in order to distract citizens from the growing desire for basic political and human rights.

Let’s look at one particular political proposal by China scholars Jiang Qing and Daniel A. Bell in The New York Times in July. Critical of democracy as a solution to China’s political and social malaise, the authors instead seek a political framework based in “the longstanding Confucian tradition of ‘humane authority.’ ” 

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