Why China won’t be a better superpower: Believe in people, not states

People in the West ought to wake up and emulate the popular revolts of Brazil and Turkey, suggests Barkawi.

Turkey protests
China's history is just as dark as the West, writes Tarak Barkawi [Getty]

In a thoughtful column, Murtaza Hussain asks whether the world might be better off with the rise of China than it was under Western and US hegemony?

After all, European imperialism and US wars since 1945 have caused millions of deaths; the Western sense of superiority prevents any fair dialogue with others; and the great liberal democracies have been revealed as states who torture those they suspect, assassinate their enemies with impunity from drone aircraft, and spy on everyone including their citizens on a previously unimaginable scale.

Meanwhile, argues Hussain, China has no tradition of invading other countries; has a respectful attitude towards other Asian countries due to the Confucian virtues; and has nothing in its history “remotely comparable to the industrialised exploitation and mass-murder which as characterised the Western colonial project.”

Episode 1: The dramtic rise

Evidently, Hussain has not heard of the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961. This was Mao’s effort to rapidly industrialise China and collectivise its agriculture. The death toll from a combination of famine and state terror was somewhere between 18 and 45 million. Then there was the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, another exercise in state terror which saw mass purges, millions of people displaced, and much of China’s cultural heritage destroyed.

As for treating other Asians respectfully due to Confucianism, we might ask the Tibetans. They were invaded, occupied, and forcibly incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Between 200,000 and a million of them died during the Great Leap Forward, while some 6,000 monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The Vietnamese, like many other peoples on the fringes of China, have their own histories of struggle against Chinese imperialism, seeing off a border incursion as recently as 1979.

As for spying, surveilling, and torturing, well, this is the great specialty of totalitarian regimes and the only real rivals of the PRC and the USSR were the Nazis. It is ironic that the Edward Snowden fled first to China and then to Russia, two of the most politically least free societies on earth, to protest US surveillance. When Chinese and Russian dissidents flee to the West, there is no irony in their choice.But here too China’s so-called communists easily match the venality of the West’s leaders. 

Hussain might have mentioned corruption and plutocracy as another stick to beat the supposedly democratic West. Since Thatcher and Reagan, Western politicians have been transferring wealth from the have-nots to those who have too much, and they have been well rewarded after they leave office with sinecures, memberships on corporate boards, and highly paid jobs as advisors and lobbyists. But here too China’s so-called communists easily match the venality of the West’s leaders. As Bloomberg has recently reported , the princelings of the Chinese Communist Party have amassed fortunes in real estate and other assets. They too have created a country with increasingly horrific divides in wealth and power, while they and their families party with China’s new class of super rich.

An issue Hussain does not reflect on is whether China’s economy, society and politics are stable enough to continue its rise. Civil disorder and internal unrest may be the outcome of a superheated economy which has failed to offer much to China’s rural masses.

The public decides, not governments

Nonetheless, Hussain’s question – would China be a better superpower? – is an important one to reflect on. If nothing else, it is a stunning indictment of the West.

In the face of a challenge from a deeply unattractive brand of radical Islam, and from countries like Iran, China, and North Korea which have nothing to offer in terms of political models for others, the exhausted liberals of the West have been unable to come up with a convincing politics. Instead, they invade, torture, assassinate and surveillance, while they make pompous speeches about democracy and freedom and drive the mass of their populations into penury in the name of austerity and financial rationality.

It is the global superpower of the people in which we should place our hopes and our efforts for a better future.


What we perhaps need to let go of is the idea that a strong state, whether Chinese or American, will save us, or will ever do the right thing. It is popular action, the masses on the streets, the threat or actuality of revolution, demands backed up by demonstrations, riots, and unrest, which extract concessions from the rich and the powerful.

What is happening now in Turkey and Brazil is how you make gains for democracy, justice and equality.

By and large, despite all the hot air about the internet and twitter, the tools of people power have failed to adapt to globalization. While capital has become mobile, the people have remained caged in their nation-states, left to vent their rage against a local government that is but a minor servant of global capital.

The Arab Spring and other globally networked and interlinked uprisings have begun to show the way. At some point, when deprived of their consumer economies and all their baubles, the Western masses will join the struggle, as they have begun to in Greece and elsewhere. That is, if they are not led astray by the siren songs of fascism and anti-immigrant racism.

It is the global superpower of the people in which we should place our hopes and our efforts for a better future, not some communist dictatorship that offers nothing but cheap textiles, knock-off electronics and a world-class gulag.

And it is here that a last defence of the West might be offered. During World War II, a communist disillusioned by Stalinism, Arthur Koestler, commented that the West was fighting a lie in the name of a half truth. The West may not live up to its ideals, but it was certainly better than the Nazis or Stalin.

Thinking about the state of the West after the war, Albert Camus came to the conclusion that sometimes it even might be necessary to fight a lie in the name of a quarter-truth. The reason, he argued, is that that quarter-truth at stake in the West is that of liberty and freedom. Without some measure of these, the possibilities for conceiving of and working towards a more just future are radically attenuated.

In the wake of Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance, we may now be down to a one-eighth truth. But there is little question there is more liberty to be had in the US or in Western Europe than there is in Moscow or Beijing, or in Caracas or Teheran. What is needed is for Westerners to make better use of it, and to rediscover their great traditions of popular revolution.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research