Book Review - Poverty of Vision of “Liberal Interventionists”

By Branko Milanovic - 19 February 2019
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, 2018. Demain la Chine : démocratie ou dictature? Collection Le Débat, Gallimard.
Should you write reviews of bad books? Obviously not if the book is so bad that you never finished it. Not even if you finished it because it is often not worthwhile doing. But sometimes, as in this case, I think it is worth to review a (generally) bad book because it represents, in a distilled form, the wrong opinions of a significant group of researchers or politicians. Jean-Pierre Cabestan’s book “Demain la Chine: démocratie ou dictature?represents such a case.
Cabestan is a well-known French scholar of China and Taiwan (teaching at the Baptist University in Hong Kong) and in his most recent book he endeavors to answer the question whether China will evolve towards a liberal democracy, remain where it is now (politically), or become a nationalist dictatorship. Before I tell you what Cabestan’s answer is, let me situate Cabestan politically.
Demo ChinaIn a very bizarre approach for an academic Cabestan often writes of “nous” and “notres” (us and ours) values, opinions etc. One is rather puzzled throughout the book who these “us” could be. One guesses that it could be the “liberal intelligentsia”, but the answer comes explicitly only at the end of the book in a section entitled “What should democracies do?”. There we learn that “us” is Western democracies because Cabestan ends the book with a sort of a manual on how “Western liberal democracies” (called also "civilized countries", p. 270) should deal with China. (Among a number of bizarre prescriptions is to never use the term “friendship” in joint communiques with China.) One thus wonders if the book might have been commissioned by the Quay d’Orsay or another organization to guide policy with respect to China rather than representing a genuine academic text.
Ideologically, Cabestan is fully aligned with the trend of thought that was dominant in the 1990s and the early 2000s and which regards the attainment of liberal democracy as the ultimate telos of all societies, the West as the agent that  would ensure that all countries do get to their rightful destination, and “liberal interventionism”, political or military (as the case may be) as the tool to achieve it. Cabestan displays, like many adherents of this view, a remarkable blindness to the fact that what they self-servingly consider to be only an interference in other countries’ affairs in order to help them democratize, may often appear to the others as a naked stab for domination. In his last chapter, Cabestan indeed comes very close to suggesting that West’s policies should aim at dismemberment of China under the guise of giving full democratic rights to different “oppressed minorities”. He does not stop to realize that if such is the objective of Western “democratizing” policies, they are very unlikely to appeal to the Chinese liberal middle class that Cabestan views as the key constituency that would bring democracy about. He similarly fails even to mention a number of debacles and setbacks that such approach has suffered in the past twenty years (Iraq, reversed democracies in Russia and Turkey, end to the Arab Spring, Libyan chaos) much less to acknowledge its implicit cultural arrogance.
Cabestan chastises China for being a “revisionist power” for, among other reasons, asking and getting the increase in its voting rights at the IMF from 2.3% to 6.4%. But he does not note that China’s current voting rights are about one-third of those of the United States, and thus may still be regarded as an understatement given that China is the second (or the first, in terms of purchasing power) economy in the world, the second largest exporter, and the most populous country. It is more than obvious that China will, like any other nation, desire that its current world ”weight” in international organizations (be it IMF or WTO) be reflective of her today’s position, and not of her 1945 status.
So, what is Cabestan’s judgment on China's democratization? After passing in review, often repetitively, the positions of various groups (the Party-State, private sector entrepreneurs, the intellectual elite, the counter-elite, and the like), he concludes that the Party is currently so strong that it can easily fend off any challenge to its authority, or power, whether it comes from an economic downturn, social dissatisfaction or international tensions. But—interestingly--while he entirely dismisses prospects for democratization in the next 20-30 years, Cabestan is equally strongly convinced that, eventually, China will become democratic. The reader is left in a quandary. If Cabestan was unable to identify a single circumstance or a long-term trend that  would lead to democratization, how and why is democratization going to happen? In the long-run Cabestan thinks, everything is possible (we do not know why) and so by some deus ex machina trick China will turn democratic. Utter pessimism for the short- to medium-run is thus matched by an equally utter optimism as to the long run! But that eventual long-run will be also somebody’s short-run, 20 or 30 years hence. So why would not Cabestan today’s diagnosis apply then too?
I am totally unconvinced that all societies have to evolve to the telos of liberal democracy, but leaving this aside I am also unconvinced by Cabestan’s belief in CCP’s stability. A more astute observer might have avoided to speak of the Party-state as it were a single individual with determined and clear objectives. When we view the Party-state in such a light, it is indeed strong enough to fight all possible challengers. But paying perhaps more attention to Eastern Europe and the USSR would have convinced Cabestan that the Party often contains within itself different ideologies and  also different personalities who in order to come to power might espouse the ideologies that, otherwise, they would never support. Cabestan might have noticed that towards the end of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the CPs contained a large segment of social-democrats, but also pragmatists, nationalists and sheer opportunists. Thus rejecting the role of potential personality conflicts (as that between Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping) as driven by individual interests  and not by ideology is wrong: personal conflicts often find in “ideologization” their justification and a way to conceal the raw ambition that frequently underlies them.
Does the book have any redeeming features? It does. Cabestan is, in my opinion, right to see corruption as an inherent feature of political capitalism, and the present anti-corruption campaign as a way to arrest the internal decay of the Party which threatens  its survival. He is probably right in his emphasis on mutual interdependence of political and economic elites, and thus on the lack of interest of the new, private-sector elite in promoting democratic change. He is probably right also in pointing out to the ambivalence of Confucianism when it comes to giving an explicit endorsement to non-hierarchical societies, individualization, and equal (nominal) right of every individual to participate in political life.
If the book were more analytical and less partisan, and better sourced (the number of references to both Chinese and foreign authors is limited and vague) and less repetitive, more thoughtful and less of a parti-pris, it would be worth reading—on its own merits. As it is, it is mostly worth reading to see the limits or rather poverty of vision shared by “liberal interventionists”.
This first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted here with permission.
Disqus comments