I: Competing discourses


According to the political theorist, John Gray, ‘the mounting panic’ induced by the rise of China has sparked a ‘fundamentalist revival’ of the European Enlightenment, which he says has ‘become a sort of magic amulet’ to clutch to the heart ‘as a talisman against fear.’1 The journalists Will Hutton and John Pomfret, the political scientist Minxin Pei and the International Relations scholar, John Lee, are among the many advocates of this movement – all believe that China must embrace the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment, or else face collapse. ‘If the next century is going to be Chinese,’ surmises Hutton, ‘it will be only because China embraces the economic and pluralisms of the West in general, and our Enlightenment institutions in particular, modified, of course, for the Chinese experience.’2

John Gray dismisses such arguments as ‘curiously anglocentric’, claiming instead that the largest economic expansion in history has managed to occur without any of the institutions that such advocates insist are universally necessary, such as the rule of law and property rights, having ever been in place. ‘In fact,’ says Gray, ‘as Japan did when it industrialised a century earlier, China has overturned the theories of economic growth that are conventional wisdom in the west.’3

Both of these views, I will argue, are problematic. The pessimists of Enlightenment, with their various gloom prophesies, are blind to the fact that the Chinese, over the past twenty-five years, have in fact been steadily developing the institutions of Enlightenment, with their progress to date already ‘radical and deep’, as the American sociologist Doug Guthrie has so thoroughly documented in his study on China and Globalization.4 Their belittling of China’s achievements in the areas of human rights, the rule of law and democratic reforms can be read, as John Gray concludes, as revelations of their own unconscious wish for China to fail – as manifestations, if you like, of an arrogant ethnocentrism.5

While I agree with Gray’s assessment of these Enlightenment fundamentalists, he too seems not to appreciate the role that China’s developing Enlightenment institutions have played in the economic and social transformation of Chinese society. China may not have a parliamentary democracy, but it is simply not the case, as he seems to assert, that China has managed to expand its economy without first putting into place various property rights and rules of law that are, as Jacques deLisle has noted, ‘international in style’.


II: Gray’s pluralism verses the discourse of Enlightenment


Like John Gray, I believe that the over-critical attitude that many foreigners have towards China’s system of governance stems largely from their strong faith in the legacies of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, which of course made valuable contributions to our modern ideas about democracy, human rights, religious tolerance, and the rational pursuit of truth.

While I strongly admire Enlightenment values (most people do) I recognise also that the tradition has led to a number of serious failings, all of which, as Theodor Adorno argued, stem from its undialectical vision.

The Enlightenment, despite its noble values, has repeatedly led its faithful down the road to making dangerous, universalising abstractions, its rigid, instrumental Reason often suppressing differences that lead to systematic violence.

In their Dialectics of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that where scientific rationality was initially used to attack religious, superstitious and mythical dogma in the name of free inquiry, tolerance and an open society, soon enough scientific rationality was unleashed against those ethical values that had inspired its use in the first place. ‘Knowledge’ became divorced from ‘information’, norms from facts, and the scientific method increasingly freed from any commitment to liberation, transformed nature into an object of domination. Reason, once the great liberating force, became ‘instrumental’.7

When viewed this way, the Enlightenment can be seen as the progenitor of a society in which the manipulation of others by an all powerful state represents the high point of rationality, in which human subjectivity and individualism and creativity are necessarily squashed in the name of efficiency and instrumentality. Not liberation but the concentration camp, where inmates find themselves reduced to the numbers tattooed on their arms, becomes the logical extension of the Enlightenment. Its legacy is therefore not the promised progress, but barbarism and the subordination of subjectivity to the ‘culture industry’, capitalist forms of thinking and the ‘totally administered society.’8

Whereas many see the Enlightenment as the movement towards freedom and democracy, I agree with Adorno, who saw it as leading to the development of modern states, which in turn develop systems of control and bureaucratic administration that extend greater and greater control over the individual.

Adorno, unlike most of today’s postmodern thinkers, was a Marxian who sought to rehabilitate projects of coherency. He argued precisely the opposite to what postmodern deconstructionists advocate. In his view, deconstruction can only do just that – deconstruct the system. It cannot genuinely get outside the system. For that, argued Adorno, we need to add an extra distinct dimension to our knowledge. It is not that we need to dismantle systems, but that we need to interweave them with an alternative. We have to not deconstruct, but to reconstruct our knowledge. This is exactly what I have been trying to achieve in regards to my own understanding of today’s China and its system of governance.

We live in a world of paradox, and so Enlightenment needs to recognise such paradox in order to be truly enlightened. Reason, to be reasonable, must counterbalance itself with its opposite. This is a universal phenomenon – there is never any unity without internal opposition.

Without such internal opposition, Reason itself simply becomes a question of power: the object of Enlightenment knowledge simply subjects the Other to itself. When, for example, English farmers occupied Native American lands upon arrival at Plymouth, they stripped away from Nature its aura of mystery, the sacredness with which Native Americans invested in it – values which we today could benefit greatly from, as many of today’s environmental scientists now argue.

As Yvonne Sherratt points out in her book, Adorno’s Positive Dialectic, ‘Enlightenment to be enlightened, needs Subjects who can communicate rationally, and to do so, they need not attempt to transcend their own humanity, but rather, they need to be so intensely receptive to their world that they can be, in one moment fully rational and in the other, fully absorbed.’9 Failure to do so in my view can only result in the formation of views that are fundamentally ethnocentric, and that are hence potentially dangerous.

Indeed, it has been the Enlightenment’s undialectical, half-baked concept of Reason that has led not only to the ethnocentrism of Europeans, but also, consequently, to so much of the world’s suffering. Even today, Western countries continue to glory in spreading ‘enlightened’ religion and democracy to the ‘backward native cultures’, and their colonial adventures they justify by their ‘enlightened’ superiority – an alibi for the conquest of developing countries. ‘In its own eyes, Western humanism is the love of humanity,’ wrote the French existentialist philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘but to others it is merely the custom and institution of a group of men, their password, and sometimes their battle cry.’10

Enlightenment thinkers may very well have promised a steady progressive improvement in manner, morals, technology and general social well-being, but the harsh reality is that the world today continues to suffer from unprecedented levels of state sponsored violence and economic exploitation. Consider for example, what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq right now – imperialist adventures, justified using Enlightenment values: ‘we must save the good people of Iraq from the tyranny of dictatorship, and help them to install a wonderful democracy modelled on our own,’ goes the argument. The history of the 19th and 20th centuries is the history of such violent conquests and hypocrisy, and the 21st century doesn’t look like shaping up to be any better.

China’s Great Proletarian Revolution was of course also a product of the European Enlightenment, its theory of universal emancipation having been inspired by its Marxist variant. ‘Terror,’ as John Gray reminds us, was seen by Mao and his Western supporters in the international socialist movement as ‘a necessary phase in the conversion of an Asiatic tyranny to Western ideals of freedom and progress.’11  It was during the Cultural Revolution ‘that the regime achieved its highest level of popularity in the West’, though it ‘was only when its catastrophic results could no longer be denied that Chinese communism was condemned,’ dismissed as a form of traditional Oriental despotism rather than being seen as the result of an attempt to apply a modern Western ideology.12

Enlightenment then, rather than being the great demistifying and emancipating force promised, has instead turned out to be its very opposite, because it argues that we can cover or encompass the world through our reason and our language.

Only by adopting a more dialectical approach to Reason, can we Westerners gain a deeper, fairer, more balanced set of attitudes towards the Chinese Other. We need to more fully absorb ourselves into the Chinese mind, into the Chinese way of seeing and doing things, if we want to be able to make more rational, more reasoned, more enlightened judgements about China, its people, and its institutions.

The pluralist approach endorsed by John Gray provides such a way forward. In his book, Enlightenment’s Wake, Gray argues that ‘if there are ways of life embodying genuine forms of human flourishing that require as their matrices non-liberal social and political structures, then a pluralist moral theory which recognises such forms of human flourishing must be complemented by a pluralist political theory, which recognises forms of political order that are not, and will never become, liberal.’13

‘The pluralist standard of assessment of any regime,’ he suggests, ‘is whether it enables its subjects to coexist in a Hobbesian peace while renewing their distinctive forms of common life.’14 When assessing regimes using this standard, adds Gray, our criticisms should not invoke universalist conceptions of human rights or democracy, since ‘there is no democratic project that has authority over all peoples and all circumstances.’15

The political scientist Daniel A. Bell, also believes that ‘there are morally legitimate alternatives to Western-style liberal democracy in the East-Asia region,’ and that what is right for East Asians ‘does not simply involve implementing Western-style political practices when the opportunities present itself; it involves drawing upon East-Asian political realities and cultural traditions that are defensible to contemporary East-Asians.’16

Many people will, I know, object to the pluralist approach, seeing it as an endorsement of moral relativism. There are no such things as ‘Asian values’ they will say, for Asians value freedom just as much as do Americans and Australians and everyone else. Asians too want to elect their own governments, they too want access to as much information as possible and to have the opportunities to express themselves as they please. Human rights, so say the opponents of relativism, are universal.

I agree that all people value individual rights and that everyone holds dear to their hearts the idea that each individual’s physical and mental integrity ought be respected, yet the empirical reality is that communal rights and individual rights very often do conflict. Since community cohesion and individual rights are both real goods, any morality, as Neil Levy suggests, must find a place for both: ‘a morality that does not find a place for individual rights at all is mistaken; but at the same time so is a morality that always allows such rights to trump social goods.’17 

Eastern and Western conceptions of morality for example, while overlapping on a great many things, differ systematically in the emphasis each places on the value of individuality and community. These are real values, as David Wong, Daniel Bell and John Gray have all argued, but they are values that frequently clash. As Neil Levy explains:


In the West, we have resolved the tension between them largely, though not exclusively, in favour of individual rights. Thus we believe that each person has the right to express (almost) any opinion, no matter how false, stupid or vindictive. We allow people to exercise their right of free speech at the risk of endangering community solidarity, even promoting violence. To be sure, there are limits on this right. Several countries have laws banning public discourse calculated to incite racial hatred, for instance. Nevertheless, in general we believe that the threat to community solidarity, the risk of real violence, must be high before we are willing to countenance restrictions upon free speech....However, at least some Asian countries have taken almost exactly the opposite view: holding that language that represents any risk to community cohesion ought to be restricted unless there are very strong reasons to allow it.18


Some may try to deny that Asians value community solidarity more highly than do Westerners, arguing instead that the leaders of Asian countries exaggerate their populations commitment to communal values for their own political ends. But there is a good deal of empirical evidence to show that East Asians do in fact value community solidarity more highly than do Westerners, ranging from the findings of psychologists in controlled experiments to the more impressionistic accounts of journalists, and as Neil Levy as pointed out, ‘it is not just the elites, those with the most to gain from the continuation of the current regimes, who report satisfaction with the choices these nations have made to emphasise the social over the individual. It is, apparently, the majority of ordinary people who think that their system is preferable to what they see as the over-emphasis on individuality in the West.19 Indeed, even many Asian human rights activists express such ideas. Yao Chia-wen, for instance, a Taiwanese politician who was jailed in 1979 for seven years after participating in a pro-human rights rally, still ‘would not advocate as many rights for Taiwanese as for Americans. ‘Harmony is more important in our society, he was quoted as saying in 1993, ‘so people do not put so much value on equality or personal freedom.20

Not all societies give the same weight to the protection of individual rights over communal rights as does America. ‘It is up to each society to decide whether it wishes to give greater emphasis to one over the other,’ argues Levy, ‘so long as it finds some significant place for each.’21  David Wong also argues that different moral systems can legitimately emphasise individual freedom to different degrees, although all adequate moral systems must find some significant place for it. Exactly the same case can be made for community cohesion.22 

Value-pluralism then, provides us with a powerful and plausible position from which to assess the Other, for as Neil Levy concludes, ‘it vindicates the tolerance of, and respect for, at least some cultures with moralities that differ from our own, by showing that the values they pursue are real values,’ and it ‘counsels humility for us in the face of difference, since if it is true we are forced to acknowledge that our morality is just one reasonable system among others. It therefore opens our eyes to difference, and liberates us from the constraints of excessive ethnocentrism.’23

At the same time, however, the pluralist standard of assessment allows one to avoid at least some of what relativism’s opponents see as its worst excesses, for ‘it does not advocate respect for all moralities, no matter what, but places constraints on what counts as a moral system worthy of such respect.’24 A society that places so much emphasis on one or another good that it allows no place at all for another important value, for example, may be deemed unworthy of our recognition.

In the essays that follow, empirically-verifiable research of both a qualitative and quantitative nature is used to explore China’s performance to date in the four key areas of the rule of law, human rights, media freedom and democratic reform. The pluralist standard of assessment advocated by Gray and Bell is used to test the more optimistic readings of Guthrie, Peerenboom, Nathan, Leonard and De Burgh, against the more pessimistic views of Hutton, PomfretPei and Lee.

Other issues, like those of the Tibet Question, the Tiananmen Massacre, China’s rising nationalism, the legacies of the Mao era and the effects of globalisation, will also be explored, in separate essays, and in the hope of stimulating some spirited debate among China watchers. I have stitched together here many voices to produce discourses of my own, though I do not claim any of them to be a grand unknotting. ‘China is too big a country, and her national life has too many facets, for her not to be open to the most diverse and contradictory of interpretations,’ as the Chinese writer Lin Yutang once warned. ‘The truth,’ he added, ‘can never be proved; it can only be hinted at.’25



1 John Gray, ‘On top of the world?’ The Guardian, Saturday, January 20, 2007.

2 Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century, Little, Brown, London, 2006, p.x. 

3 John Gray, ‘On top of the world?

4 Doug Guthrie, China and Globalization: The Social, Economic, and Political Transformation of Chinese SocietyRoutledge, New York, 2006, p.viii.

5 John Gray, ‘On top of the world?’ In the end, says Gray, ‘what Hutton and others like him fear most is not that the Chinese experiment will fail. It is that China will succeed.’

Jacques deLisle, ‘Legalization without Democratization’ in Cheng Li (editor), China's Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy, Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2008, p.187.

7 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment, 1947, translated by J. Cumming, Verso, London, 1979, p.85

8 Ibid., pp.94-136 and pp.137-172.

9 Yvonne Sherratt, Adorno’s Positive Dialectic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p.239.

10 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror: The Communist Problem, 1947, translated by John O'Neil, Transaction Publishers, 2000, p.776.

11 John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin, London, 2008, p.71.

12 Ibid., pp.70-71.

13 John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake, Routledge, London, 1995, p.211.

14 Ibid., p.210

15 Ibid., p.210.

16 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy: political thinking for an East Asian context, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2006, p.8.

17 Neil Levy, Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2002, pp.198-199.

18 Ibid., pp.197-198.

19 Ibid., pp.199-200.

20 Quoted from Time magazine, June 13, 1993, in Debashi Chatterjee, Leading Consciously: A Pilgrimage Toward Self-Mastery, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998, p.129.

21 Neil Levy, Moral Relativism, p.199.

22 David B. Wong, ‘Pluralistic Relativism’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy: Moral Concepts, Volume 20, pp.378-399.

23 Neil Levy, Moral Relativism, p.201.

24 Ibid., p.201.

25 Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, 1935, Foreign Language Teaching and Research PressChina, 1998 edition, p.19.



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