Special Postage Stamp issued for Chinese New Year - Year of the Dragon 2012|
A new political theory: universalists v exceptionalists
In recent years the battle lines in Chinese politics have become clearer. They appear to be drawn between universalists, who believe China must eventually converge on a new value based political theory, and exceptionalists, who believe that China must preserve and perfect the current "Chinese Model". The context for this debate takes place within the political uncertainty in the build-up to the leadership transition combined with a phobia amongst the Chinese elites of political reform.
Nevertheless the philosophical political debate is more real than ever. On the one hand, the term “universal values” 普世价值 is a new one in Chinese Political debate. Many Chinese scholars believe the debate really took off in 2008 after the earthquake in the Sichuan province 四川省 that killed around 80,000 people. A liberal newspaper in the southern province of Guang dong 广东省published an editorial that praised the government's swift response. It said it had “honoured its commitments to its own people and to the whole world with respect to universal values”. The debate continued in December 2008 when a manifesto was issued in support of universal values known as Charter 08. It said, China faced a choice of maintaining its authoritarian system or recognising 普世价值 "universal values". However there is no real agreement on what the universal values are. Some Chinese scholars prefer to contrast what they see as a Confucian stress on social harmony and moral rectitude with the West's emphasis on individual rights.
Furthermore many Chinese scholars are surprised by the notion that multi-party democracy is the form of government towards which all other systems naturally evolve. Chinese academics do not subscribe to the concept of the nation-state, the basis of modern diplomacy developed in Europe. Rather they have developed a different Chinese theory of International Relations. Much of the Chinese theory is based on the notion of 天下, or in English, “all under heaven”. This dates back to the golden age of classical Chinese philosophy, of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and the rest in the “warring states” period before China's unification in 221BC under the first Qin emperor. 天下 is widely understood as a unified world dominated by one country to which neighbours and those beyond look for guidance and pay tribute.
The concept of 天下, as advocated by the Beijing philosopher, 赵汀阳 Zhao Tingyang, is a utopian concept of universal harmony, unattainable, he concedes, for 200-300 years, where everyone opts into a system of global government. There is no compulsion to opt in and the system is one of equality. However he stresses 天下 is a voluntary choice. There are echoes of 天下 in the 2008 Beijing Olympics slogan “One World, One Dream”. There are also echos of it in the blockbuster film Hero released in 2002 set in the time period of the Qin unification.
Moreover Chinese scholars criticise the notion of "supposed" equality between nation-states, they note some countries are more equal than others. For example, China is a big country and other countries are smaller countries and that is just a fact. They also perceive that national governments often ignore the interests of those without a vote, such as unborn generations (not a usual consideration of Western Politicians) and foreigners.
On the other side of the debate is the exceptionalist camp. It's main ideas have been recently summed up in a book by 张维为Zhang Wei Wei called “The Rise of a civilisational state".中国震撼:一个"文明型国家"的崛起 In this book, Mr Zhang argues that China is unique as the world's only amalgam of an ancient civilisation and a huge modern state and is increasingly returning to its own norms and standards. Liberal Chinese are worried that the exceptionalist school of thought is also attracting the most ardent nationalist supporters, who often claim that the West is trying to undermine China's achievements and keep the country from its rightful place as a great power. 张维为Zhang Wei Wei, recently wrote that China's evolution was “as if the roman empire had never collapsed and had survived to this day, turning itself into a modern state with a central government and modern economy, combining all sorts of traditional cultures into one body with everyone speaking Latin.”
Consequently the new communist party leaders when they come to power during 2012 and into 2013 face a daunting task, to navigate their way through these two competing political philosophies both vying to win the battle of ideas for the future of Chinese political thought.
Demographic challenges on the horizon too
A further serious challenge is related to China's demography. Over the last three decades, China has had its fertility artificially suppressed by the one-child policy and as a result it is ageing at an unprecedented rate according to statistics from the UN's Population Division. In 1980 China's median age (the point where half the population is older and half younger) was 22 years, a common developing country figure. But UN statistics show a worrying trend, China will be older than the US as early as 2020 and older than Europe by 2030. This will likely bring an end to its cheap-labour manufacturing and its dependency ratio with rise from 38 to 64 by 2050, one of sharpest rises the world has ever seen.
Furthermore China will have the added challenge of sexual imbalances, after a decade of sex-selective abortions, China will have 96.5m men in their 20s in 2025 but only 80.3m young women. Given these alarming figures, demography is set to become another serious looming challenge for the new leaders of the Communist Party in 2012. The diagram below shows the UN statistics of the Chinese population on the left in 2000 and a projection on the right for 2050:
Chinese Population Pyramid Source: UN Population Division|