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  • Yeow Poon

China: What Now?

Chapter Two in “The Rise of China: Fresh Insights and Observations — a collection of essays”, published in 2021. Chapter 2 reprinted with permission from Paddy Ashdown Forum, ISBN-10: ‎1399905244 and ISBN-13: ‎978–1399905244. Compared to the book, there are changes to formatting to highlight certain paragraphs and texts .

The rise of China has become an enigma for us in the West. China has cherry picked Western political and economic ideologies, added in Chinese characteristics, and in the 40 years since opening its economy became the second largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the largest by purchasing power parity. It has done so without becoming an open liberal democracy. It has no universal suffrage and no competing multi-parties.

How should liberal Western powers respond to the rise of China? Constructive engagement or a rival to be challenged and constrained? As China develops into a superpower, China is being perceived as a geo-political economic rival challenging the international order (or Western order as perceived by some). The US pivot to East Asia morphed into a trade war, a tech war and now seemingly cold war 2.0.

The narrative in the Western media has also become increasingly hostile towards a more confident and nationalistic China and Sinophobia is on the rise. Accusations of human rights breaches in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet have led to sanctions against Chinese officials, followed by counter sanctions against Western individuals and entities that China blames for spreading lies. Meanwhile, military manoeuvres in the Taiwan Straits and in the South China Sea risk escalating into something far more serious.

From a western liberal democracy perspective that values individual liberty and freedom of speech as universal and absolute, China is an oppressive state, its citizens brainwashed into obedience or silenced through fear. However, “compared to Western societies, China places much less emphasis on individual rights and significantly more emphasis on the value of the individual in terms of his or her contribution to harmony in society”[1]. Given such divergence in values that underpin the foundations of a society what can we do?

Perhaps the starting point is to acknowledge that neither East nor West is perfect and each view the other dimly through the lens of their own history, culture, values and ambitions.

From a Chinese Perspective

When China opened up, the prevailing belief was that as China develops it will naturally adopt liberal democratic values and systems. As this did not happen, various reasons have been put forward to explain the differences in values and outlooks between East and West. In the ‘Geography of Thought’ [2],the social psychologist Richard Nisbett ascribed the differences to how environmental conditions

influenced the social construct of the ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese. According to Nisbett, the ancient Greeks who lived in river valleys separated by mountains developed a more individualistic and objective worldview. On the other hand, the ancient Chinese living in river plains required greater cooperation to share water resources and therefore placed greater emphasis on subjectivity, harmony and relationships.

In the 5th century BC, Confucius and subsequently his followers began to codify the relationships between families, within society and between rulers and subjects into an ethical, social, and political philosophy. The emphasis placed on virtue, wisdom, fidelity, benevolence, and meritocracy had profound effect on the relationship between ruler and subject to this day. The Chinese word for country means nation-family, unlike western countries where the state is generally perceived as an external intrusive force. The legitimacy of Western countries as nation states depends on the validity of democratic processes that enable citizens to exercise their rights.

However, China as a “family’ state draws its legitimacy from “maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of Chinese civilisation … (and) the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family”[3].

The importance of the ‘unity of the land’ in China in contrast to the West can be seen in two popular movies. In the Hollywood movie, Braveheart (1995), William Wallace led a Scottish uprising against the English king. He was captured and, at the moment of his execution, he shouted one word ‘freedom’. In the Chinese movie, Hero (2002), the protagonist led a plot to assassinate the Qin emperor, who was successfully conquering one state after another during the Warring States period. When he reached his target, he stopped and sacrificed himself believing that when the emperor succeeds in uniting the land the wars and killings would stop.

One theme that runs through China’s history is the way foreign ideas and customs are assimilated with Chinese characteristics. China was conquered twice. Firstly, by the Mongols in the 13th century and secondly by the Manchus in the 17th century. Although each introduced their cultural traits, Confucianism and other Chinese traditions continued and were adopted by the conquerors to consolidate their rule.

When Buddhism was introduced to China in the 2nd century, it struggled to explain Buddhist concepts until it was fused with Daoism as it had similar notions, which eventually gave rise to Chan Buddhism (and then Zen Buddhism when it was transmitted to Japan). Unlike monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism was more compatible with Chinese traditions and philosophy, and therefore more easily adopted and assimilated. As Buddhism expanded from the 7th to the 10th century, many schools promoted their own philosophies, blending with Confucian concepts such as ancestor veneration and filial piety.

Islam was introduced into China around the 7th century during the Tang dynasty. Although Islam did not spread extensively in China, they were sizeable populations along coastal cities of Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Hangzhou, as well as in the interior such as Chang’an, Kaifeng and Yangzhou. There were inter-marriages and often the men would adopt the names of their Chinese wives or the closest Chinese word that correspond to their Muslim name. Muslims were influential in both the Yuan and Ming courts. As the Ming Dynasty increasingly isolated itself, the Muslims began to assimilate by speaking Chinese and adopting Chinese culture. Chinese language Islamic texts became available in the 16th Century. Nanjing and Yunnan became hubs where Muslim scholars blended Islamic and Chinese literary, philosophical and theological traditions known as Han Kitab[4]. Mosques were built combining Arabic and Chinese architectural features.

Christianity also first entered China in the 7th century and was a major influence in the Mongol Empire, as several Mongol tribes were Nestorian Christian. In the 16th century, the Jesuits began its missions into China. As the Jesuits were learned men, they were accepted in court and even took up Imperial posts at the Bureau of Astronomy. However, there was little or no assimilation between Christianity and Chinese traditions. Attempts by the Jesuits to make Christianity easier for the Chinese to accept by incorporating ancestor worship were rejected by the Pope. During the Ming Dynasty, Christianity and some Buddhist sects were made illegal while Islam and Judaism were acceptable.

In China today, the Chinese Constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of religious belief” and “protects normal religious activities.” However,

“No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination”.

The Chinese State recognises five major religions for practice in China — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism — and comes down hard on any religious group that do not conform. Some people view this as enforced sinicisation of religion. Certainly, there are parallels with the myriad ways China has responded to religious influences throughout its history.

The Chinese Constitution also states that women “shall enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life: political, economic, cultural, social and familial. The state shall protect the rights and interests of women, implement a system of equal pay for equal work, and train and select female officials.” In practice, progress is uneven. The proportion of women, in national state legislature, has increased incrementally to 24.9% in 2020. However, Chinese women’s participation in the economy is more pronounced, as two-thirds of the world’s top women billionaires in 2021 reside in China. There is also some inconsistency, when five feminists who planned to distribute leaflets to highlight sexual harassment were arrested in 2015. Although several #MeToo cases were profiled on China media, there were also reports of posts being censored.

Homosexuality and lesbian relationships were common in ancient China. The earliest known law against homosexuality was during the Song dynasty in early 12th century, although it appeared the law was not enforced. Same sex relationships were practiced without the persecutions experienced in the West and Jesuit priests wrote of their distress on witnessing what they deemed were wanton acts. Another attempt was made in the 16th century to prohibit same sex relationship and again by the Qing in the 18th century. However, in the early 20th century, intolerance of homosexuals and lesbians gained traction, which some scholars attributed to attempts by the Republic of China to modernise and adopt Western value systems.

Today, China is home to the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population[5]. Legal persecution was repealed in 1997. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder in 2001 but the regulations of the National Health and Family Planning Commission were not amended. Hence, some mental health professionals in China still consider homosexuality a disorder that can be treated by sexual orientation conversion efforts. Socially, because of the one-child policy (banned since 2015), there were strong pressures on LGBTQ individuals, as the single child, to marry and reproduce. A recent survey indicated that about 11% of heterosexual participants would not accept LGBTQ family members and 25% if their own children were involved. In the media, LGBTQ programmes are not prohibited but overt displays are usually not allowed. China does not recognise same sex marriage, however, in 2017, a legal guardianship system was enacted to provide some basic rights and protections for same sex couples. A 2019 poll on Weibo indicated that 85% (out of 5 million responses) were in favour of the guardianship system.

Over the course of its history, China has generally absorbed foreign influences, sometimes easily, other times at arm’s length and on occasion with violent rejection. China today, since the founding of the Republic in 1912 and the People’s Republic in 1949, has been modernising by absorbing and adapting Western ideologies, ideas and systems such as democracy, socialism, Marxism, communism, capitalism and markets, and imbuing them with Chinese characteristics. The resulting governance, economic and social systems we see today are still evolving. From the outside, it appears autocratic, perplexing and opaque, and we don’t yet have an adequate name to describe it. The closest is the phrase ‘directed improvisation’, coined by Professor Yuenyuen Ang to explain how China had escaped the poverty trap[6].


Sinophobia began in the 19th century during the Opium Wars, when Chinese culture was perceived as backward and uncivilised, and continued into the 20th century. The Yellow Peril became popular as a racist metaphor. In Australia and New Zealand, in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants were described as dirty and disease ridden. There were protests against Asians and Chinese for taking away jobs and legislation was passed to exclude all further Chinese immigration. In Canada, Chinese migrants were subjected to special taxes, not allowed to vote and unable to apply for citizenship until 1947.

In the United States, Chinese migrants were deployed to build the transcontinental railroad, however, similar accusations of uncleanness and taking away jobs led to physical assaults and murders. The Naturalization Act of 1870 prevented Chinese migrants from naturalisation and the 1875 Page Act barred Chinese women from entering the US. In California, the State Constitution in 1879 prohibited state, local governments as well as businesses from employing Chinese people. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to ban further Chinese immigration. A further act was passed requiring Chinese migrants to carry a resident permit and Chinese were not allowed to bear witness in court. These exclusion acts continued until 1943, when limited migration and naturalisation was allowed.

In The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia (2014), historian Christopher Frayling noted[7]:

“In the early decades of the 20th century, Britain buzzed with Sinophobia. Respectable middle-class magazines, tabloids and comics, alike, spread stories of ruthless Chinese ambitions to destroy the West. The Chinese master-criminal (with his ‘crafty yellow face twisted by a thin-lipped grin’, dreaming of world domination) had become a staple of children’s publications.”

In 1911, “The Chinese in England: A Growing National Problem”, an article distributed around the Home Office, warned of “a vast and convulsive Armageddon to determine who is to be the master of the world, the white or yellow man.” After the First World War, cinemas, theatre, novels, and newspapers broadcast visions of the “Yellow Peril” machinating to corrupt white society. In March 1929, the Chinese chargé d’affaires complained that no fewer than five plays in the West End depicted Chinese people in objectionable forms. The popular press warned of the dangers of Chinese men marrying British women as a racial threat to white Britain, and that Triad gangsters kidnapped British women into white slavery.

During the first world war, 96,000 Chinese men served the British Army in the Chinese Labour Corp, and another 40,000 served the French, to provide support at the front and continued after the war with clearing up. Some 3000 Chinese settled in France after the war and there are Chinese cemeteries and memorials at Noyelles sur Mer in France, and in Poperinge and Ypres in Belgium. In the UK, the contribution made by these men was mostly forgotten until the recent World War 1 centenary, and amongst Britain’s 40,000 war memorials[8] there is none dedicated to the Chinese Labour Corp.

In World War II, the British Navy had 20,000 Chinese merchant seamen. After the end of the war, in 1946, 2000 Chinese seamen were forcibly deported. Some were rounded up in the streets of Liverpool and others abandoned in foreign ports. About 300 were fathers and their families were not informed[9]. They left behind wives and mixed-race children who never saw their husbands or fathers again. More than 50 years later in 2006, a memorial plaque in remembrance for those Chinese seamen was erected on Liverpool’s Pier Head[10].

Chinese migration to the UK grew from the 1950s onwards, mostly working in the catering trade. During this period, the Chinese became the ‘model community’, perceived as hardworking, quiet and causing little trouble. There was always an undercurrent of racism, whether spoken in ignorance, jest or in hate, but generally individuals and communities have kept silent. There was however a public protest in London in 2001, when Chinese restaurants were accused by the media as starting the UK foot and mouth disease, which resulted in a spike of racism. Now we have Covid-19 where Chinese looking people are being blamed and scapegoated.

A You-Gov poll conducted in June 2020 found that people from Chinese backgrounds in the UK are more exposed to racist comments than other minority ethnic groups. 76% of Chinese had a racial slur directed at them compared with 64% for all the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) respondents[11]. Besides being blamed for Covid-19, the general negativity concerning China arising from geo-political posturing has led to an increase in Sinophobia and hate crime, not just in the UK but also in Australia, Canada, the United States and in Europe.

A common refrain amongst Western politicians critical of China is that they differentiate between the Chinese people, the Chinese State and the Communist Party of China. However, the racists in the street do not. They cannot even distinguish between Chinese and other East and Southeast Asians. Historically, Sinophobia has been expressed as a danger to Western civilisation from the influence of East Asian countries, and as a threat to Western living standards from East Asian migrants. The parallels today can be seen in the clash of civilisations, accusations of genocide and human right abuses, blaming China for the Covid-19 pandemic and the fear of China dominating the world as economic power shifts eastwards. These narratives have a pernicious effect, as public opinions in most Western countries shifted from favourable to unfavourable in recent years concerning China.

So, what now?

When the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Francis Fukuyama wrote the ‘The End of History and the Last Man’[12]. Western liberal democracy has proven to be fundamentally better and triumphed as the pinnacle of human governance, social advancement and economic development. Globalisation and international rules of conduct, such as trade and human rights, together with agreed global sustainable development goals to control diseases, fight climate change and eradicate poverty, will surely promote the spread of liberal democracy.

As China opened up, Western corporates, abetted by Western governments, transferred their manufacturing base and China soon became the world’s dirty factory. Then, as China grew richer, Chinese money was courted for inward investment. There were little concerns for the impact on local industries nor to the strategic interests in their own countries. The stock market, shareholders value and CEO pay rises were all that matters. True, China has infringed on copyrights especially in the early years, it protects its strategic economic sectors and some of its investments abroad are aggressive. Nevertheless, it always takes two to tango.

Yes, there are issues around China’s periphery (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea) that need dealing with but … world domination? When the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mohammad Mahathir, was asked whether he was afraid of China, he answered

“We always say, we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia.”[13].

Western fears of China’s power appear to be based on their own colonial past, expecting China to do unto others what they have done to others before.

Yes, there are also issues around human rights. Serious human rights allegations have been levelled against China. However, when human rights become a moral crusade or is weaponised to support geopolitical aims the resulting war of words turns into a sandstorm that obscures any real abuses that may be taking place. There are those that insist there is clear evidence of genocide, mass sterilisation and forced labour against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province and there are those that assert the evidence provided is insufficient, dubious or wrong.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, stated:

“The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people”[14].

From this perspective, democratic governance is understood not as having a system of multi-party elections but of how well the people’s needs and interests are met. Perhaps, we should be more mindful of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, putting physical and social needs first before appealing to aspirational desires.

It is not just China; African societies too have their own concepts of human rights, which according to UNESCO were not taken into consideration when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was made in 1948[15]. Asian or African traditions and philosophies were not considered. Although cultural differences were on the agenda, the Western perception of human rights prevailed, based on the political philosophy of liberalism and on the natural rights of the individual rather than on society and culture. If economic and social aspects of human rights were applied,16 not just the emphasis on individual liberty, the UK would be found wanting, as over the last 20 years, our society has become more unequal with food banks, homelessness and rising poverty.

Is the adoption of Western liberal democracy the only way to enable peace and prosperity in nations and between nations? How do we, as expressed by Joe Biden, prove that our democracy works, when wealth inequality continues to increase in liberal democracies like the UK and USA? How can it be that after all these years, ‘black lives matter’ is still relevant as a rallying cry against racism? How can liberal democracy prove itself on the international stage when nations that champion the rule of international law set themselves above the law? What reforms may be needed to global institutions to ensure not just China but also all other member states to be responsible players? Should Western states with 12% of the world population begin to think about sharing power with the rest of the world?

There is an implicit assumption in western liberal democracies that given a free choice people will naturally choose a system of elected representative government. But what happens when people feel that democracy is not working for them, when liberal democracies failed to provide the basic needs of food and security? Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started in 2011 is a case in point.

“We had tremendous progress on the freedom front and the political front despite all the crises,” said Fadhel Kaboub, an associate professor of economics at Denison University in Ohio. “But what you have kept almost intact is the exact same economic development model that produced inequality, that produced the debt crisis, that produced the social economic exclusion, that the population rebelled against.”[17]

So, what now? If past efforts at constructive engagement with China are deemed as not fruitful and cold war 2.0 risks real war, misery and chaos, what can we do?

Is it possible to integrate China’s state capitalism with free market capitalism as advocated by the West? When do we compete and when should we collaborate? Although the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the importance of having supply security in critical areas, should we continue to develop co-dependent supply chains or will we divide into two competing spheres, not just in advanced technology but also in the way we support the development of poorer nations?

Keeping a rising China away from sharing power in the international order has resulted in unintended consequences. For example, the control of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank by western powers has led to China establishing its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Preventing China from participating in the International Space Station has resulted in China creating a space station of its own. Stopping China from buying advanced silicon chips and photolithography tools is driving China to develop their own capacity.

Certainly, we need to engage with China, not just over trade, but more importantly how to integrate a superpower with distinct history, culture and values into the international order which up to now is primarily Western-centric. Is China a systemic challenge to transatlantic security as claimed by NATO? Is the threat and fear of China’s pre-eminence as perceived by the West real? Are the trade and military strategies to contain China justified? What is the impact of sanctions and the tit for tat measures? Do they continue and escalate?

Bringing China into the international order is not about replacing the West with the East, nor about absorbing the East into the West.

In the early years when China was developing, it was right that the West gave China a helping hand. However, now that China is a superpower, China has responsibilities to help build a more diverse, fair and representative international order. Freezing out China and decoupling the world into two warring blocs should not be the way forward. True, the engagement must be reciprocal but not in a transactional win or lose way. If each can learn from the other, transformational change can happen that enables the world (locally and globally) to better deal with the social and economic disruptions of pandemics, climate change and technology advancement.

During the Age of Enlightenment, China was a source of inspiration for debates on poverty, meritocracy, absolutism and political economy. Jesuit missionaries described China as a country more peaceful than Europe, which had just undergone decades of war. One major difference was the way the ruler governed. In Europe, the inherited nobility collected taxes, whereas in China an educated class was trained and appointed based on passing examinations. They were then “sent to China’s various regions to collect taxes — and also to fight poverty and ensure the people had enough food. In Europe, fighting poverty was not a task for the nobility or king, but mainly for priests, nuns and the church.”[18]. The idea of a meritorious civil service was picked up and promoted by Voltaire.

Liberal Democracy

The rise of China does pose challenges to liberal democracy. But, it need not be a zero sum struggle, whereby if China triumphs, liberal democracy loses. Instead, we ought to enrich our understanding of liberal democracy by taking in non-Western perspectives. We have to acknowledge our own hubris. Why? Because the ideas, values and practice of liberal democracy as we know it today grew out of a specific set of conditions in Europe about 300 years ago during the Enlightenment.

Nobody would quibble over the fundamental principles of liberal democracy such as reason, liberty, equality, openness and rule of law. However, the ways these principles have been understood and applied are coloured by Western eyes, values, culture and religious beliefs.

We need to practise what we preach. The shenanigan over Huawei is a case in point. Huawei was not a threat to national security until the US decided it was based on the possibility that the Chinese government may demand access. Then Huawei was accused of violating sanctions against Iran (unilaterally imposed with extraterritorial enforcement powers that override international rules). When the decisions regarding Huawei are political rather than commercial, when the UK (for example) ignored the ruling of the International Court of Justice over the Chagos islands, our credibility is diminished and our insistence that others follow the rules are hypocritical.

Liberal democracy in the West is almost like the air we breathe. We are so used to it, take it so much for granted that we assume Western understanding and functioning of liberal democracy is exceptional and universal. We forget that there are other people from other parts of the world, from the developing South or from the East! each with their own history, cultures and philosophies, who see some things and value some things differently from the West.

The 21st Century no longer belongs only to the West. Not just because of the reawakening of China who succeeded in lifting itself out of poverty and becoming a superpower in a short period of time based on values and beliefs that appear alien to Western eyes. There are also India, Japan, Latin America and Africa, all jostling for their place on the world stage. Hence, for liberal democracy to go forward and accommodate a multi polar world it will need to adapt to new realities, accept other viewpoints and be willing to share power.

The late Lord Paddy Ashdown often described liberal democracy as Liberty, Fairness and Tolerance. It is imperative that all 3 words are understood and applied together. Perhaps the functioning of liberal democracy in recent years has over emphasised liberty and individual freedom! but not enough on fairness and tolerance. We need to work out again how liberal democracy can enable fairer and more equitable societies. We need to pay more attention to tolerance, even go beyond tolerating others to be open to discourse from other cultures, philosophies and value systems.

If we can better see ourselves through the eyes of others, perhaps we can transcend current understanding of liberal democracy to create new thinking, ideas and paradigms to solve the challenges of the 21st Century. We must learn, despite our differences, to develop a shared humanity that co-exists with each other and with our planet.


Selected Bibliography




4 The Rich History of China’s Islam | Newlines Magazine

5 Discrimination against LGBT populations in China — The Lancet Public Health



8 First world war’s forgotten Chinese Labour Corps to get recognition at last | First world war | The Guardian

9 Apology plea for Chinese seamen deported from Liverpool — BBC News

10 Compulsory repatriation of Chinese seamen in Liverpool — Timeline — Mix-d: Museum (

11 YouGov Poll on Racism in the UK (





16 for a list of all types of human rights

17 Why Tunisia’s Promise of Democracy Struggles to Bear Fruit — The New York Times (

18 China has inspired us since Enlightenment (

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