The Ills of Liberalism: Thinking Through the PRC and the Political
As we might all agree, China is clearly not-liberal and therefore in a sense “illiberal” on semantic or etymological grounds alone (see the discussion in Chap. 1). The present study has offered an examination of an ‘illiberal’ China, of the PRC as an allegedly illiberal political regime. This turn of phrase is common enough in the media and ‘respectable’ journalism. But it is also invoked in, and still more often assumed by academic writing as well—as when the PRC is framed as illiberal because it is authoritarian (which like all states, it is) and (which like all states, it is). But is this merely a matter of degree, i.e., that it is more of these bad things than, say, the United States or India and it is this that makes it illiberal? Or is there more to this story about regimes and discourses and comparisons? China represents a threat or at least a challenge to liberal or liberal-democratic ideology. Elizabeth Perry aptly diagnosed this ‘challenge’ as early as 2012 in the academic literature, by framing the PRC as an attentive authoritarian regime: its contentious civil society and protest culture actually enhance Party-state rule, in part because the state attends to protest and problems and chooses to act or not act on them. (See the Introduction for further discussion. I should perhaps note that it is I, and not Perry, who presents this as a specifically ideological challenge.) This can be said to compare favorably to ‘real’ democratic regimes where even massive anti-war protests or ‘occupy’ movements (e.g. Wall Street) are duly and entirely ignored. This illiberalness aka ‘attentive authoritarianism’ is, however, seen as a bad thing, even if a not-so hidden admiration can also be discerned in such framings of China as, for example, a ‘perfect dictatorship.’ (My emphasis here. The book in question is Stein Ringen’s, The Perfect Dictatorship (Hong Kong University Press, 2016). One can detect a similar almost-admiring or appreciative sentiment within another, more academic and area studies text on the successes and systematicity of the post-Mao propaganda system. See Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).) It is framed as illiberal despite it having an undeniably active civil society and public sphere, a long history and culture of contentious and serious, if also subtle and non-European style, political protests. It is framed as politically illiberal even though it has never particularly aspired to political liberalism for the last century, and even though its skyrocketing numbers of ‘mass incidents’—brought about by a liberalization of the economy, it must be recalled—have at times won concessions from the state or forced it to address its failures. The argument in the present text is that the PRC’s ‘illiberalism’ is fundamentally ambiguous, and neither simply negative and objectionable nor merely ripe for a perennial liberal debunking by China watchers and self-professed experts.