SINGAPORE — Asia, like the rest of the world, is going through a dramatic transformation. In the West, we’ve seen the triumph of U.S. President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union transform the old political world. But Asia’s transformation is much different and unlikely to follow the same populist pattern.
Why is that? In part because the societies of Asia and the West operate and respond to these changes differently. A political sensation in the West like Trump or a movement like Brexit would be shut down before it gathered steam in a country such as China, for instance, because it would be viewed as a threat to political order.
Rule of law vs. rule by law
One of the main differences between China and the West is the way in which law is understood and applied. China was unified by conquest and through the strict application of law more than 2,000 years ago under the Qin dynasty. That dynasty did not last long and was followed by the Han dynasty, which governed China on Confucianist principles of proper behavior.
While the entire body of legislation in China was historically greater than in the West, there is one big difference. In the West, it is “rule of law,” while in China it is “rule by law.” In other words, law as regulation. In the Chinese mind, the idea that a known murderer should be let free because due process was not followed is absurd and unacceptable. The law cannot be above the emperor. In China today, the law cannot be above the Communist Party.
In China today, the law cannot be above the Communist Party.
This application of law is in stark contrast to that of the Western Roman empire, which was contemporaneous with the Han dynasty in China. Rome was organized on the idea of law being above the emperor. After Rome fell, Roman law became the canon law of the Roman Church. The sacramental powers of a priest are legally conferred on him on Earth (and therefore in heaven) and cannot be taken away from him even if he is in mortal sin. Such an idea of law made possible the creation of a multinational Roman Empire and, after that, a universal church. Law and religion united Western tribes.
Westphalian nation-state vs. civilization-state
Today, however, tribes are often a divisive source. Tribalism in human society has its roots in our biological evolution. (For the purposes of this short essay, I treat ethnic nationalism as tribalism.) It is a strong force which cannot be wished away. It took many years and only after horrible slaughter before European tribes with common roots in Greece, Rome and the Judeo-Christian world could be united in a Westphalian nation-state on the basis of law and equal citizenship. The U.S. became the outstanding example. But the inflow of non-Westerners into Western society in recent times has created new tensions. Muslims who ask to be treated differently because of their religion are thought to be unreasonable. Meanwhile in China, there is no belief or pretense that Chinese Muslims are the same as non-Muslim Han Chinese. It is true that they are subject to greater surveillance, but they also receive some preferential exemptions. For example, the one-child policy didn’t apply to most of them.
With the revolution in transportation and communication in recent decades, the ability of nation-states to control their boundaries ― not just physical borders ― has weakened. Technology is constantly thwarting the ability of governments to control the flow of people, capital and ideas. Disintermediation is subverting all institutions that are based on law, particularly those that are not protected by public affection. The more detached and complicated these institutions are, the more they are distrusted and attacked. In contrast, institutions that are easy to understand, like the British monarchy, continue to hold sway. With the weakening of the nation-state, tribal affiliations rear their heads again. But China is not a Westphalian nation-state. Strong tribal assertions of minority groups are instead put down as rebellions.
With the weakening of the nation-state, tribal affiliations rear their heads again.
For a number of reasons, income inequality is getting worse around the world as well, exacerbating this divide. The widening gulf between rich and poor weakens national institutions further because they are seen as protecting the privileges of those at the top. If this inequality were to occur within the confines of a village, with a handful owning most of the wealth of the village in a closed system, the guillotines would be rolled out. When inequality takes place along tribal lines, it becomes even easier to focus resentment against particular groups. And populist leaders like Donald Trump have capitalized on that.
Fragmented media becomes an arena of contest
Populism, as we’ve seen with Trump, taps into such resentments by offering simple explanations. It is always tempting for politicians to win votes by references to blood, race, religion, a past golden age, mortal threats, the cowardice of opponents who downplay these threats and so on. In such a society, mass communication becomes an arena of contest. The rise of social media, in turn, has begun reducing the standing and credibility of the old mainstream media. It is, however, arguable whether the general population in the West has become better or worse informed as a result of this fragmentation. Whom do you trust? If institution after institution is brought into disrepute, people turn to charismatic individuals. It seems that we are now entering another era of strong men and women.
China, for its part, already has a strong leader in President Xi Jinping. But China is organized differently. In the Chinese mind, it is inconceivable that China could be led by a group at the top, the majority of whom are generals and billionaires. Scholars should be in charge of soldiers and businessmen — never the other way around. In China, television news is often turned on at mealtimes so that everyone knows the preoccupations of the central leadership. News programs in China are nothing like news programs in the U.S. Westerners are quick to dismiss Chinese news as propaganda, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the average Chinese is better informed about the world than the average European or American. The primary purpose of Chinese television news is to inform and educate, not to entertain. Social media in China is also controlled, but in a sophisticated way. Instead of brute force, more subtle methods are increasingly in use. Gmail, for example, is not banned outright, but simply slowed down. Foreigners visiting China can easily get around restrictions on Google, YouTube and Facebook.
If institution after institution is brought into disrepute, people turn to charismatic individuals.
The population of China is also much less diverse than many societies in the West now succumbing to populist trends. Unlike Western nation-states, China is remarkably homogeneous, with over 90 percent of the population belonging to the Han ethnic group. This is not accidental. Chinese dynasties could easily have expanded China to colonize non-Han people in large numbers but chose not to. Non-Han groups reside mainly in strategic border regions. Some have been partially assimilated over a long period of time, like the Manchus and the Mongols. Two groups remain challenges to integration — Tibetans and Uighurs. Meanwhile, unity among Han Chinese is maintained by proper behavior rather than law. Non-Han people, being culturally different, are harder to incorporate but not impossible. There are, of course, tremendous regional variations within the Han race, but all bow before the ideal of a common ancestry and destiny.
This ideal is a powerful myth that no government in China would or could ignore. It is the reason why China has been described by scholars as a “civilization-state.” It is not a missionary power because there is no such concept or organizing idea in the civilization. The idea of large-scale internal migration is deeply unsettling to Chinese people. It is very hard for a foreigner to claim civis sinicus sum, a term adapted from the Latin one used in reference to the rights of a Roman citizen, even if they are a resident.
When populism arises in China, the instinct of the state is to suppress it. Populism is seen not in electoral terms but as an attempt to upset the political order. It is therefore curtailed at an early stage, like the Falun Gong, a quasi-religious exercise society that ostensibly teaches breathing exercises and meditation. Cults and secret societies in China have their origins in the nature of the civilization itself like the mafia in Sicily. They are not perceived as legitimate opposition but as incipient rebellion.
Nevertheless, China is not completely immune. The technological revolution that is subverting and corroding institutions in the West is having the same effect on Chinese institutions. Cyberspace in China is, in many ways, livelier than cyberspace elsewhere. And the Chinese government is probably the first government in the world to use big data analytics not only for control, but also to improve feedback and governance. Whether the Chinese state is able to mitigate the repercussions of the technological revolution remains to be seen.
When populism arises in China, the instinct of the state is to suppress it.
But even though China is being Westernized to some extent, the country will not become Western. It faces similar challenges to the West, but it will respond in its own way. Xi’s centralization of power helps ensure that the response is thought through and purposeful. His willingness to engage the Vatican is an illustration of this. The two sides are close to an agreement that is based on what Jesus Christ taught: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Both sides are managing negotiations with utmost discipline, each carefully preparing its own congregation, with no room for populist remarks on either side.
Where do other Asian states stand?
And China isn’t alone in not following in the footsteps of populist trends. Japan, Korea and Vietnam, also organized as civilizational states in Asia, have not succumbed to the populist call. Like China, minority groups in these countries are managed as separate groups, sometimes receiving special treatment, but never upon an abstract principle that all are fungible citizens. Western institutional practices implanted into Japan, South Korea and Taiwan do not operate as they do in the West because the cultural base is different. But as China becomes more ascendant in the world, particularly in East Asia, these societies will be pulled in a different direction and tested.
Singapore, a city-state, already feels these opposing pulls acutely. Singapore’s institutions are Western, but around three-quarters of the population is ethnic Chinese. Singapore also lies at the heart of Southeast Asia, where Chinese ethnic minorities are sometimes resented because of their economic accomplishments. China’s re-emergence is being strongly felt economically, culturally and politically throughout Southeast Asia. This, of course, is nothing new, because the kingdoms and principalities of Southeast Asia have experienced the re-emergence of China many times before. When the China trade flowed, it brought prosperity to the region. Singapore’s response to the rise of China has become a useful case for others to study. In recent months, there is surprising interest from the United Kingdom in Singapore’s trade policy. With Brexit, the U.K. is naturally looking to Asia as an important source of future growth.
China isn’t alone in not following in the footsteps of populist trends.
And Asia is watching the West, too. Under President Trump, the U.S. is experiencing a populist phase. But Trump’s purposes are much deeper than popular appeal; some might even say revolutionary. A non-American can only hope that the American ideal of uniting diverse tribal groups on the basis of law, fairness, equality and opportunity will never be extinguished from the face of the Earth. The long-term test is always economic. Will the U.S. economy become more or less vital at the global level under Trump? Much hangs on the outcome of the American experiment.
In 100 years, with the world’s population inextricably enmeshed in a global network, what other alternative will there be to the American principle of e pluribus unum — out of many, one? Han China is content to be a significant part of the pluribus. But it has neither the ability nor the wish to supply the unum.