The Foundation of Western Political Theory Is Shifting

Since the global financial crisis, the ideological trend of international political theory has taken a new direction. By paying close attention to these new changes and adopting feasible and practical strategies in response, China’s voice in this discourse, as well as its soft power, can be strengthened. To do so, establishing a good image of China in many different areas is of high importance.

This change in international political thought is due to new ideas from different systems and institutions. As Bruce W. Jentleson and Steven Weber point out in “America’s Hard Sell,” in the past, world political patterns fell under the umbrella of five main ideas: peace is better than war, hegemony is better than balance, capitalism is better than socialism, democracy is better than autocracy, and Western culture is better than all other cultures. Today, however, these five principles don’t hold the same value or ring as true as before. Looking at current trends, besides “peace is better than war,” the other four principles are changing.

Since the global financial crisis, there has been a large shift in people’s opinions toward different systems. Criticism of capitalism is particularly focused on neoliberal economics, which stands out as a clear rethinking of past beliefs. For example, three American Nobel Prize winners have all deeply criticized neo-liberalism. Joseph Stiglitz said that, on one hand, it creates a reliance on bankers and investors and their belief that chasing individual profit will make the whole society better off. On the other hand, help should be provided for regulators and policy makers, as eliminating or relaxing oversight can increase the private sector’s growth, and everyone can profit. Paul Krugman, in his criticism of Reagan’s “small government, big society,” points out, “global financial crises have completely destroyed people’s faith in free markets.”* During this financial crisis, Paul Samuelson found fault with “those who completely rely on the strength of the market,” and strongly encouraged government intervention, whether in microeconomics by “regulating industry,” or in macroeconomics by “stabilizing the economy.”*

Secondly, there are new ideas regarding human rights in international politics. Human rights are the rights of mankind and the “rights that all men, as humans, should enjoy.” In response to the West’s proclaimed “God-given rights” and the idea that “human rights are greater than sovereignty,” Northeastern University professor Serena Parekh believes, “we thought incorrectly that human rights are God-given, and can’t be taken away.” However, “we are not all born equal.” If humans don’t belong to any national body, then “the rights all people should enjoy” are zero, as “once a person lacks nationality … people in these circumstances will be completely without rights.” Thus, “the rights granted by belonging to a national body [are] better than the innate rights of a human being.”*

Next, let us consider the logic of “human rights are greater than sovereignty” as heralded by Americans. Gadhafi is dead, so will Libyans enjoy greater human rights? Mubarak was overthrown; will this bring democracy, freedom and peace to the Egyptian people? Is this the kind of modern civilization that is the product of the idea that “human rights are greater than sovereignty”?

Thirdly in international politics is the debate over different forms of democracy. Since the financial crisis, foreign scholars have looked at Chinese democracy with growing interest, with many thinking that it could be a new model for democracy across the world. As Larry Diamond says in “Elections and Democracy in Greater China,” many Western scholars have an optimistic outlook for Chinese democracy. These scholars believe that elites who want to push for reforms will work together with ordinary people, resulting in the formation of a new kind of democratic system. Singapore National University’s Zheng Nongnian says that Chinese democracy must follow its own path. He emphasizes that “China shouldn’t refuse democracy, but shouldn’t simply fall into democracy. This is the hope of an orderly democracy in China.”

We should follow and focus on these new changes in international political theory and work hard to break the dominance of Western scholars in the discourse of human rights, democracy and other related areas. We should recognize the West-imposed totalitarianism, authoritarianism and non-democratic ideological trap, and work hard to refine and garner lessons from socialism with Chinese-characteristics. We should continue to build confidence in the governance and persuasiveness of the theory of the Chinese system.

The author is a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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