Some Thoughts on the Ethics of China's Rise

August 14, 2013

CREDIT: Shanghai Skyline at Sunrise via Shutterstock

Any commentary with a title such as this one should begin with a disclaimer: distilling a country of 1.34 billion people down to a construct called "China" is presumptuous, verging on preposterous. Who best represents "the views of China?" Its government? Its dissidents? The individuals who may be critical of government policies, but choose to go about their daily business rather than investing the time and energy to express their criticisms?1

For simplicity's sake—and fully recognizing the folly of such reductionism—I will use "China" and "Chinese government" interchangeably in this piece.2 While China has come a long way since the events of Tiananmen Square nearly a quarter-century ago, its human rights record remains poor, as Amnesty International's latest country report on China or a visit to Human Rights in China's website establishes. If, however, one adopts a more expansive conception of "ethics," there are important respects in which Chinese conduct is more challenging to appraise.

International Order

In an influential September 2005 speech, then-U.S. deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick called on China to become "a responsible stakeholder": in that role, he explained, "China would be more than just a member—it would work with us [the U.S.] to sustain the international system that has enabled its success." Uncontroversial as this proposition may sound to Americans, it irks China, which had little role in shaping the postwar order's norms and institutions. It properly expects the contours of international order to evolve as the center of geopolitical gravity shifts towards the Asia-Pacific.

On the other hand, one could argue that there is a limit to how much China should criticize a system that has been indispensable to its trajectory since the late 1970s. Until it is strong enough to anchor an alternative one, it is unlikely to possess the credibility to do more than mold the postwar order gradually. Deng Yuwen, up until recently the deputy editor of the Central Party School's Study Times, suggests how difficult it would be to displace it: "If China wants to become a leader, and not just a follower of the international system, it needs to provide the world with an acceptable and universal set of values and doctrines and refine its reform experience into values and paradigms that can be reproduced and promoted throughout the world."

Humanitarian Intervention

One of the principles that China may find difficult to universalize is noninterference. Against the backdrop of a civil war in Syria in which over 100,000 have already perished, it may be seen as a convenient justification for inaction in the face of humanitarian crises. In the case of human rights abusers that provide China vital commodities—pre-partition Sudan being the clearest example—it may actually be seen as a pretext for complicity. On the other hand, can countries that promulgate "righteous" doctrines such as "the responsibility to protect" lay claim to considerably higher moral ground if they fail to act on such doctrines in times of crisis?

Sustainable Growth

China's rise represents one of the most important postwar contributions to a more decent world: it lifted more than 627 million people—roughly twice America's population—out of poverty between 1981 and 2005, leading the World Bank to conclude in August 2008 that while "the developing world as a whole is on track to achieving the Millennium Development Goal [MDG] of halving the 1990 poverty rate by 2015," "the developing world outside China is not on track to reaching the MDG for poverty reduction" [emphasis in original].

The environmental degradation that has accompanied China's growth, however, will continue to exact a steep toll for generations to come. As recently as the early 1990s, China was estimated to have more than 50,000 rivers; according to the Ministry of Water Resources, there were fewer than 23,000 at the end of 2011. Or consider climate change. According to a recent opinion piece in The New York Times:

China's greenhouse gas emissions are . . . growing at 8 percent to 10 percent per year. Last year, China increased its coal-fired generating capacity by 50 gigawatts, enough to power a city that uses seven times the energy of New York City. By 2020 . . . China will emit greenhouse gases at four times the rate of the United States, and even if American emissions were to suddenly disappear tomorrow, world emissions would be back at the same level within four years as a result of China's growth alone.

Air pollution in Beijing is now so severe—the atmospheric concentration of PM 2.5 particulate matter in China's capital city peaked in the first three months of this year—that some fear it will prompt expatriates and their families to leave for cleaner pastures. And, as Thomas Thompson argues in "Choking on China," the consequences of environmental degradation in China extend far beyond its borders.

On the other hand, the range and ambition of China's environmental initiatives are breathtaking. The Pew Research Center reports that it attracted $65.1 billion in clean energy investment last year, 30 percent of the total that the G-20 countries received collectively. According to a new report by Australia's Climate Commission, China is expected to launch seven pilot carbon emissions trading schemes this year, covering 256 million people, and is expected to launch a nationwide trading scheme in 2016. Between 2005 and 2012, its installed wind power capacity grew from 1,300 megawatts to 63,000, and its installed photovoltaic capacity increased from 100 megawatts to 7,000.

A Word on U.S. Policy

While it is China's policies, by definition, that will have the greatest impact on its rise, the United States can make important contributions to it. To give China more of a stake in preserving today's international system, for example, it should identify nerve centers of the global commons that it can supervise jointly with China (given China's growing dependence on energy imports, the maritime commons would be a good place to begin). Furthermore, it should share ideas and technologies that could help China transition to a more sustainable, consumption-oriented growth model.

The more contentious topic, of course, is the role that human rights should play in U.S.-China relations. While the United States should neither hesitate to articulate its differences with China on issues of human rights, nor refrain from encouraging those trends within China that are promoting greater citizen empowerment, it should not urge China to democratize or condition its interactions with China on the leadership's acceptance of core American values. A country that is not yet 250 years old should appreciate the possibility that a country several millennia old may have its own strain of exceptionalism. Furthermore, attempts to democratize China could backfire. One of the foremost China watchers, former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, declares that it will not "become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse." While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is willing to experiment with democratic reforms in "villages and small towns," he explains, it fears that large-scale democratization "would lead to a loss of control by the center over the provinces, like [during] the warlord years of the 1920s and '30s.3 Whatever challenges an increasingly capable and assertive China might pose, a weak China in the throes of chaos would be even more problematic, especially now that its growth is vital to the health of the global economy.

It is China's ongoing integration into the international system and attendant exposure to information technology that hold the greatest promise for improvements to its human rights climate. Since the late 1970s, the CCP has implicitly conditioned its delivery of rapid growth to the Chinese people on their acquiescence to its rule. The problem is that citizens' priorities become more sophisticated as their day-to-day situations grow less exigent. Those in dire poverty are quite likely to censor themselves in exchange for food, shelter, and other necessities. As they enter the middle class, however, and become less preoccupied with the demands of survival, they naturally think more about critiquing government policy. Within this transition lies a fundamental challenge for the CCP: the very bargain that it implemented to forestall challenges to its rule is enabling greater numbers of Chinese to pose such challenges. There were only 20 million Internet users in China in 2000; today, there are more than 560 million.4

Talk of "an Arab Spring" in China, however, remains premature. Freedom House director Jennifer Windsor notes that it has "the most sophisticated internet censorship and surveillance apparatus in the world." In a recently published paper, Harvard's Gary King and two of his colleagues illustrate its scope:

To comply with the government, each individual [social media] site privately employs up to 1,000 censors. Additionally, approximately 20,000 – 50,000 Internet police (wang jing) and Internet monitors (wang guanban) as well as an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 "50 cent party members" (wumao dang) at all levels of government—central, provincial, and local—participate in this huge effort.

King et al. demonstrate that Chinese censors are focused less on curtailing criticism of government policy than they are on curtailing expression that might mobilize collective action. Indeed, the CCP has partly been able to immunize itself from serious threats because it has allowed criticism of its policies to flourish on the country's vibrant microblogging websites. With rare exceptions such as Bo Xilai, the former mayor of Chongqing, it tends to punish local officials when citizens complain—whether about water contamination or police abuses. Chinese political commentator Michael Anti observes that the "Chinese have a longtime myth that the emperor is good, all the thugs are local. So that myth is important to keep the regime's legitimacy. I think Weibo justice is a showcase for the government to tell the people [that] the emperor . . . is still good."

It is unclear how much longer the CCP will be able to sustain its current form of governance. Lee predicts that technology will make it "obsolete" by around 2030. Whether or not his forecast proves accurate, one hopes that China can continue to rise without experiencing the sorts of convulsions that marred its history in the past century.


1 See Jeffrey Wasserstrom, "The Myth of One China," Foreign Policy online, available at (4/13/10).

2 Even the term "Chinese government" is problematic. The belief that government policy simply proceeds from presidential or Politburo directives belies how competitive the policymaking process has become. The Congressional Research Service observes that:

Although the Party is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on power and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule, analysts consider the political system to be neither monolithic nor rigidly hierarchical. Jockeying among leaders and institutions representing different sets of interests is common at every level of the system. Sometimes fierce competition exists among the members of the Communist Party's seven-man Politburo Standing Committee and 25-member Politburo, China's highest decision-making bodies. It also exists among ministries; between ministries and provincial governments, which are equals in bureaucratic rank; among provinces; and among the headquarters departments and service branches of the military. The military and the Foreign Ministry are often on different pages. Deputies to the National People's Congress, China's weak legislature, sometimes attempt to push back against the government, the courts, and the public prosecutor's office. As part of a trend of very modest political pluralization, moreover, other political actors are increasingly able to influence policy debates.

3 Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, and Ali Wyne, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013): pp. 13-14.

4 It is important not to get carried away with statistics on Internet usage. The Economist recently noted, for example, that while Sina Weibo has over 500 million registered accounts, "many of them are robots employed to generate artificial buzz. Sina itself says that the number of daily active users at the end of 2012 was only 46 [million]."

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