The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Would Chinese Democracy Look Like?

A few months ago I read a couple of books by the Singaporean intellectual Kishore Mahbubani. In Has China Already Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, Mahbubani discusses Taiwan.

The one exceptional trigger for a war involving China is Taiwan. Most of the time, the Chinese leaders have a lot of policy flexibility. There are no strong domestic lobbies to worry about. But the one issue where the Chinese leaders cannot bend and compromise is Taiwan. Any Chinese leader, including Xi Jinping (despite all his power), could be removed if he is perceived to be weak on Taiwan. Why is Taiwan so fundamental to China? There is a very simple explanation. Every Chinese knows the century of humiliation that China suffered from the Opium War to 1949. Nearly all the historical vestiges of this century of humiliation have been removed or resolved, including Hong Kong and Macau.

Only one remains: Taiwan. It was Chinese territory until China was forced to hand it to Japan after the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895.

Mahbubani also discusses what sort of person would be elected if China was a democracy.

Think Theodore Roosevelt, who, if you aren’t aware, was a raging warmonger. Xi, and the CCP in general, are a moderating influence on Chinese foreign affairs. China’s population has far more aggressive feelings than China’s current rulers. They are still furious about the “century of humiliation,” and they want China to be the number one nation in the world — or certainly to be dominant in its sphere of influence, exactly as Americans did in through the late 19th century to the 20th century.

We have some really weird ideas about our own  history, or about what is normal for rising or re-establishing great powers.

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They always take control of their near abroad if they can. This is why Russia is willing to fight a war for the Ukraine, if it comes to it: The Ukraine was part of Russia for centuries. China is actually being remarkably flexible about Taiwan for a rising power. The US bent every country near it to its will and took chunks of land out of both Mexico and Canada, while replacing governments in Latin and South America regularly. Britain brought Scotland and Ireland into its “union.” Germany grabbed everything near it that it could, until defeated in World War II. Japan went on one of the biggest empire building sprees in history.

Other countries, of course, will resist as best they can, and I personally think that Taiwan should stay free. But the price of its freedom is allowing Chinese leaders to save face with their own population: They are saying “Taiwan and China are part of one country.”

This isn’t the 90s, when the US had an easy veto over a Chinese conquest of Taiwan. American aircraft carriers, if they try to intervene, will be sunk by China’s massive arsenal of missiles. China has nuclear weapons and is de-facto allied with Russia, so escalation is extremely dangerous.

Taiwan and the Ukraine are not, fundamentally, the West’s business — except, of course, that the West’s semiconductor fabrication is concentrated in Taiwan due to idiotic Western trade and industrial policies.

Both China and the West are building semiconductor fab as fast as they can in their heartlands. Soon even this vulnerability will be gone, on both sides.

In the meantime, if China wants to say “Taiwan is part of China,” which is something the US agreed to as far back as Nixon, it’s a cheap way to keep a small democratic state going and avoid a potential world war.


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  1. Soredemos

    Russia doesn’t want to fight a war over Ukraine. It took the Crimea in order to ensure it would still have its Black Sea ports after the coup in Kiev. It wants the Donbass to be an autonomous region in a federalized Ukraine.

    Russia would be insane to try and absorb Ukraine; it’s an economic trainwreck.

  2. Astrid

    I would also caution at assuming that Taiwan wouldn’t be open to reunification or federalization with PRC in the future. This isn’t a matter of significant historical grievances or even a long independence movement. The DPP built their movement on some resentment against the (US supported) KMT dictatorship and the “locals'” dislike for the millions of arrivistes (literally called “people from other provinces”) who came over in 1949.

    But the arrivistes and other people with ties to the Mainland are not a small minority, the pro-unification (format and timing TBD) KMT candidate almost won in the last election cycle. They have familial, social, and economic bonds to the Mainland. They probably don’t want the CPC (which is more a KMT legacy), but they wouldn’t want to definitely cut their ties with China to become another US satrapy either.

    The West is tipping the scales of Taiwan’s domestic politics. All the support of one activity while ignoring it’s overall political ecosystem. It’s less brutal form of interference than what we see in LatAm/Carib. or Africa or NEA, but it is still interfering and disrupting Taiwan’s ability to choose its own destiny and act for its best interest.

    I see Taiwan independence as very much an electioneering issue, rather than deep national aspirations. DPP’s domestic governance is largely seen as a failure, as the Taiwanese complains about lack of job opportunities, low pay, and extremely high for local wages real estate prices. The infrastructure and public systems are sound, but lags significantly behind Japan, Korea, or even Tier 1 Mainland cities. So all they can campaign on is the Mainland boogie man, the one that has never attacked Taiwan and I see absolutely zero reason to do so unless the US starts massing nuclear warheads onto the island.

  3. Astrid

    On democracy. Look at what democracy has become in the US and Europe, as hides for predatory oligarchies. This may also be why the Greek and Roman democracies quickly fell apart after they got their empire. The money was too good and the citizenry lost control of SPQR. They still had Senates and assemblies for centuries longer, but they were meaningless cosplays.

    Assuming climate change, resource depletion, nuclear war, etc doesn’t kill off enough humans, humans may revert to old patterns of illiberal government hierarchies. Not sure how I feel about that, but then I look at our horrible GOP/DNC supply and I don’t know.

    Maybe I *should* moved to China, though I’d rather move to Taiwan, better food. If it does turn into nuclear cinder, at least it’ll be a quick death.

  4. Jim Harmon

    Also, how would China transition to democracy?

  5. bruce wilder

    I am not sure representative democracy scales. The U.S. system is centered on raising money to manipulate otherwise passive voters through advertising and manipulative propaganda narratives. Political operatives are experts in manipulation and do not care about policy. The people left in charge of policy are mostly stupid-smart incompetents, careful not for the public interest even to the small extent they recognize one, but for interests and obsessions of giant business corporations, their executives and billionaire oligarchs.

    The U.S. does have vestiges of democracy locally in the participatory institutions and processes of city and county government. It is a relatively tiny, often neurotic or professionalized bunch, unless some issue blows up, but it is there. It does not scale is all I am saying. Chinese vote in local elections regularly, but the Chinese voter knows no more about the candidates than I do about who is on local ballots in Los Angeles.

  6. Prof. Euclid Bullfinch

    A Chinese democracy already exists, in the Republic of China. It would be a great model for the rest of the country, if only they could get rid of the atrocity known as the People’s Republic of China.

  7. Larry

    Peaceful reunification timeline with Taiwan took a large hit with the recent political and social crackdowns in Hong Kong.

    Until mainland China tolerates dissent, and the political culture becomes less thin-skinned and less corrupt, the “One Country, Two Systems” framework will not be seen as a good faith solution.

  8. Ché Pasa

    “Democracy?” Why? No, this is a question that really needs to be answered given the shape of examples we have before us, including the United States. Most these days are failing. They do not and cannot serve the people. They serve a tiny and shrinking elite.

    Taiwan’s “democracy” is no example for the mainland to follow.

    Meanwhile many actors in the West are trying mightily to get the war-drums beating hard and fast against China and Russia over perceived slights and insults. This is the long-goal of the neocons of yore; destroy the Middle East, integrate India and Southeast Asia and dismember Russia and China.

    So far those drum-beaters have not been able to gin up war-frenzy beyond their circle of plotters. But you know what? That’s the way it was with the Bush-Cheney regime and Iraq. And in less than a year, they turned it around with an abundance of lies and fabrications. This happened in the context of Western Democracies.

    Don’t think the plotters couldn’t do it again with Russia and China.

  9. anon

    I agree with Graham Elwood’s take on US-China relations:
    America has no business in China’s affairs with Taiwan and Hong Kong and it is not worth starting a world war. I say this as someone who despises the CCP and its propaganda. I know a Chinese nationalist and the amount of brainwashing and propaganda from the CCP make FOX News and many Trumpers look sane. Their culture is very proud and Asian culture in general is very big on not losing face.

  10. bruce wilder

    Even peaceful reunification would be an economic catastrophe for Taiwan as it has been for Hong Kong. “Dissent”? Not the real issue in Hong Kong, where I suspect the special role of the city as an emporium and gateway has been lost and with it the dynamism. Wouldn’t Taiwan quickly become just a big island?

  11. Astrid

    I would like to see Larry’s evidence of Mainland intolerance to protests. I recall tolerance to very substantial but peaceful protests in 2017. Hong Kong authority’s response to violent 2019 protesters was very measured and nothing like police brutality seen in the US over BLM. The protesters are openly racist and violence and kept up their attacks against the government even when the extradition bill <which was drafted to provide justice to a brutally murdered young woman) was withdrawn.

    And I'll add that these are the Uyghur freedom fighters supported by the west. Most recently seen blowing up mosques in Afghanistan and terrorizing civilians in Syria.

    I'm happy to consider evidence of extraordinary Chinese brutality. But don't gaslight me with ungrounded insinuations as we most recently seen with Peng Shuai.

  12. Dan Lynch

    Re: Ukraine. As Soredemos said, Russia doesn’t want to “possess” Ukraine, but neither does Russia want NATO in Ukraine. Russia would prefer Ukraine to remain neutral and peaceful. Ditto all of Eastern Europe. Since many Russian citizens live in Donbass, Russia would feel obliged to come to their aid if Donbass is attacked by the neo-Nazis in Kiev.

    Re: “I personally think that Taiwan should stay free. ” Umm … Taiwan was a right wing dictatorship until recently. Taiwan has close economic ties with China, essentially being economically dependent on China. If Taiwan were to accept a federation with China, not much would change for the average person in Taiwan.

    “Freedom” and “Democracy” are bullshit ideologies. We’re free — to be homeless, except we have lots of laws to drive homeless people away, without actually ending homelessness. We’re free — to have no health care. We’re free — to own a military style rifle, but the military style rifle won’t help you when you’re homeless or when you need health care. We get to vote — for one of two wealthy corporate warmongers. We have the right to march with cardboard signs, woohoo! We have free speech, except on social media where you’ll be censored. But you are free to create a website that hardly anyone reads, woohoo! We’re free to own property, except actually the bank owns the property, and black Americans own hardly anything. And so on. It’s bullshit. The truth is that many poor Americans, especially blacks, would have a better life in Cuba.

  13. Mark Pontin

    Ian wrote: ‘This isn’t the 90s, when America had an easy veto over a Chinese conquest of Taiwan. ‘

    It isn’t the 1980s either when the US could talk Taiwan’s then-rulers down from proceeding with the nuclear weapons program Taiwan had then embarked upon on the basis of the island being protected by the US nuclear umbrella.

    In 2021 everyone sees which way the wind is blowing and Taiwan is preparing for a future without US protection without saying that outright. On the same basis, the original authors of the ‘century of humiliation’ are ramping up operations in Asia, having instigated the AUKUS deal already.

    ‘As China menaces Taiwan, the island’s friends aid its secretive submarine project’

    ‘Taipei’s chief foreign weapons supplier, the United States, has provided key technology, including combat-system components and sonars. But assistance is coming from far beyond America.

    Defense companies from the United Kingdom, which like America operates a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines, have provided crucial support.

    A veteran of Britain’s Royal Navy submarine fleet, retired Commodore Ian McGhie, was a key figure in the drive to recruit submarine expertise, according to a person familiar with his role. McGhie helped a Gibraltar-based company hire engineers including former Royal Navy sailors, the person said.

    Britain also has approved multiple export licences in the past three years for UK companies to supply submarine components, technology or software to Taiwan, according to information from the Department for International Trade obtained via a Freedom of Information request. The value of submarine technologies approved for export from the UK to Taiwan has grown exponentially in recent years, government data analyzed by Reuters shows.’

  14. different clue

    What would democracy look like in China? Well . . . what did Dr. Sun Yat-Sen think it would have looked like in his day?
    Would it have worked then in a perfect world? If it would have in theory, could it even conceivably scale up to the massive population China has today?

    The Humanitarian Interventionist Wilsonians in and around the DC FedRegim PermaGov want to sanctify their existence by pursuing their R2P vision. The DC FedRegime in general wants a long-term sustainable cold war with threats and fears of a hot war in order to re-discipline and re-dominate the American population. And many Democrat Liberals want an outright war with Russia. Millions of Pink Pussy Hat Clintanons want revenge against Russia for “stealing the election” from Clinton.

    An intelligent Selective Seclusionist would want the U S of America to become the U S of Autarkamerica. If such a person were able to lay out the vision very clearly to American Citizens so they could excercise a choice about it after being thoroughly informed of what it would mean and what it would require, they could either accept it or reject it with open eyes.

    Suppose Selective Seclusionist Autarkamericanism became out governing political economic ideology here. One hopes its very first act would be the total abolition of NAFTA and also New NAFTA. America, Canada, and Mexico would all be set free to re-protectionise their own agriculture and other industries as much as possible. If the three countries wanted to retain any trade and/or economic links with eachother, they could do so on a non-satrapy basis.

  15. Willy

    Taiwan’s per capita anything is at least double that of China. Maybe that’s why Taiwan seems to have less of a compulsive interest in taking China than the reverse. And then there’s the quality of the karaoke. Is the highly regulated Chinese variety of better quality than the Taiwanese kind, lowbrow bathroom/shower quality and all? Maybe best left for wiser minds to discern. I’m more concerned about the proper checks against concentrations of power. Sure, China seems motivated to global dominance right about now. But after XI, what mechanism checks the really bad Chinese karaoke singers who force the entire citizenry to applaud?

  16. different clue

    @Mark Pontin,

    I gather AUKUS stands for Australia United Kingdom United States. I really wish France would join and be accepted.

    Then we could call it AuFUKUS, for Australia France United Kingdom United States.

  17. M.M.


    No. Go to Taipei, try saying that to the people there, and watch what happens. No one who can actually speak the language thinks that for a reason.

    John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know and The Cold War are the two best sources on American policy towards East Asian governments and how they succeeded/failed. Its take on how and why the American military counterintuitively promoted direct and representative democracy after 1945 in Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo is fascinating and misunderstood when boiled down to 140 characters.

    The one-party government that Taipei had until the 1990s wasn’t a “military dictatorship” in the sense that most Westerners use the phrase (e.g., curfews for everyone in the whole region, military courts used instead of civilian courts for routine offenses, military police checking every house in a neighborhood for contraband like guns, etc.). “One party democracy” would be a better translation, I think. Taipei pre-1980s was a bit like the one party city governments you see in non-mob/machine American cities like Savannah. While it was one party, there were legitimate elections that limited just how much damage corrupt/bad leaders could do. Corrupt/bad/ineffective leaders and sub-party factions were ousted on multiple occasions, which is a large part of why the island was able to grow as quickly as it did. (You can make a strong argument that the lack of a genuine electoral feedback to oust s****y leaders enabled Mao to keep governing the mainland so poorly for so long.)

    Taiwanese “martial law” was primarily about nationalizing industries in order to jump start economic industrialization using the Ha Joon Chang economic development playbook. While there were one or two laws about free speech and association, they were analogous to American laws against rioting and foreign subversion — and enforced in a similar way (i.e., infrequently — less than .01% of the population was targeted by MPs — and usually as a result of work with NGOs receiving funding from the PRC).

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