Can China Make Democracies Illegitimate?

In its National Security Strategy, the Biden Administration focuses on China as the only competitor with the intent to reshape the international order and a capacity to do so

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd points out that after the Chinese Communist Party Congress, Xi’s Jinping’s definition of national security has replaced the economy as China’s central focus for the future.  

Perhaps tellingly, professor Sam Crane tweeted that Xi’s consolidation of power marks the “end of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of political legitimation.”  We in the West tend to look at Deng’s liberalization as potential evolutionary progress toward political democracy, and a sign that for China, as for us, personal freedoms are the mark of political legitimacy.  We Americans hold that tenet as a self evident truth of our founding – governments are instituted to secure the unalienable rights endowed in all persons. 

But can we expect that everyone will hold that same truth about government?  Could an ancient culture, specifying duties for the governed and the governing, confer a wholly different kind of political legitimacy?  Chinese philosopher Tong Dong Bai makes a case “Against Political Equality,” in the assumption that most people are not capable of managing their needs.   Free people too often corroborate his case, as we focus on “the intolerable state of our own fluffy navel” while neglecting real human problems and needs.  What if Bai is right?  Is democracy a sham and China’s dictatorship the truly legitimate form of government?

Whether Xi Jinping is out to re-define political legitimacy in terms of Chinese interests, be they Communist or Confucian, we in the West need to focus on validating our personal rights-based idea of legitimacy.  America in particular must do this, as this nation conceived and defined itself in that commitment to rights.  

We should recall that legitimacy before 1776, and in most countries for centuries afterward, was conferred by family relations and raw power.  The Confucian model does not specify how the duty-bound ruler gains power – which explains their bitter civil wars from antiquity right up to the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Civil War that ended in 1949.  Authority had always been won by power, in China and everywhere else before 1776, and still is in many places.

The will of the people, in the best form that can be managed, is the only objective standard for governing legitimacy.  The CCP will claim to carry that will, but as a Leninist construct, it relies on its presumption to be the voice of the proletariat, and a dogma that deems that “class” the legitimate ruling faction, in all societies.  But with such a claim, the party fights the same power-based contest that all rulers fought before America’s founding.

When a party claims sole legitimacy, in any country, any argument that legitimacy stems from independent factors – for instance the express will of the people – poses an existential threat.  China’s Communists know this.  Thus their diplomats seek at every turn to bend international documents to reflect their interests, and at every turn to discredit us.  Our ideas threaten their rule, words as well as bullets are weapons, and they must win or die in the dog-eat-dog world.

America needs to fight this battle too, but we have a different interest.  No administration’s interest carries our existential essence.  Our fight is to preserve the space for people to grow in the exercise of their natural rights.  But our leaders and representatives must treat this, not their particular interests or ideologies, as America’s purpose.  Otherwise we ourselves make China’s case.  America’s national legitimacy, and the very idea of human liberty, are at stake.


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