End of a bad idea
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Post-Mao China is commonly seen as a country devoid of any ideology. The death of communism meant that the ruling elites could no longer invoke utopian ideals to motivate people or claim legitimacy. Western liberalism has not taken hold in Chinese society either, mainly due to the repression by the Communist Party, which views liberal values as ideological threats to its power.
But the lack of ideology in Chinese politics does not mean that Chinese politics has no dominant ideas. If we probe a little more deeply, we should find one particular idea that has decisively influenced the thinking of Chinese elites and society for the last three decades. It is always tricky to label ideas. For the sake of simplicity, we may call this dominant idea "economic determinism". Its essence is fairly straightforward, although it means different things to different people.
From the perspective of the Communist Party, economic determinism simply means that, after the bankruptcy of communism as an ideology, its political legitimacy and ability to hold on to power are determined by its capacity to deliver economic growth and improve the standards of living of the Chinese people. For some Chinese liberals, opposed as they are to one-party rule but denied the means to change it right away, economic determinism offers a possible alternative. If economic growth can transform Chinese society and undermine the socioeconomic foundations of authoritarian rule, then they would rely on both market forces and modernisation to help democratise China. For most Chinese technocrats eager to see China become a successful market economy, economic determinism means that, if the party really wants to stay in power, it will have no choice but to embrace market principles.
The influence of economic determinism reaches beyond Chinese borders. Many leaders in western democracies have also apparently fallen for this intellectually seductive theory when it comes to dealing with China. Based on their (flawed) interpretations of democratic transitions in Taiwan and South Korea, they believe that, like its neighbours, China will become more liberal and democratic as its economy grows. Western businessmen are victims of economic determinism as well. They think that if China's economic self-interest determines that it must be more open to foreign businesses and reciprocate the benefits it gains from free trade, Beijing should have every reason to do so.
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