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Western vs. Chinese Communist Party views of universal values: Do both make sense? | Guest Opinion

Western vs. Chinese Communist Party views of universal values: Do both make sense? | Guest Opinion

President Biden likes to say that in contemporary times, one of the central battles being fought in the world is between autocracies and democracies. Clearly, this is one plausible way of looking at the world in which we live. In furtherance of this dichotomous view of the world, it is interesting to study how the chief present-day autocracy, namely, the People’s Republic of China governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), views the long cherished and seemingly Western concept of universal values.

Universal values are not exclusively Western values and it is important to comprehend that they are set out in the United Nations Charter. They include, but are not limited to, equality, freedom, human dignity, justice, and a respect for human rights. Even so, it is fair to say that the West in general and the United States (US) in particular have largely championed the promotion of universal values and the rules-based international order that has undergirded the functioning of economic and political activity in the world since the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945.

In its battle to undermine what it sees as imperialist behavior by the US, the CCP has attempted to undermine the US, by referring to it as a declining power, a hegemon, and more recently, as the biggest obstacle to peace in the disastrous war in Ukraine initiated by another autocracy, namely, Russia.

Recently, at a so-called World Peace Forum in July 2023, the CCP attempted to tap into the resentment that some poor nations feel about the US role in the war in Ukraine by attacking the notion of universal values. Specifically, as a part of his Global Civilization Initiative, President Xi Jinping made the point that modernization does not equal Westernization. So far, so good. But he and his many underlings have gone on to state that Western conceptions of universal values are not only rubbish but also a racist form of neo-imperialism because they seek to impose a particular version of democracy and freedom on people who care about security and stability. In this vein, Liu Jianchao, the minister in charge of the CCP’s international department, has even put forth the idea that unlike the West, Chinese civilization has upheld a way of peace for 5000 years!

The above perspectives certainly promote propaganda, an activity for which the CCP is justly famous. But do they make sense? To see that the answer is no, let us proceed in steps. First, it is inarguable that people throughout the world care about stability and security. Second, one key issue is whether people care exclusively or even primarily about security and stability relative to other goals such as human rights. Third, we must ask whether people care about stability and security at any cost or even at a high cost.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that people care exclusively about stability and security or that these two objectives loom largest in the minds of people in general. Results from the World Values Survey show that when people feel secure, they are more likely to be tolerant and to express their individuality and that there is nothing Western about the desire to do so. Therefore, the relevant question is: How can governments make people feel secure?

The CCP’s answer to this question is to require citizens under its ambit to be deferential, pliant, and uninterested in political matters at the expense of individual and minority rights. But people can never really be secure in such a majoritarian environment because they never know when an action or a comment will be deemed unacceptable by the CCP and hence a formerly secure person in the majority can easily become insecure and in the minority. Related to this, when Liu Jiancaho talks about upholding a “way of peace,” he does not clarify that this “way” puts a premium on security and the power of the CCP and minimizes the salience of individual rights.

The CCP knows that transparent rule, free speech, individual rights, and independent courts are not a part of some religion that the West is looking for China to swallow whole. That is why the CCP is strenuously criticizing the Western notion of universal values. In the final analysis, accountable governments promote universal values. The CCP, being anything but accountable, demonizes universal values.

Batabyal is a Distinguished Professor, the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics, and the Interim Head of the Sustainability Department, all at RIT, but these views are his own.