"For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” - President John F. Kennedy

Two Visions, One World

In his re-election night speech in November 2012, President Barack Obama said, “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. . . These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter—the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.” Soon after the US election, one such distant nation experienced a very different transfer of political power, as current Chinese President Xi Jinping replaced former President Hu Jintao in an orderly, stable, and Confucian manner.

It was here that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping each proved the ancient Confucian motto: “It takes but one word, it takes but one man to settle the fate of an empire.” Reformer Deng single-handedly broke away from the era of Chairman Mao, who had led the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the

Cultural Revolution. In the late 1970s, reformed trade liberalization policies initiated by Deng brought China into rapid economic prosperity within a generation. To grapple with the growing feelings of injustice and uncertainty among restless middle-class Chinese, especially educated youth looking for financial and social mobility, new Chinese President Xi, in turn, must take the “one word” of Deng’s “reform” and expand the meaning to include political restructuring for grassroots democracy.

Realizing the unfinished agenda of Deng’s reform policies, outgoing President Hu reminded 2,268 almost uniformly-dressed delegates in the Great Hall of the People that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is “creating a beautiful China.” He then added that the CPC “must continue to make both active and prudent efforts to carry out reforms of the political structure and make people’s democracy more extensive, fuller in scope, and sounder in practice.” Hu also noted, “We will never copy a Western political system.”

Instead, “We should attach greater importance to improving the system of democracy and diversifying the forms of democracy to ensure that the people conduct democratic elections, decision-making, administration and oversight in accordance with the law.” Hu added that Beijing is “firmly marching on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” to preserve a millennia-old Confucian union within a democratic system. Essentially, the departing leader’s remarks emphasize the legitimacy of the Communist Party and its authority to govern people’s affairs to preserve the collective order.

Under the new leadership, however, affable Xi warned against “excessive formalism and bureaucratism” among Communist Party cadres. Introducing his fellow Standing Committee members of the Politburo (the party’s seven-member supreme authority) as “my colleagues,” Xi signaled a departure from Hu, who had used the old revolutionary word “comrades” when he took the top position in 2002.

The congenial leader’s refreshing tone is a sharp contrast to his wooden predecessor, who monotonously read a lengthy and ideological statement. The newly-minted president’s first official trip to the southern city of Shenzhen—the birthplace of policy reform and an economic laboratory—is strikingly different from Hu’s visit to the historic village of Xibaipo, the revolutionary command center of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1948-49. Furthermore, an easygoing Xi told President Obama that he returned to see his “old friends” in Iowa during his visit to the United States in February 2012. At a reunion with his Iowan friends, Xi said: “My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.”

Unlike Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who visited Iowa in 1959, the Chinese leader has sent a message of unprecedented amity from Beijing to Washington. As the United States has begun to focus more on the Pacific Rim region through President Obama’s Asian pivot strategy, China has also entered into a new era—intentionally reaffirming the CPC’s denunciation of American-style democracy but also purposefully charting a path for Chinese renaissance.

Begin the World Anew

As China’s leading importer and debtor-nation, the trillion dollar question from Washington is:

Will President Xi become the next “one man to settle the fate” of the world’s most populous country and continue as Deng Xiaoping’s champion in the political realm?

Through Deng’s trade liberalization and economic opening policies, over 600 million out of the 1.3 billion Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. (There are still over 150 million Chinese still living on less than a US$1.50 a day). In addition to the United States, many other countries, namely those in Africa and Asia, have benefited economically from China’s “Peaceful Rise.” Deng’s reform strategies have produced 1.4 million US-dollar millionaires by 2012; the number of billionaires has grown from 15 in 2006 to over 250 in 2012.

Under the popular slogan “to get rich is glorious,” Deng’s legacy created a super-rich “princeling” class; however, the prosperity-driven gospel has proven to be costly. It is associated with widespread official corruption, environmental degradation, public health concerns, and most importantly, growing income disparity between rich and poor. Regional inequalities between the maritime urbanized regions and the rural hinterland, massive internal migration to large cities, and the household registration or hukou system are proving to be not only economic concerns but also freedom of mobility issues. Overall, the unintended social and political consequences of Deng’s policy and the corresponding economic growth have forced the CPC to introduce political reform out of necessity, requiring high stakes party-political gamesmanship.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, gamesmanship recently played out between the White House and Congress over the national debt and budget deficit. Despite the cacophony of China-bashing by some in the United States, the President, through his quiet but salient “No Drama Obama” approach to Sino-American policy, has pinpointed the Asia-Pacific region to anchor his lasting legacy. During his Tokyo speech in November 2009, Obama promoted himself as “America’s first Pacific president,” promising Japan and other Asian nations “a new era of engagement with the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” There are two reasons behind his decision to take this stance. First, the future of US prosperity is linked to the Indo-Pacific Rim nations. Second, the president’s formative years and family history are tied to Asia through his US mother’s connection to Indonesia and his African grandfather’s links to Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) during World War II and beyond.

All things considered, renewed leaderships present an opportune moment for the two Pacific nations to initiate steps to frame a new “Pacific” order through trade and commerce. Throughout American history, trade has always been navigated with the safeguard of adjunct military power. In 2012, the United States relocated 5000 troops from Okinawa to Guam, stationed another 5000 Marines at Darwin in Australia, and planned to build a military aircraft and drone base on Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean. During the first overseas trip soon after his re-election, Obama—again labeling himself as “America’s first Pacific president”—declared a “moment of renewal” process that would build bridges over the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, there exist historical and philosophical challenges with China. 

“Process” versus “Outcome”

Indeed, China and the United States are separated but joined by the Pacific Ocean. The former is molded by modern history and the ancient Confucian civilization; the latter is destined by geography and European Enlightenment philosophy. In contrast to the Western-style “nation-state,” China’s “civilization-state” was punctuated by a series of external and internal ruptures such as the two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), the brutal Japanese invasion during World War II, and the Cultural Revolution. Until the 19th century, Confucian culture permeated throughout Chinese history and imperial regimes from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to the Qing rulers (1644-1911), whose authority started to decline as the Western powers began to arrive in China. Chinese modernizers and nationalists ended the Qing Dynasty in 1911; however, they were and are still informed by an antiquity of past empires and Confucian ideas.

Meanwhile, the United States was created by a group of Enlightenment thinkers with a purpose-driven philosophy. Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third US president, enlarged the geography of the 13 original colonies with the Louisiana Purchase to connect the new nation to the Pacific Ocean—a providential act that spawned the Manifest Destiny movement. Since then, Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” has been further galvanized as the new Republic has expanded its philosophic vision to the Pacific and beyond.

In his tripartite motto, Jefferson promoted “unalienable rights” as the “fundamental natural rights” of mankind to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To achieve these Jeffersonian ends, Alexander Hamilton—Jefferson’s philosophical rival—devised an ingenious strategy that entailed a strong manufacturing base, a national banking system, a centralized federal government, and an export-led economic scheme protected by the US Navy. Bridging the two competing camps, James Madison invented a system of checks-and-balances among the three independent branches of government. In this way, Madison hoped Americans could achieve Jefferson’s democratic freedoms through Hamilton’s economic and trade policies.

This is part of the philosophical difference between China and the United States: for the latter, political “process” matters more in promoting Jeffersonian ideals and ideas. For Confucian China, economic “outcomes” have greater significance—just as Hamilton argued in a Federalist Paper that government authority ought to be “the fabric of American empire.” But democratically-oriented Jeffersonian inspiration has prevailed throughout history, and certainly has been more admired than capitalistic Hamiltonian-style motivations—greed and power.

The Hamiltonian vision is endorsed by China as a prescription for economic reform policies to achieve Beijing’s development goals. As Deng famously said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” This plays out in current events today. The CPC, for example, displaced millions of its people to build the gigantic Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River, regularly resettles millions of urban dwellers for renewal projects, and uproots millions of families from the construction areas of transport networks and other massive development programs—all by force.

In the United States, however, a consultative process would drive such initiatives—involving all branches of government and stakeholders openly under the rules of law. For instance, the decision to store nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada has taken years of public discourse.

These differing approaches to public policy issues are permeated with political philosophy and national history. After the American Revolution, the national vision was predicated on an amalgamation of European Enlightenment ideas, assumptions about the nature of human behavior, and governing paradigms of Native Americans (e.g., the Iroquois Confederacy among the five nations of Mohawk, Oneida,

Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca). The Republican experiment was then carried out with an understanding of human nature—not the other way around. But revolutions like the Liberation War of China and the Cultural Revolution were executed to change human behavior for a utopian outcome.

Nature and Human Aspiration

At the eighteenth CPC Congress, outgoing President Hu noted fallacies in the outcome-driven “reform and opening” strategy that minimized public aspirations, especially in the area of democratic participation. Along with his repeated emphasis of “Mao Zedong thought” and “the scientific outlook on development” (i.e., eco-friendly and environmentally-balanced), Hu cautioned that, “If we fail to handle this issue [corruption] well it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

Hu established the platform and set the tone for future direction under President Xi, but the departing president repeated the idea of “grassroots democracy” to ensure that the Chinese people will “enjoy democratic rights in a more extensive and practical way.” His gradual extension of “intraparty democracy” policy at the Politburo to the grassroots level is more than “a powerful theoretical weapon,” the retiring leader confidently counseled the delegates; it is his “democratic” legacy.

Of course, it is widely recognized that after having their material needs fulfilled by Deng’s Hamiltonian-like approach to economic prosperity, the Chinese people’s attention will naturally turn to non-material aspirations. Thomas Jefferson explained it this way: “Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic [and the Pacific] and will be alike influenced by the same causes.” Sooner or later, if left unaddressed, this human tendency will undermine the CPC. The reform period was tolerated by most Chinese even though it was undemocratic, repressive, and disempowering because it delivered an empowering narrative. But that storyline is being chipped away as the Chinese people grow to expect more from their institutions of governance.

Strategy for All Battles

The architecture of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration’s so-called Asia pivot foreign policy, is Hamiltonian with its explicit economic and commercial emphasis. This new trade strategy empowered by the US military presence in the Asian-Pacific region supports Jeffersonian aspirations of religious freedom and human rights – and fits into the pragmatic framework of President Obama’s larger strategic vision and the US’s lasting tradition. The United States has needed an overarching grand strategy that focuses on more than just China’s unfair trade practices (like intellectual property rights and currency manipulation) and human rights.

In his Art of War, Chinese sage Sun Tzu observed in the fifth century BC, “Those who win battle after battle are not the most skillful. Those with greater skill employ strategy to make their opponents yield before reaching the stage of conflict.” This adage resonates with President Ronald Reagan’s ambitious former Soviet Union strategy, which brought down communism partly by convincing the Saudis and other oil exporters to flood the market to reduce Soviet oil revenues.

As Beijing’s apprehensive mindset is haunted by memories of the Cold War era, Obama’s Asia strategy is viewed as a malignant plan to encircle China militarily and economically to contain its ascendency. Like Reagan, Obama has seemingly taken the Chinese sage’s observation to heart to achieve the US’s founding vision, which led to the superpower status that is indeed associated with the use of Hamiltonian means to attain Jeffersonian ends.

Are Jeffersonian ends possible for China? Despite the newly introduced political reform policy of “intra-party democracy,” neither the old guard Communist Party leaders nor the so-called “princeling” class of the Mao Zedong-era offspring seek to turn China into a practicing Western-style democracy anytime soon. Regardless, the ideas of the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China (himself inspired by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln), have been elevating the consciousness of freedom and democracy in post-Deng generations since the 1980s.

In the United States, it took more than a century to realize Jeffersonian and democratic ideals of equality for slaves and women. The evolving nature of national unity and equal rights is all about what the United States represents as a nation—a manifestation of historical episodes such as the Civil War, the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights struggles. The US experience has advanced along difficult pathways toward the realization of Jeffersonian freedoms. Similarly, a reformed China has probably laid the inevitable preconditions that prefigure greater religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists, democratic rights for Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, and equality for women. In the United States, Jeffersonian ideals were eventually materialized by the women, Native Americans, and African-Americans themselves—partly by collectively pursuing justice through political means, and partly through individual awareness and education.

A Silent Revolution

Education is the silent force multiplier behind societal transformation for greater public good and justice. Both the Beijing government and Chinese families emphasize education—a prized Confucian value. With greater wealth and more education, a large number of Chinese have tasted freedom and personal liberty. Last year alone, more than 150,000 Chinese students enrolled in US universities, including the children of top-ranking CPC leaders.

The implications of such educational and cultural exchanges are far-reaching; Western-educated Chinese returning home will likely fuel creative tension for greater democratic change. These returnees from US liberal institutions will become “democratic bees” pollinating millions of flowers for liberty. The Chinese will inevitably experience a tipping point for democratic reform faster than their Confucian South Koreans and Taiwanese experienced; growing economic and travel opportunities have allowed a far greater number of Chinese to work in and visit many foreign countries.

In Confucian societies, values of friendship, loyalty and family matter. When Xi returned to visit his Iowan family that hosted him in 1985, it clearly illustrated the character of the new leader and his affinity with the “Heartland of America.” Despite the CPC’s occasional anti-US rhetoric, Xi’s reunion with his US hosts represents a promise of a greater bond between the two leading nations. These kinds of cultural exchanges, cultivated over decades, have now been expanded upon to include military-to-military interactions, too.

Additionally, factory workers and laborers working in urban renewal projects and industries have joined forces with young students. A blurred alliance is emerging between the Internet-based, educated young students and the CPC youth cadre with their own social networks. Micro-bloggers have now become an unpredictable cohort of potential change agents for freedom. The freedom of expression to address grievances is already present: over 150,000 mass protests yearly are recorded by CPC officials. Overall, the Chinese people want greater freedom and expect more justice—and China is transforming profoundly—albeit at a snail’s pace.

Chinese “Missiles” of Freedom

In recent years, Beijing has attempted to restore its international legitimacy and historical supremacy as Washington retreated from the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions in focusing on the War on Terror. China is now constructing the over US$100-million Lotus Tower in Colombo, Sri Lanka—a symbol of Beijing’s “Peaceful Rise” and a clever nod to the ancient Buddhist ties between the two countries. This is just one of many enormous investments Beijing has made in geo-strategically important locations in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Asian strategy intends to realize the US’s founding vision of Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” in the Indo-Pacific region. Shortsighted political rhetoric, trade tactics, and military battles are counterproductive as mutual dependence makes the possibility of a Sino-American conflict all but impossible. Instead, vibrant and educated Chinese youth already exposed to the taste of liberty and social networks will be 21st century “missiles of freedom.” The United States should seek to encourage trade delegations, academic exchanges, cultural connections, scientific contacts, and the use of other “soft-power” instruments to inspire Chinese people, especially the younger generation. Just as the United States progressed gradually toward Jeffersonian ideals of equality, the next “Fairness Revolution” with Chinese characteristics will rise organically from within.

China does not need to worry about the United States as a “concircling” (containing and encircling) enemy with its allies of Japan, South Korea, and India—or the Asia strategy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The intertwined Chimerican (Chinese and American) economies must both succeed for mutual prosperity and social stability by creating more wealth and jobs. Hamiltonian Might and Jeffersonian Right once led, through creative tension and innovation, to “American exceptionalism.” With new CPC leadership, Beijing is now embarking on a balancing act of reviving historic China as a Nation of Might (through ancient maritime claims) and as a Nation of Right (defined by Confucian virtues and Asian values) to realize their version of the “Chinese dream.”

Like the United States, China has its own struggles with history, but the two nations also share a common vision: Hamiltonian economic development must precede the realization of Jeffersonian ideals. The US experience of the past two centuries is ironically guiding China’s evolution into a more perfect Confucian Union itself, with the 60-plus year old Party as an agent of change. The ancient “civilization-state” and the young US republic need to foster greater understanding of each other by reflecting more on history and less on rhetoric.

Confucian Democracy

Erudite Chinese strategists and political planners have always been quiet but calculating. The new leaders may return to Deng’s Confucian-like advice: “We must conceal our potential and gain time. We must immerse ourselves silently in our work, without brandishing the flag, without doing anything excessive.” The Beijing 2008 Olympic games were a clear expression of a Chinese global worldview, with its “One World, One Dream” theme. Even before the Olympics, a 2005-CPC White Paper on Political Democracy stated, “Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world.” In China, democracy will probably emerge and evolve gradually with Confucian characteristics.

A democratic China might look more like a Singaporean- style, Confucian nation-state. After all, the vast landmass of China with over one billion people is the Confucian cradle of the “civilization-state”—as the experience of the tiny citystate of slightly over five million Singaporeans has demonstrated. Or, will democratic change arrive more dramatically, as when the Republic of China (RoC), Taiwan, separated from mainland Communist China after the Nationalists found refuge in Taipei? To counter any moves toward independence from mainland China, Beijing already maintains a “Confucian Union” with the RoC under the “one country, two systems” model (also employed by the CPC in Hong Kong and Macau).

Despite Hu’s prescription for “greater political courage and vision,” changing the system of communist governance by “collective leadership” is a monumental task. The post-Mao “princeling” strata of leadership in state-owned enterprises as well as the ruling cadre of People’s Liberation Army have vested interests in the status quo. Even though President Xi is the first leader born after the birth of the People’s Republic of China, he is still a “prince” within this enduring civilization-state. Nonetheless, the words of Confucius - “It takes but one man to settle the fate of an empire” - may still apply.

A “Pacific” Order

The fate of this modern empire largely depends on Xi and his leadership skills within the constraints of Beijing’s Politburo and its Standing Committee. While President Hu outlined “active and prudent efforts” for the next 10-year plan to reform the political structure, the Communist Party—the embodiment of the “people”—is afraid of the restless middle class and the educated.

In the United States, Hamilton—a plutocrat who liked the centralized power of the Founding Fathers—was similarly afraid of the people. Infamously warning against Jeffersonian enthusiasm for a democratic vision of the nascent nation, Hamilton said, “Your people, Sir—your people is a great beast.” However, throughout its history of erroneous decisions made by leaders, “the people” have always been the pinnacle of the US experiment. On the eve of his reelection victory and just before the leadership transition in Beijing, Obama reaffirmed those Jeffersonian ideals when he said, “People in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter.” The people of China, Myanmar, North Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere heard Obama’s pointed message.

The studious Chinese leaders may have now realized that the United States has gone through the US “experience”— with its painful episodes with women, slaves, and the Native Americans—to strive toward Jeffersonian ideas and ideals. If the US is a “shining City upon a Hill,” the Chinese people must look to the eastern sunrise to begin the world anew for a “Pacific” century. As a global nation, the United States must be humble in its philosophic mission to fulfill its founding vision and be patient: China has already acted on Hamiltonian means to pursue Jeffersonian ends.

PATRICK MENDIS, a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, is the author of “Trade for Peace” and “Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire.”