China as a Classical Communitarian Oligarchy

In his recent work, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama repeats some relatively familiar theses about a type of institutional model he calls classical republicanism.  Classical republicanism, as Fukuyama describes it, has as its distinguishing marks:

(a) that there is no universal franchise, and sharp class distinctions exclude large numbers of people from political participation, so political participation is the exclusive privilege of a particular class of persons selected by some constitutionally defined criteria, and

(b) that the basic values of the constitutional system are communitarian, not liberal, so there is no strong presumption in favor of constitutional norms securing privacy and autonomy from state interference.

The canonical examples of classical republican states belong, of course, to the classical world (they are the city-states of Greece, and the Roman Republic), but, as Fukuyama emphasizes, this form of political order was perhaps the second most common type of constitutional order in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (exemplified by oligarchic republics like Genoa, Venice, Novgorod, and the 16th and 17th century Dutch Republic).

Fukuyama’s discussion of states repeats a thesis (which can be found in the Federalist Papers and other works of Early Modern political thought) that a basic limitation of the classical republican form is that its conditions of application are confined to relatively small-scale political unions.  As he puts it, “[classical republicanism] worked best in small, homogeneous societies like the city-states of…Greece and Rome…as these republics grew larger through conquest or economic growth, it became impossible to maintain the demanding communitarian values that bound them together” (20).

Heard as a historical claim about the actual constitutional dynamics of, e.g. the Roman Republic, this is quite plausible.  The expansion of the Roman Republic  introduced new conflicts about the requirements of citizenship that led, in the long run, to the progressive extension of this status to new groups of subject populations, the creation of a new and universalistic system of (private) law in the ius gentium, the general decline of the picturesque cultural customs characteristic of legal practice in the Republican period, and the emergence of a decisive tendency towards monarchial and administrative rule that eventually brought about the transition to the pricipate.

What I want to ask here, in a limited and preliminary way, is whether this historical progression reflects any sort of deep truth about classical republican constitutional forms, or if, instead, we should view this progression as a contingent development characteristic only of the Western experience with classical republican rule.  My thought is that it is perhaps instructive to see the contemporary government of the People’s Republic of China as a kind of oligarchic commercial state, structurally analogous to states like medieval Venice and the Early Modern Dutch Republic.

The first prong of Fukuyama’s definition seems to be met.  While there is some disagreement about who holds the real power in contemporary China (e.g. if party elites really do, or if the PLA is the actual locus of power), the standard view seems to be that the Chinese state is essentially ruled by a committee of economic elites.  And the second prong of Fukuyama’s definition, communitarian emphasis, seems to be obviously present, at least insofar as we are willing to take the endorsements of Chinese officials of distinctively “Asian Values” and “Confucian” political ideals as aims of domestic policy seriously, and not treat them as a kind of mask for elite self-interest (as Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, sometimes seems to be inclined to think in his East and West).

If it is right to find an analogy between the structure of governance found in contemporary China and the oligarchic republics of the Western past, then this may seem to suggest that what that led to the development of more universal (and in many ways, less demanding) forms of political unity in the late Republican and early Imperial periods of Roman history was perhaps not induced by factors of scale so much as the simple loss of cultural homogeneity.  China is a vast state, but it purports to represent (in large part) the cultural values of a large, though relatively unified, ethic group, with localization provisions that are supposed to account for the many smaller groups present within the territorial boundaries of the People’s Republic (how much respect is actually accorded to such groups is, of course, a matter of dispute).  And so, perhaps, we should think that oligarchic communitarian mercantile states are still with us today.  In other words, the viability of classical oligarchy can scale with population size; it just presupposes that the population increases do not induce more cultural diversity than the system can cope with, given its communitarian values.

One merit of this analogy is that it seems to highlight the fact that, however we want to think of the Chinese state, it is not plausibly assimilated to the general categories through which Western authoritarian states have been understood for the past few centuries.  In its present incarnation, the Chinese state is not readily understood on analogy with ideologically sustained authoritarian regimes (e.g. the Warsaw Pact states, or revolutionary France, at some stages of its development).  Nor is the Chinese system particularly similar to charismatic dictatorships which have emerged at several points in recent western history (Bonapartism is the template here).

The comparison between the present Chinese government and mercantile oligarchies of the medieval and classic periods also points in the direction of a principle that might help explain the continued viability of the Chinese state, in spite of the triumphalist tendency of present day Western political thinkers to assume that there exist teleological tendencies guiding the evolutionary trajectory of political institutions towards liberalism.  Classical oligarchic republics do a good job of aligning elite interests with interests shared by the population as a whole, though by a very different means than Western-style liberal democracies.  Whereas Western democracy tries to accomplish this alignment by making politicians accountable to the people through electoral systems, the political elites of an oligarchic republic of the classical form have an incentive to care about the economic well-being of the nation on the whole, because the system draws its political elites are drawn from the principal stakeholders in the economic order.  Barring the emergence of extremely exploitative arrangements that might trigger a struggle for social justice, this means that elites will tend to favor policies that will secure the good will of the populace on the whole, because they have strong incentives to see to it that the economic system functions effectively.

We would do well, I think, to resist the triumphalist temptation, and take this model more seriously as a potential long-run competitor to Western liberalism on the world stage.  We should also wonder a bit more, I think, about why classical republican order lost its footing in the West, so that we might arrive at a better understanding of the limitations implicit in this form of political order.  As it stands, the Chinese system has been quite successful at achieving legitimacy in the eyes of its people, and in the near future, we have no obvious reason to think that things will be otherwise.

Addendum: there may be some reason to think that Fukuyama’s formulation is inadqueate, at least insofar as it purports to explain why “classical republicanism” in Fukuyama’s sense is really a kind of republicanism.  “Republicanism” might be thought to convey, if not the expectation of democracy, the existence of checks on political power (whether in the form of individual rights, through separation of powers, or through various procedural constraints embodied in the rule of law) that do not figure in Fukuyama’s explanation.  Here I set these worries aside, and only want to entertain the question of whether it makes sense to think of China as an oligarchic communitarian state (as opposed to analogizing the Chinese state to more familiar forms of authoritarian government).  If we were to wonder whether China could qualify as a classical republic in a more robust sense that took account of these kinds of considerations, the answer would be no.


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