China’s people-centered development is rooted in reality, not political display: Malaysian scholar
Published: Mar 06, 2023 07:24 PM
Aerial photo of Maozhushan village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Photo: IC

Aerial photo of Maozhushan village in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Photo: IC

Editor's Note:

The two sessions, one of China's most important annual political events, is an important window for the outside world to understand China's development achievements, plans, governance philosophy, diplomatic concepts and global initiatives. Through this window, international observers closely watch China's moves and recognize China's development.

John Pang (Pang), a former Malaysian government official and a senior research fellow at Perak Academy, Malaysia, told Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin that "people-centered development works because it's rooted in reality, not political display," and it has brought Chinese people a sense of security and ease with themselves in the modern world. 

This is the third interview of this series over the two sessions.  

GT: China emphasizes adhering to the people-centered philosophy in its governance, regarding improving the well-being of the people and promoting well-rounded human development as the starting point and foothold of its development. In your opinion, what is "people-centered"? 

The idea of the people as the root, foundation and center of the Chinese order lies at the core of Chinese political philosophy. The classical reference is a phrase in the Book of Documents: "The people are the foundation of a country and only when the people lead a good life can the country thrive."

The phrase describes more than "political theory" in the modern sense. It employs the classical Chinese political ontology of the people; of human beings in their individual, social and elemental reality; living and acting between heaven and earth; in their social relations and interactions with the natural world, within a moral universe. This phrase suggests the continuity between Chinese political modernity and its deep past.

It is, in classical Western terms, a philosophy of the common good. The good of the people implied by the phrase is not the aggregation of their individual preferences. It is their indivisible good as a community, their flourishing as a people. This common flourishing, or happiness, is the condition and the fulfillment of individual happiness.

It implies that Chinese governance today as in the past is more than mere representation of an abstract will of the people, a formula that, in the West has become a facade for oligarchy. The people are the entire purpose and meaning of government. Those who govern serve only that common good. They are to have no interest of their own. This implies the cultivation of the virtues of leadership and public service. Public officials are to be driven by "lofty ideals and firm convictions," to be willing to sacrifice their lives in service, to seek moral and intellectual progress through rigorous and lifelong self-cultivation, and attention to practical results through "seeking truth from facts." This notion of governance requires, in other words, the virtues of public service that have been prized in Chinese political culture for millennia.

The test of people-centered governance is objective: It consists in whether the well-being of the people has been objectively improved and their aspirations have been met.

GT: When it comes to people-centered development, has China made it?

COVID was an acid test of government commitment to the welfare of the people all over the world. The pandemic mercilessly revealed the actual priorities and capacities of governments all over the world. We learned the importance of social cohesion and trust and government capacity to address emergencies. Some struggled in disarray. Some were seen to save corporations and seek profit as millions died. China, without question, put people first.  

Poll after poll shows a deepening loss of trust in government in the advanced liberal democracies. We see growing signs of social breakdown. In contrast, Chinese society is flourishing. People trust the government and each other even more now than before the pandemic. Chinese people enjoy social peace and stability and prosperity and remain optimistic about the future despite unprecedented threats.

People-centered development works because it's rooted in reality, not political display. It attends practically to what needs to be done. It has a strong pragmatic bent in methodically and iteratively "seeking truth from facts" and acting on it. It has brought the "hundred surnames," the ordinary people beloved of Chinese philosophers, a sense of security and ease with themselves in the modern world that they have not enjoyed for more than a century. By rekindling its continuity with the past, Chinese governance today also connects all Chinese people to the world in peace. This is an inestimable contribution to their common good and to the world.

Let me take a step back.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a looted, divided China faced the modern world in the wake of the collapse of the longest lasting, and for most of its history, the most populous political order in the world. This order had sustained a continuous socio-political community over 4,000 years, with norms, ideals, and meanings deeply embedded in that continuity. Chinese people faced something worse than personal death point: the loss of a world. My grandfather was born in the last year of that classical world, a subject of the last imperial dynasty. The collapse of this world brought everything the Chinese fear in chaos: war, mass death, destruction, hunger and displacement. 

The question of the relationship between Chinese people and their history is thus no mere academic issue. It is an existential, moral and spiritual question faced by every thinking Chinese person. 

The framing of modern Chinese statecraft in classical terms is thus a landmark moment. It marks Chinese socialist modernity finding its continuity with Chinese political history, China reconnecting itself to its past, finding its place in the present, and seeking to contribute to world civilization. It marks the continuity of the Chinese world.

GT: Some analysts think people-centered approach is the fundamental difference between Chinese modernization and Western modernization. What is your take? And what is Western modernization centered on?

People-centered governance repudiates the liberal individualism at the heart of Western modernity. It is based on a notion of the good of the people that has, however, strong affinities with the classical Western notion of the bonum commune, the common good.

The ideology of the modern West is liberalism. In its contemporary form it admits no notion of the common good. In its view the "common good" is only shorthand for the aggregate of separate and individual utilities. There is no people!Only the individual, and individual's will and desire, are real. 

Its fundamental principle is the autonomy of the individual, secured by ever greater liberation from all constraints. As the great American jurist Adrian Vermeule has noted, modern liberalism, as a sociopolitical order, pursues relentlessly the destruction of all traditional norms, customs, mores and institutions. While deeming itself the antithesis of religion, it is itself driven by a quasi-religious impulse to publicly celebrate the destruction of all traditional ways of understanding what it means to be human. It recognizes no boundary to its claims, making ever stricter demands for political conformity at home and abroad. It is the ideological handmaiden of an equally expansionary global capitalism and imperialism.

In drawing on "people-centrism," Chinese modernization cultivates the common good. It's not surprising that we see an astonishing revival of social trust in the country. This would not have been possible in a society that pursued Western-style development.
John Pang. Photo: Courtesy of Pang

John Pang. Photo: Courtesy of Pang

GT: How do you comment on the hypes of some Western media and politicians about so-called China's human rights issue?   

The allegations are so absurd at this point that I would just ignore them.

Let's distinguish human rights as a concept from human rights as a global political project. Although the concept first began to be used in the 1940s, it grew into a global political project of the West only from the 1970s. It is not as if no society practiced justice or enacted laws protecting human life before this. Justice and compassion, articulated in different philosophical vocabularies, are part of our common humanity. The concept of human rights instrumentalizes this common humanity in service of the politics of liberal internationalism by giving itself the right to intervene over any state sovereignty. It is today's white man's burden.

Legal rights are bounded claims that can only be secured by functioning sovereign states. As an instrument of the unipolar order, the freestanding notion of "human rights," applied with invincible hypocrisy, is used to justify Western coercion. This power recognizes no legal or political limits. In principle, the self-appointed custodians of human rights license themselves to intervene in any state in the world. In practice it has made the Western military alliance the greatest threat to the international system of sovereign states.

The true face of human rights as a liberal international project is the destruction of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Each of the territories that the West has "liberated" for its freestanding (and stateless) notion of human rights has ended up as near stateless or actually stateless zones reduced to chaos, rife with warlordism and terrorism. Millions have died and tens of millions displaced by the gift of human rights. Thanks to "human rights," we once again have slave markets in Libya. 

The emperor is naked. To take these allegations seriously is to pretend he is clothed.

GT: Does "putting the people at the center" also have referential value for international relations?

People-centred philosophy is inherently cosmopolitan. The Confucian humanism underlying Chinese statecraft applied seamlessly to domestic governance and diplomacy. Human community with a shared future is the international application of people-centred governance. The human community of the ancient Chinese world was not a national community in the modern sense. The principle of common good underlying it applies universally. Its final end is the shared good of the entire human community. There is a phrase from the Book of Rites "When the Great Way was pursued, the world was held in common." It points to the great vision of Great Unity of all under heaven, the universal community that Chinese governance has always seen as the necessary end, or fulfillment, of all particular community. This is nothing less than the human community of a shared future.

GT: What are your expectations for the ongoing two sessions? How do you think the people-centered philosophy in its governance will be reflected in the two sessions?

I hope to see people-centered philosophy discussed in a way that shows its relationship with China's vision of global order, its commitment to peace and development. This doctrine is as distinctive as it is universal in its vision of the common good.

Meanwhile, I think it's a major development that China has begun to issue more comprehensive and direct statements to the world community such as the paper on the Global Security Initiative. They're much needed as the world beyond NATO struggles to secure a multipolar order against increasingly deranged threats. I hope to see more articulations of an alternative to the liberal international order and to liberal modernity and a peaceful path beyond them. The global diplomatic initiative for peace has already fallen on China. I expect to see Chinese statesmanship play a growing world role in a world caught between the end of the present era and the birth of the new.