Chinese Political Scientist Yan Xuetong: 'China should allow more freedom of expression'

John Vandaele had the opportunity to talk with professor Yan Xuetong, one of the leading political thinkers of China. Yan is well known for his outspokenness, even when his vision does not correspond with the ideology of the party. One thing is clear: from Beijing the world looks different. 

  • World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Yan Xuetong: 'When the government is good, society makes progress, but when the government is bad, society recedes.' World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yan Xuetong is the dean at the Institute of Modern International Relations, a department of the well-known Tsinghua University. In 2008, the American journal Foreign Affairs called him one of the world’s hundred most influential intellectuals. When we asked him for this interview, he simply said yes. In clear contrast to some of his colleagues, Yan did not need permission from any higher authority. 

His book, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, in which he studies ancient Chinese thinkers to find out whether they contain lessons for contemporary China, received a lot of attention in the Western world, especially after the American vice-president, Joe Biden, was seen with the book under his arm. Yan describes himself as a political realist: power is central in international relations. Nevertheless, he believes that soft power – human authority – ultimately wins from hard power.  

We start the interview with the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), when Yan - sixteen year old at the time - was deported to the countryside for nine years. China went through hard times. We asked Yan if back then, he could have imagined that in just four decades, China would be a much more prosperous country, the second economy of the world. 

Yan Xuetong: I do not think that anyone could have imagined that. We knew that China had a bad policy at that time. The secret of resurrection was to again conduct a good policy. As was proven in a dramatic way later on. For me, this demonstrates how important government and policy are. 

That vision clearly differs from the United States, where one is rather sceptical towards the government. 

Yan Xuetong: Absolutely, in the US, people want the government to have a much smaller role and give instead a much larger role to civil society and to the market. That is definitely not my vision or that of my generation. Our long history shows us that  rise and decline of nations is highly related to policy. When the government is good, society makes progress, but when the government is bad, society recedes. 

So the US are wrong?
Yan Xuetong: They underestimate the role of politics. Their financial crisis was the result of a powerless policy. Their own history shows that some leaders were better than others and that this had consequences. Of course leaders make mistakes: therefore citizens should have the ability to control them in one way or another. 

‘It is necessary to find a balance between efficiency and participation.’

The question is about the mechanisms that should be used to do this. Democracy? Democracy is not very efficient. It is necessary to find a balance between efficiency and participation. That balance can shift over time, there are no eternal truths here. 

You studied at Berkeley in the US. What did you learn there? 
Yan Xuetong: That one needs to analyse reality, and think logically and scientific. And two: observe the world from different angles. Do not be too ideological. Different ideologies are inevitable: you need to accept these differences instead of demanding that others adopt your ideas. Sometimes people complain that I’m so much in favor of the scientific method that it becomes almost like a religion or an ideology too. Still I accept other ideologies, and accept that I sometimes may be wrong. (smiles)

In your book, you examine if we can learn something out of ancient Chinese writings from 2500 years ago. Did you find something that can show how China should operate today?
Yan Xuetong: Some ideas are still relevant today, others are out-dated. But why are some of these ideas still relevant today? Because the knowledge they were based on, is very strong and probably universal. This knowledge was applicable in the past and will also be usefuill in the future.

What is the most important of these “universal thoughts”? 

Yan Xuetong: Political determinism. As a social being, humans cannot function without political institutions. That is why they invented the state. The political – the rule of the ruler over the ruled, the subjects – is crucial. It is important to understand these power structures. Marxists said that the economy determines the political, but it is in fact the other way around: politics determines the economy. 

People are therefore right when they blame the EU for not having a job. In the relationships between states, the emergent power is weaker that the hegemon, because its political leadership, and not its economy or culture is weaker. But keep in mind, politics is more than the political system or the parties: we are talking about the government, the leadership, the political capabilities, the political will and the political culture are equally a part of politics.

To have a political will, you need to have a vision? 

Yan Xuetong: A perspective is definitely essential, but capability is equally important. Obama has a vision, but not the capability – Congress is countering him. Political will is daring to run a risk. Bush definitely had that courage, but he did not have a vision. Hitler had that courage as well, but his vision was horrible. 

Mao’s Big Leap Forward also mainly shows political will, not a vision? 

Yan Xuetong: Mao was a very capable politician from 1949 till 1956. Later on he was worse. One leader can be very good as well as be very bad in the course of his tenure.

What do the ancient writings tell us about international relations? 

Yan Xuetong: That the future depends on the personality of the leading state. If he is good, there will be harmony in the world. If he is a tyrant, it will be difficult. I make a distinction between tyranny which is based on military force, imposes its will on others and by doing so makes many enemies, and humane authority that gains support inside and outside the country through leading by example, insuring other countries follow the leader spontaneously. Hegemony is between those two: partially based on military force, partially on tjhe attractiveness of its model.  

‘History learns that human authority always wins.’

History learns that humane authority always wins. Some people conclude that I said that China will be that kind of leader. That is incorrect. I would like that, but it is still unclear what it will be. Humane authority aims at having as many allies as possible. Today, that simply is not the case with China. China should at least start with reassuring its neighbours by offering them security and safety. Unfortunately that is not happening at the moment.

What are the US? 

Yan Xuetong: The US are a hegemon. No humane authority thus, but better than for example the UK or any other colonial power. There was told that the US would become a benign hegemon after the Cold War. I do not agree, it became worse, with Bush waging war in different countries.  

What does a society that others spontaneously imuiate, look like? 

Yan Xuetong: It is a harmonious society without big differences between rich and poor, equitable, that gives people freedom of speech, and room to create and invent things. 

More freedom of speech. Do Chinese leaders like it when you say that? 

Yan Xuetong: Whether they like it or not, I don’t know, but I will continue to say it. 

Do you feel any pressure? 

Yan Xuetong: No, I don’t feel any pressure. 

As a humane authority, China would have to become more democratic? 

Yan Xuetong: Exactly, not per se by following the Western model of democracy, but by giving citizens the opportunity to participate. There are plenty of models: Japan, Singapore, India… 

Does it bother you when the western world blames China for its lack of democracy? 

Yan Xuetong: The premise was always: if China does not follow the Western democracy, it will fail. The facts contradict this. China was able to reduce the power gap with the US while it had a very different policy. 

‘China was able to reduce the power gap in the US by using another policy.’

Is the Chinese dream president Xi Jinping talks about heading towards a humane authority? 

Yan Xuetong: That is not clear yet. 

Xi wants China to become an ecological civilization. 

Yan Xuetong: Water and air pollution is so severe that it affects the quality of life. Something needs to be done, and the government is doing so. 

Can China become a leader for developing countries in that field? 

Yan Xuetong: Yes, but not only in that field. Asia face many other challenges like hunger and disease. In the Middle East, there is war. China will play a broader leading role. 

Should China play a larger role in Syria? 

Yan Xuetong: Definitely not. A humane authority is not idealistic, but practical, pragmatic, she does not want to  reach beyond it capabilities. I do not think that any country can solve the problem in Syria at the moment. If you know you can not win the war, do not try it. Russia is only dropping bombs there to please its own citizens. 

And to help the Assad regime.

Yan Xuetong (passionate): But Europe is not without blame: it caused the problemns, the chaos. Europe should have never supported the Arab Spring. It clearly did not realize the risks.  

What is wrong with democratizing Arab politics? 

Yan Xuetong: Nothing per se. Europe simply assessed the situation incorrectly. It believed the Arab spring could lead to democracy but it turned out differently. 

Was it possible to predict the outcome? And in the end, in Tunisia, a more democratic model came into being.  

Yan Xuetong (angry): If you cannot predict it, and it turns out wrong, you need to say: I’m sorry. And admit hat you were stupid in supporting the Arab Spring that in the end destabilzed Syria. It is simple to take risks with the lives of others. Why do’n t you offer some European lives? And the West is still continuing. I hear France and the US say that they cannot win and still they keep throwing bombs. The western intervention in Libya was a disaster as well. How do you call a country that keeps forgetting its own mistakes? 

‘The only possible strategy is containment.’

What should happen then? 

Yan Xuetong: The only possible strategy is containment. Try to isolate the problem and prevent it from spreading. To be able to do so, you need to work with the local governments. 


The problem is that there is no more real government in Syria. 

That’s why I say: stop your strategy of regime change - your strategy to get rid of governments. 

Today we hear that we live in a multipolar world, a world politics with different power centres. Can that work? 

Yan Xuetong: Everybody seems to like the idea of a multipolar world: China, the US, Russia, Japan, India, developing countries… all seem to like the idea but for different reasons. It might be desirable but I predict that it will not happen, because China is the only country that has the capabilities to close the power gap with the US. We are thus inevitably heading towards a bipolar world. 

Will that lead to conflicts? 

Yan Xuetong: Not necessarily. It does not have to be a cold war. Globalisation leads to many forms of interaction – academically, technologically, commercially, financially – neither side can adopt a policy of isolation. Besides that, there is also no real ideological conflict as in the cold war. 

The US says that they are a democracy and China is not. 

Yan Xuetong: That is nothing more than an excuse to legitimate their power. The battle for the isles in the South China Sea has nothing to do with ideology, but everything with power. Who’s is the boss on the islands? 

Can that lead to a war? 

Yan Xuetong: That can lead to violence. Nobody knows. The bipolarity will become more intense. I do not expect a world war, because there are nuclear weapons. But locally, there might be proxywars where both sides fight for influence in a certain area, but I don’t expect a world war.  

But what is the future of the isles?

Yan Xuetong: The conflict will continue. One will try to solve the problem with transparency. The US will announce when they will pass with a ship. And China will allow that. 

Isn’t it written in the stars that the American influence will diminish? 

Yan Xuetong: That is already the case at the moment. The commander-in-chief of the US in the Asia-Pacific region recently said that their regional allies do not feel secure, regardless how many ships the US have stationed there. That shows that US’ power is declining. This did not occur before. 

How do you look at the EU? 

Yan Xuetong: The EU has lost her ability to unite its members. More and more members start to lose their confidence in the EU and want to follow an independent course. The UK will keep more distance, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. Eastern-Europeans are leaving Schengen. This undermines the EU. 

‘The EU has lost her ability to unite her members.’

If the power of the EU declines, and each member starts to stand more on its own, doesn’t their influence decline as well? 

Yan Xuetong: It is shrinking inevitably. The enlargement of the EU probably went too fast. The incorporation of Eastern Europe into the EU became more diverse, and so solidarity became more difficult. Maybe they should try to recreate a stronger union with the core states in order to regain the momentum. 

How do you see the future of the international institutions? Will China create new institutions when it is dissatisfied with the current ones?

Yan Xuetong: International institutions exist as long as they do not harm important players. China hopes that the current institutions will improve the way they function. If that does not happen, China will create its own institutions. Just as the US replaced the World Trade Organisation with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership(TTIP). This is a natural process: when an institution loses its functions, new institutions that are more efficient, arise. The older ones become less important. 

Is there no need for a forum where great powers meet each other permanently, such as the Security Council? 

Yan Xuentong: I believe all kinds and varieties of institutions will arise like we see already with APEC, the G20, FOCAC… The institutions an sich are not that important, they are just instruments of the states. It is difficult to make predictions which ones will arise or disappear. 

Is human contact not important to increase mutual understanding? 

Yan Xuetong: Yes, human contact, people to people contact like we seed with the growth of tourism, is indeed very good. But interaction can also enhance the competitiion. Both sides can become more competitive thanks to the contacts. 

Can mutual knowledge reduce the chance of war?  

Yan Xuetong: Not necessarily. In the western world, men and women know each other very well. Still, there are more divorces then in China, where men and women are not that close to each other. I am a realist: social contacts can help reduce tensions and the chance of a war, but only in certain conditions. It is simply not always the case. 

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