China: An Illiberal, Non-Western State in a Western-Centric, Liberal Order?
Baltic Yearbook of International Law, 2015 Forthcoming
19 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2015
Date Written: December 1, 2014
In June 1989, a few months before the events which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) violently repressed a movement for democracy centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These events placed human rights at the centre of international – especially Western – attention to China for the next two decades and in many way cast China as an ‘outlaw’ state. In more recent years, the focus on human rights in China has been eclipsed by the attention for its spectacular rise as an economic and military power. Thanks to these developments and its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is now firmly established as a great power. Yet the fact that China is an illiberal, authoritarian state, still sets it apart from the international mainstream as seen through western eyes.
Studying China’s approach to international law may well be seen as an examination of two entities suffering from an identity crisis, or at least two entities engaged in a continuing struggle to redefine their own identity. International law as an academic discipline often appears to be a continuous re-examination of its own existence. China, or rather the PRC, is itself in the process of redefining its identity. As the world’s most populous country, harbouring one fifth of its population and one of its oldest distinct civilisations, it cannot be presumed to be a monolithic entity. The current Chinese leadership, leading a state which has only existed since 1949 and spent its first three decades in significant turmoil, has to balance many interests and accommodate many views on what it means to be Chinese, to safeguard the legitimacy of the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at home and its position in the ‘international community’, which has led it, as part of its foreign policy, to start promoting a state-sponsored discourse of Chinese culture as part of an effort to increase China’s ‘soft power’. These efforts at developing a new identity need to be seen in the light of 150 years of upheaval and the historical narrative of a ‘century of humiliation’ which are part of the dominant political discourse. These two struggles for identity form the backdrop of the present contribution, which discusses the historical origins of China’s approach to international law and some of its current practice, followed by an assessment whether China’s approach really differs from that of ‘liberal’ states in international law.
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