Democracy: The Soft Belly in China’s Hegemonic Struggle – China Mindset


Today, China is the second-largest economy in the world after the United States. This ranking of the Chinese economy makes it the natural rival of the United States. China is the rival of the US about world hegemony. Because each country wants its values ​​to be adopted by other countries. After economic growth, the race to achieve world hegemony will begin. Nowadays there is an American hegemony in the world. Such as, “American Dream”, “American democracy”, “American Liberalism”. Everyone is familiar with these actions which are the power of the US’s foreign policy. European countries accept all these notions. Because the US’s foundations were based on human rights, freedom, and democracy which are the values of European thought. In the Declaration of Independence written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 25 February 2021). This is a piece of evidence that the US shares the same European values. Today, concepts such as democracy, human rights, and freedom constitute the basic values ​​of world politics. Even though these values do not adapt by hegemonic power or the other countries properly, and sometimes governments use these values to disguise their violation of international law, all the politicians always refer to these values first. When arrived the 20th century the US had improved. The US through its geographical position stayed out of World War I, and they cared about internal affairs. World War II occurred on the European continent and the hegemonic power of the British Empire was badly damaged by this war. The whole of the European continent was destroyed after this war. The empire on which the sun never sets was losing its power. The US took over the hegemonic power from British Empire eventually and World had shaped as a bipolar system. On the one side of the world, the US was against the USSR. The US represented liberalism, human rights, democracy against the Communist bloc. When the USSR was destroyed in 1989, the US had become unrivaled.

According to Immanuel Wallerstein, when the USSR was destroyed, the crisis began for American liberalism. Even though American liberalism won the war against the USSR, now they had no rival, and the US would lose power. The US’s power already began shared by the other countries visibly before the USSR was destroyed. Because there was a transition from a bipolar world system to a multipolar world system. Now there were G7 countries and also G20 countries. In brief, the financial crises of the hegemonic state, the establishment of new decision-making mechanisms in the world financial system, the weakening of the people’s belief in hegemonic power, the increasing economic power of the great powers, and the instability of money indicate a certain weakening for hegemonic power (Wallerstein, 2003, p. 33-36).

China is the first rival of the US on hegemonic power. China is the second-largest economy in the world after the US. Even if China outperforms the US economically, this will not be enough for China to become a hegemonic power. China must have a soft power that all other countries of the world will accept. Even though European Union is getting weaker and older, is still the most effective association in the politic world. Therefore, if China wants to get ahead of the US, China must convince world politics that it will defend democratic values. Thereby China tries to relate with Confucianism and democracy. China claims that Confucianism ideology has democracy the telltale signs. Confucianism is the soft power of China. And China opens “Confucius Institute” in every single country, therefore China shows people its soft power. In this essay, we will research that democracy “民主, Mínzhǔ” notion is related to Confucius whether not. We will explain the Chinese mindset and the collapse of its with the Opium Wars and the Japanese Wars (1894-1895). Besides how Confucianism has affected China’s regime and we will discuss Confucianism’s entity is an acceptable soft power for European countries or it is not. Also, we will give a summary about China’s soft power as the right choice or it is not.

1. Was Confucius Aware of Democracy?

When considered China’s claims to reconcile democracy with Confucianism, if these claims are true, China will find a strong foundation about democracy. Because Confucius lived about 100 years before Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Thus, China’s democracy-tied footprints will be very old.

Confucius real name is Kǒng fūzǐ, 孔夫子. Also, he was known as Kǒng Qiū, 孔丘. Confucius is a title that given to him. Confucius was born in 551 B.C into a structure with small states and no political unity. Confucius lived in Lu, 魯state among these small states and this era is known as the Warring States period战国时代, Zhànguó Shídài. Neither there was no political authority nor political union in this era. Confucius had visited many states to be an advisor, but he never got the attention he expected, and he died without being able to advise any states. But his words and thoughts are written by his followers and these thoughts reached today. After Confucius died, his thoughts were not adopted immediately. When Han Dynasty (漢朝, Hàncháo) with seized power in 2 B.C, Confucius’s thoughts were raised in value, and his thoughts had become China’s official ideology. The reason Confucius’s ideas were adopted is that his ideas could preserve central authority vertically and control people horizontally. Confucius’s ideas have a strengthening effect on a central authority. This is very ordinary situation because, when considering the political situation of China, where Confucius emerged, there was a political division and chaos. No one cannot think that as the people separate from their society and social events. For this reason, Confucius tried to remove this political division and chaos with his ideas. According to him, the solution was passing from “Great Harmony 大同” (dàtóng) and the key of Great Harmony was emperor as well. Thus, sometimes emperor could give people punishments in order to preserve social order. Morality has a very important place in the foundation of his ideas. Confucius was thinking that China people’s morality was fallen into decay. For the Great Harmony idea to become real, the emperor should rule the country with justice and people should be loyal to their emperors. The ruler should behave paternalistically to the people, and people should obey their emperor just as a son obeys his father. Also, people should be honest, and everyone should know their place and where to stand well (Kissinger, 2015, p. 36-38).

Confucius did not emerge as the founder of a religion. Confucius was trying to reorganize the Chinese cultural structure. However, Confucius did not receive as much value in his life as he sees today. He was turned down by the rulers he went to advise on, mocked at his ideas and did not have many followers. When the Qing dynasty (Qīngcháo, 清朝) was destroyed, and Liúbāng, 刘邦 founded the Han dynasty in 202 BC, Confucius’s ideas adopted by the Chinese people and hit the top in Tang Dynasty’s (Táng cháo, 唐朝) era (Wasserstrom, 2010, p. 3-5). The most important reason for Confucius to become an important figure and to adopt his ideas since the Han Dynasty, Confucius had ideas that upheld the central authority and the ruling class. He also had ideas to preserve the social structure as the emperor wanted. The few followers of Confucius wrote his words. Written to guide rulers, this book was called Lúnyǔ, 论语 (Kissinger, 2015, p. 37-38).

Confucius’s biggest purpose was to become a ruler’s advisor, but his wish didn’t become real. Yet he tried to get the attention of rulers. For this reason, he put forward central authority and obedient people that rulers want. For example, Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, as China claims, argues in his book on China that Confucianism includes democracy. Nevertheless, as we explained above, Confucian teachings prioritize central authority, not democracy. Confucius did not need to a democratic regime. Undoubtfully this would be contradicted to his desires. And also, China has recently recognized the concept of democracy (Wasserstrom, 2010, p. 16).

2. Regime of China and Opium Wars (1839-1856)

Before the Westerners came to China, there were Jews, Arabians and Persians coming from Mesopotamia and Central Asia in China. China saw all these as Arabs from the Middle East, in the form of dàshí, 大食 (Dillon, 2016, p. 42). The Chinese banned sea voyages after the famous commander Zhèng Hé, 郑和, and they saw the ocean in the east, as Hegel put it, as an inefficient and unprofitable place and they thought China was a self-sufficient landlocked country. At this point, the Chinese did not have many relations with the sea, which started where the land borders ended. This is an important point when we look at the understanding of the Chinese state. Westerners who came to China were impressed by China’s wealth and they wanted to trade in there. But China saw all these Westerners as “Westerns barbarians, loyalty ambassadors or barbarian merchants”. China saw itself as the central state in the world. Thus, they called Zhōngguó (中国, “central state”) themselves. This is important to understand China’s regime. Because China saw itself as the central place of the world and all of the peoples were barbarian except itself. Westerners’ access to the interior of China was very limited, so they were only allowed to trade in certain seaside areas. Concepts such as free trade and equal sovereignty rights were terms that China was foreign to (Kissinger, 2015, p. 57-61).

 In the 19th century, the prominent state in relations with China was the British. The British desired China’s wealth, to free trade in China, and to open mutual embassies among London with Beijing. Thus, a British diplomat named George Macartney had gone to China in between 1793-1794 years. Macartney had brought along Industry Revolution products for showing China that it’s got behind England and he hoped the Chinese ruler would be affected by this and establish close ties with England. But this wasn’t going to happen. Because Emperor had seen the British as not an equal state’s ambassador, he saw them as a country of tribute and was not affected by what Macartney brought (Kissinger, 2016, p. 238-239).

There were two diplomatic attempts to China by English after Macartney visiting. After these attempts were failed, First Opium War (4 September 1839) and Second Opium War (as known as Arrow War 28 June 1856-18 October 1860) started. Chinese products were at a premium in England but, English products were seen as poor goods by Chinese people, and Chinese people had not shown an interest in them. For this reason, English silver was flowing into China. England had found a way that would block this silver from flowing. The solution was “opium”. Thus, England started to sell opium which the main production site was India. Using opium was very common among Chinese people and, this affected people badly. China administrative bothered by this situation and, Commissioner Lín Zéxú, 林则徐 was assigned to fix this opium problem. Zéxú behaved roughed up to merchants, either they would give all the opium they have or, Zéxú would not raise the blockade on the factories. Zéxú confiscated all the English opium and, this move would be the spark that started to war between China and England (Dillon, 2016, p. 55-62).

After First Opium War, China had to make a deal with Britain (Treaty of Nanjing南京條約, Nánjīng tiáoyuē 1842). This treaty made China semi-colonized and, the terms of the agreement were very harsh. China had to pay war compensation, five harbours would be opened to trading and settlement for the English, Hong Kong was given to Queen. Englishmen also could set up their court and could judge their people as to its laws. Thereafter, to make Nanjing Treaty’s terms clarify, another agreement was announced, it was the Treaty of The Bogue. The privileges are given to the British were given to other foreign states as well (Dillon, 2016, p. 71-75).

The Second Opium War did not relate to opium actually. Upon the search for the ship of a Chinese traveling with the British flag, the British perceived it as an insult to their flag and waited for an apology. After the ship was released and there was no apology, the British encircled Guangzhou, and the city fell in 1857 with the support of the French and American forces in this attack. After the war, Britain, France, the US, and Russia signed treaties with China, respectively, the name of these multiple treaties is Tianjin Treaty 天津條約, Tiānjīn tiáoyuē. Thereafter Chinese Foreign Office (总理衙门, Zǒnglǐ Yámén), was able to impose on the palace that foreigners should be regarded as equal status and superior power in China, not as barbarians paying tribute. Zǒnglǐ Yámén tried to modernize China. Chinese Foreign Office had taken modernization steps, but the traditional advocates of Confucian teachings strongly objected to the institution that Zǒnglǐ Yámén opened for Chinese youth to learn foreign languages. In particular, they did not accept mathematics and astronomy lessons in the curriculum. As can be seen, Confucian ideology defends tradition and has caused China to fall into more difficult situations (Dillon, 2016, p. 117-120).

The most important reason was China lost these two wars was China’s mindset. The first-time meeting with the Chinese, the English were ready to do free trade, both sides could gain. But the Chinese emperor’s behaviors were very offensive against the English. Even the emperor could not realize China was behind the times. The emperor stored the English brought Industrial Revolution products in Royal Palace’s storehouse. He did not interest in them. The emperor believed that China placed the center of the world and the rest of the world was barbarian. This made China blind and could not see the innovations, new politics, and changing world. As we mentioned above, the emperor saw himself as the key to the Great Harmony, based on Confucian teachings and, this gave him great self-confidence. The feeling of invincibility took away the emperor and China thrashing. But even all this could not break China’s mindset. For the demands for democracy to arise, China would lose to Japan.

3. China-Japan Wars (1894-1895), China’s Mindset and Appearing of Democracy

Japan’s ruler was using to “emperor” title and he refused to cooperate with foreigners. At this point, can be seen that Japan’s mindset resembles China’s. Commodore Matthew Perry had brought in the letter that the American president wanted to do free trade with Japan. Japan refused these requests. Thereafter Matthew Perry started to move to give Japan a black eye, his “Black Ships” destroyed all the Japan towers. Japan had understood that they could not win against Perry. By 1868, with the Meiji Restoration in Japan, there would be great economic (establishment of modern industry, the establishment of railway, etc.), military, and cultural changes. Japan would soon become a stronger and more effective state (Kissinger, 2016, p. 203-206). After Perry’s expedition, Russians came to Japan for a trading agreement but Japan refused Russians’ requests. This event affected Japan greatly and, the ban on building large ships lifted and had cannons poured for defense. With the Meiji restoration, a strong Prussian-style army was established, a communication infrastructure provided with the telegraph network in all of Japan, and most importantly, a strong navy established. (Eberhard, 1986, p. 201).

After these, the conflict between China and Japan over Korea has brought the two states against each other. A war happened between China and Japan in 1894. Non-modern China’s navy lost this war against the modern Japanese navy. China had been defeated by the Japanese, whom it regarded as Barbarians. Also, China, which banned sea voyages after Zheng He, behind in maritime. However, Japan has always continued its maritime activities and was far ahead of China in maritime. The most important reason that lost this war was China’s mindset. End of the war, the Treaty of Shimoneseki was signed (1895). Thus, China had to give up all of its rights over the Korean Peninsula (Eberhard, 1987, p. 329-330).

China’s loss against Japan has been a great trauma for China. Because China saw Japan as a smaller state than itself. After this war, it was seen that Japan’s modernization movements succeeded, while China’s modernization movements failed. Thus, Japan emerged as a country that could rival China in the Asian continent. After the collapse of China’s world perception, reform demands would be heard more in China. Names like Kāng Yǒuwéi, 康有为 and Liáng Qǐchāo, 梁启超 did not want the Shimoneseki Treaty to be signed and demanded that the war against Japan continue. Because what all of China agreed on was that it was a great shame for China to lose against Japan. Therefore, they called the Emperor for reform. However, after the reform attempts failed again, thinkers like Kāng Yǒuwéi and Liáng Qǐchāo fled to Japan. China recognized the concept of democracy after the defeat of Japan, and thinkers such as Sūn Zhōngshān, 孙中山, Kāng Yǒuwéi and Liáng Qǐchāo were very important in bringing the concept of democracy to China (Dillon, 2016, p. 130-133).


China challenges the US as the world’s second-largest economic power. Thus, both states impose economic sanctions on each other under trade wars constantly. China is also challenging the US cultural hegemony. Because it will not be enough to leave the USA behind economically, the country that will be the hegemonic power must also protect the humanitarian values ​​accepted in today’s world politics. One of these values ​​is democracy. Today, a concept called “American freedom” is accepted in world politics, even if its accuracy is debated. This is America’s most important soft power. China also presents Confucius as a soft power in world politics to show that China has these values. Based on the discourse that Confucius’ teachings involve the concept of democracy, China puts forward a concept called “Chinese Democracy” and uses eastern mysticism to justify its claims.

To show world politics that China is a country that can defend democracy, the value China had chosen to show is the Confucian doctrine. However, as a result of our research, no concrete concept of democracy was encountered in Confucian doctrine. It would be a mistake to derive a citizenship consciousness based on democracy from the Confucian doctrine. Because the central authority is at the forefront of Confucian teaching. One of Confucius’ greatest desires in his life was to be a consultant to a ruler, but he could not make real this while he was alive. When Confucius times, China had in political chaos. As well there was a political dividedness as, according to Confucius, there was a social chaos in China. Because each ruler was aiming to consolidate his/her own power, they needed teachings that consolidate the central power. Confucius believed that the problems of Chinese society would be solved with ideas that put central authority first.

In the teachings of Confucius, the ruler was of central importance. At the same time, the ruler was a key of “Great Harmony”. The people were supposed to pay allegiance to the ruler, and the ruler was expected to treat his people as a father would treat his son. It is not possible to speak of a concrete defense of democracy in the teachings of Confucius. Hence, Confucianism, which China has chosen to ground democratic values, contradicts democracy. Because Confucianism, which has content that protects and consolidates the central authority, will conflict with the pluralist understanding of democracy in Europe. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Confucian doctrine has been the official ideology of China for many years and the intertwining of China’s world understanding caused China to be unable to understand the changing world politics in the 19th century and to blunt the perception of reality. China saw itself as the country in the center of the world, and all the other countries around it were barbarian states to pay tribute to it. This world imagination caused China to ignore the fact that when Western states came to China, it lagged behind the West. Thus, China lost both wars with the British and became a semi-colony. Later, the Chinese mindset from the past did not change in the 19th century and caused the wars with Japan to be lost. Because China banned maritime activities after the sea voyages of its famous admiral Zhèng Hé, 郑和 in the 14th century. China which deprived of maritime progress until the 19th century, lost before the British with old-fashioned weapons, as well as fought with non-modern navies in the naval war against Japan and lost. The world imagination was destroyed when China lost the war against Japan. Demands for democracy started to be heard more in China after this war. The word democracy is also a concept that came to China from the outside. The concept of democracy is a concept that Chinese students sent abroad in modernization movements learned from Japan. As a result, it would be wrong to seek the concept of democracy in Chinese history and try to find it by force. Because China has met with democracy very recently.

Enver Alper Demirci




Wasserstrom, J. N. (2010), China In The 21st Century. London: Oxford University Press.

Wallerstein, I. (2003), After Liberalism, Erol Öz (Trans.), İstanbul: Metis Press.

Eberhard, W. (1987), China History. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Press.

Eberhard, W. (1986), Far East History from the Ancient Times to Our Time. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Press.

Declaration of Independence. (Date Accessed: 25.02.2021).

Kissinger, H. (2016), World Order. Sinem Sultan Gül (Trans.), İstanbul: Boyner Press.

Dillon, M. (2016), China. A Modern History. Eylem Ümit Atılgan, Aydın Atılgan (Trans.), İstanbul: İletişim Press.

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