The August 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan elicited strong feelings of schadenfreude in China, along with apprehension about any spillover effects that might harm its interests.
On August 16, Chinese political scientist Zheng Yongnian, a Princeton-educated professor of political science and director of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China at the University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen, published an article echoing many of the reactions in official statements and media to the Afghanistan events. Most notably, Zheng's article stresses the notion that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates the failure of Western democracy.
Zheng acknowledges the success of the Western democratic model in its birthplace, where, he explains, it is a natural evolutionary process, but contends that the Western experiment of imposing this model on the rest of the world has failed throughout modern history. He added: "The epitaphs of the Americans who died fighting to 'spread democracy' are similar to the [those of] the Crusaders who died in the Middle Ages to spread the gospel. Underlying Fukuyama's fame in the West following the publication of [his book] The End of History is the religious zeal with which they are attached to democracy."
The following are excerpts from Professor Zheng Yongnian's article, which was posted August 16, 2021 on the essay-sharing platform Aisixiang:
Professor Zheng Yongnian (Source: Asia Society)
'Afghanistan Is The Latest Saigon-Style Tragedy For America, But It Will Not Be The Last'
"The 'Afghanistan episode' of America has finally come to a close. On August 14, President Joe Biden said: 'Over our country's 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in U.S. history. One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.'
"While it is open to debate whether Afghanistan has 'fallen' or 'been liberated,' depending on one's political viewpoint, morality, or humanity, one thing is certain. The American 'democratic experiment,' which cost a trillion dollars and the lives of 2,500 soldiers and lasted 20 years, ended in a 'tragedy' (the fact that so many lives were lost and that more sacrifices will inevitably follow in the future is a tragedy in every sense of the word).
"People couldn't help but recall the tragedy of Saigon as they watched a U.S. military helicopter land on the roof of the Embassy in Afghanistan to extract the besieged citizens. Afghanistan is the latest Saigon-style tragedy for America, but it will not be the last.
"As the tragedy unfolded, analysts made frenzied attempts to figure out what caused it. Some tried to blame it on the U.S., while others blamed it on internal Afghan factors. Just as they did for Saigon, people are looking for any kind of information that could explain this tragedy. However, such discussions make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the perpetrators [of this tragedy, i.e. the U.S.] will continue to cause harm, the victims will continue to suffer, and tragedy will repeat itself."
The perpetrators (of this tragedy, i.e. the U.S.) will continue to cause harm, the victims will continue to suffer, and TRAGEDY will repeat itself.
"On August 12, the Washington Post published an editorial titled 'Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of the Democratic Party's legacy [sic; the title was 'Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of Biden's legacy']. This statement ignores the simple truth that the Afghan tragedy has dealt yet another blow to the failed Western democratic experiment of our generation.
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"Western-style democracy emerged in the West and then spread in different ways around the world, in what Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington refers to as the 'three waves of democratization.' While democracy has recently enjoyed great success in the Western cultural sphere (i.e. in Europe and North America), it has rarely succeeded outside of it.
"As more countries attempted to implement Western-style democracy after WWII, so have the tragedies multiplied and intensified. Huntington himself was a realist. He noted in his book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century that Western democracy is a product of Western culture, rather than a 'one-size-fits-all' solution.
"But this was not the case for Huntington's student Francis Fukuyama. In the early 1990s, Fukuyama declared the 'end of history,' arguing that Western democracy was both the best and the last system of government in human history. Fukuyama was, without a doubt, incorrect, while his teacher was correct.
"Empirical evidence suggests that the emergence and development of democracy falls into two broad categories: the first is natural evolution and progression, and the second is more akin to a 'big bang,' namely an artificially imposed process. The former occurred in Western cultural circles, whereas the latter took place in non-Western cultural circles; the former was realistic, whereas the latter was utopian.
"The utopian tendencies of democracy arose in the wake of the Western Enlightenment. Democracy began in Western Europe, the center of European culture, and gradually spread to the surrounding areas, which were heavily influenced by Western culture. However, the early success of democracy led to the rise of democratic utopianism, the belief that Western-style democracy was universal and should be practiced by all countries worldwide. Since World War II, they have come to regard democracy as a natural and inalienable human right that all humans possess.
"The Western construct of this 'democratic utopia' disregards the fact that democracy was the result of a natural evolution in Western cultural spheres. Despite the realist disposition of natural evolution, utopians tend to overestimate the subjective human capacity for forming political systems."
'Western-style Democracy Has Failed To Take Root In Developing Countries, Becoming The Underlying Cause Of Their Systemic Backwardness'
"Once it becomes overly moralized, democracy devolves into a secular religion. The logic behind Western countries' modern-day export of democracy is identical to that of medieval missionary preachers; this logic holds true for the 'war for democracy' in Afghanistan, which was like a medieval crusade 'in God's name.' The epitaphs of the Americans who died fighting to 'spread democracy' are similar to [those of] the Crusaders who died in the Middle Ages to spread the gospel. Underlying Fukuyama's fame in the West following the publication of The End of History is the religious zeal with which they are attached to democracy.
"After celebrating a history of 'utopian' ideologies such as socialism, communism, and planned economies, the West is now influenced by profound 'dystopian' ideological and social forces. Despite their status as gripping dystopian classics, philosopher Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies and economist Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom are now worshiped by the West like the Bible.
"Throughout the 20th century, Western countries spared no effort to promote the anti-socialist and anti-communist 'utopia.' Empirical evidence suggests that they were largely successful. Many countries, including China and Russia, abandoned their utopian planned economies in favor of paths that were more compatible with their civilizations, cultures, and national circumstances.
"However, some smaller countries have not been so fortunate, with Afghanistan being a case in point. Whereas large countries were loath to be assimilated into the West and had the power to resist its efforts to democratize them, small and powerless countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan resisted, but to no avail, becoming test subjects for the American democratic utopia.
"The Western movement toward a democratic utopia places far too much faith in human initiative and the 'transmissibility' or 'transplantability' of man-made systems. Because the West regards democracy as a universal religion, it has never developed the ability to contemplate its own nature as a polity. As democracy spread from Western to non-Western societies, its success has been greatly exaggerated. The first wave of Western democracy spread via colonial and imperial means – yet, although many countries in the post-colonial era inherited Western forms of democracy, how many can be considered successful?
"Currently, many developing countries have a Western-style democracy in name but not in practice. Western-style democracy has failed to take root in developing countries, becoming the underlying cause of their systemic backwardness. Although many Western scholars blame the failure of many Third World countries on a 'lack of democracy,' they forget that their own democracies are a result of natural evolution, while refusing to face the fact that Western-style democracy has left these countries without an effective system of governance and a failing state of development."
'How Many Lives Were Lost Because The West Could Not Guarantee The Safety Of Those Who Had Democracy Imposed Upon Them?'
"There have only been two successful cases of democracy under U.S. occupation since World War II – Germany and Japan. However, the success of these two cases should not be overstated because they are not replicable. Even had there had been no American occupation, both countries would have evolved into the democracies we see today. Germany had already integrated with the Western culture's inner circle, whereas democracy in Japan began with the development of capitalism following the Meiji Restoration.
"More importantly, for a long time, the West considered Japan to be nothing but a faux Western democracy. The reason behind it was simple: Japan's democracy is tailored to Japanese culture rather than to the Western definition of a multiparty system and power transition.
"Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America became the sole hegemonic power. Simultaneously, it has accelerated the process of exporting democracy to the rest of the world. The new theory, which holds 'human rights above sovereignty,' provided the rationale and legitimacy for this process. Nonetheless, history has taught us that an imposed American-style democracy comes quickly and goes quickly. The changes that have taken place in Afghanistan over the years are a prime example.
"Democracy emerged as a natural organizing social system in Western European societies in response to objective conditions on the ground. It was the West's democratic utopians who tried to popularize and moralize it, resorting to any means, including force, in order for it to reach every corner of the globe. It's possible that Westerners genuinely believe that democracy is an inalienable human right, but how many lives were sacrificed in the process? How many lives were lost because the West was unable to guarantee the safety of those who had democracy imposed upon them?
"Having said that, while one could argue that Afghanistan is the final resting place of Western-style democracy, neither of the tragedies of Saigon and Kabul should be reduced to a funeral for democracy as a whole. Democracy is consistent with human nature, because no one wants to be deprived of their freedom, and no one would willingly choose to be a slave. Neither is democracy unique to the Western world. Almost all societies in antiquity developed some form of primitive democracy.
"The establishment of any type of regime involves both a 'hard' and a 'soft' process (i.e. a centralized or authoritarian phase versus liberalization or democratization phase). Even Muslim civilizations in the Middle East were not always as radical as they are today, and there were times when they displayed 'soft' characteristics. Only when the people there (regardless of their affiliation with a specific civilization or religion) felt threatened by external extremists did they resort to extremist forms of religion in order to preserve their civilization.
"In this sense, a pluralistic world in which different political systems coexist is the true reality of the world."