The Niall Ferguson model: why is China imitating Western imperialism?

By Gwenaël Velge

June 10, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In his recent article in The Spectator, “The China model: why is the West imitating Beijing?”, prominent historian Niall Ferguson opens his argument by noting that “Americans have long been haunted by the osmosis of war” — the idea that enemies may in fact converge and resemble each other — but concludes that there was never any reason to worry because, “needless to say, all this turned out to be very wrong indeed”. But perhaps he would do well not to dismiss such phenomenon too quickly and pay more attention to his own openly imperialist enmity and intellectual osmosis with regards to the authoritarian imperialist traits of Chinese policy.

Ferguson’s central argument is that “as the Second Cold War gathers momentum”, we should expect US leaders to do “their utmost to distinguish their system — based on the free market, free speech, the rule of law, universal suffrage and the separation of powers — from that of the People’s Republic of China — based on the Communist party’s unlimited and unchallengeable power over every aspect of life […] Yet when it comes to walking the walk, this administration at times seems to be following in China’s footsteps.”

The problem however, is that apart from his Western imperialist drum-beating, this is little more than a simplistic moralist argument dressed up as analysis, which seemingly prevents him from seeing his own authoritarian and imperialist tendencies.

So what does imitating China mean, according to Ferguson?

Well, first, US President Joe Biden proposed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a similar initiative to the One Belt One Road, by which he meant “helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help”. This sounds a lot like what the US has traditionally understood as “soft power”. Although a large chunk of critics (on the left) point to the fact that the US’ ability for soft power ultimately relies on military might, it remains that a crucial characteristic of US foreign policy post-World War II and during the (First) Cold War has been their massive lending and investments – and not solely its military presence – in Western Europe and countries like South Korea, Japan, etc. This emphasis on “helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help” is, according to Ferguson, telling of the US’ Chinese drift. One can only conclude that Ferguson thinks hard military power, would presumably better differentiate the liberal US from authoritarian China. There is little doubt that tanks and fighter jets, not financial help and collaboration, best convey the US’ commitment to “free market, free speech, the rule of law, universal suffrage and the separation of powers”.

Second, Biden’s domestic spending program is, apparently, “also somewhat Chinese in conception as well as in scale”. This is confirmed by the fact that each new program has the word ‘plan’ in it (the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan). If we are going to pay attention to the name of these programs, we might also want to point out that all these programs also have the term “American” in them… No traces of the word “Chinese” in sight. Surprisingly, Ferguson makes no mention of COVID, no mention of the Global Financial Crisis, growing inequalities, record low interests rates, and an economy overall grinding to a halt. No, all these ‘plans’ are better understood as a willingness to copy China than as a willingness to tackle the genuine challenges the US faces today.

To round things up, US Republicans are apparently no better than Biden, according to Ferguson, given that they have “inadvertently legitimised both universal basic income and Modern Monetary Theory with the emergency measures they passed last year”. If this public spending spans across the gaping cultural and political divide, would it not be more tempting and coherent to think that these decision makers were led to such spending because they saw it as a necessity, rather than being telling of their anguish to desperately resemble China?

Third, Ferguson writes, “let us not forget those who urge the Federal Reserve to hurry up and devise its own version of China’s central bank digital currency, seemingly unaware that the primary goals of the e-yuan are to tighten the [Chinese Communist Party]’s surveillance of financial transactions and to reduce the power of the electronic payment platforms built by the Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent.” The US, European Union and most countries around the world are designing their own digital currencies. According to Ferguson, this has nothing to do with the fact that we live increasingly in a digital age in which domestic and international politics are, in large part, reliant on controlling digital flows of information and capital. No, we are told that if the West is designing its own digital currencies, it is not to compete with the rising force of China, it is apparently to imitate it.

As Ferguson states himself: “It is one thing to compete with China. I firmly believe we need to do that in every domain, from artificial intelligence to COVID vaccines. But the minute we start copying China, we are on the path to perdition.” After these few examples, one truly wonders how he differentiates the two? Isn’t creating US digital currency competing with China’s version of it? Isn’t applying soft power globally competing with China? Isn’t implementing programs and policies to pull the country out of an unprecedented depression competing with China? What substantive argument is there to help us tell the difference between competing and imitating China in the Ferguson’s article? None. Instead we are left to rely on his arbitrary take: soft power is Chinese, state planning is Chinese, digital currencies are Chinese and that is that, despite the fact that each of those statements is demonstrably false and dependent on context.

Lockdowns are Chinese too, we are told. To be fair, Ferguson does argue that “the West” should have copied (not competed with nor absorbed via osmosis) ideas from Taiwan, who “combined large-scale testing, contact-tracing and isolating of the infected to contain the spread of the virus.” But once more, Ferguson does not look at the arguments for and against these strategies (e.g. size of countries, time frames, statistics, etc.); the only lens used here is a one-sided morally reductive geopolitical lens. Reductive because this moral a priori dismissal prevents thinking through arguments and strategies on their own terms. Yet even if we were to locate the debate of the pandemic solely on the geopolitical level, which is obviously ill-considered, most strategists would still advise paying careful attention to one’s opponent’s tactics rather than dismiss them as immoral or irrational. In replacing analytical thought with moral dismissal, Ferguson prevents the thinking through of arguments and instead accepts or dismisses them a priori on the basis of their supposedly ‘Chinese’ quality.

Replacing arguments for moral judgement leads to arbitrariness in practice – something made obvious by the examples Ferguson provides to support his argument. Who can predict whether soft power, an FDR-styled domestic stimulus or the idea of a national digital currency is Chinese in essence? If we cannot decide what is and what isn’t Chinese on strictly rational grounds, if it is subject to arbitrary judgement, then “those in the know” must tell us what the current consensus is. This type of arbitrary and moral transmission from the top is telling of authoritarian thought: there is no other way to know than by being told by “the leader(s)” – dissent and critique are then necessarily framed as treason.

Ferguson follows this up: “There are reasonable arguments to be made in favour of vaccination certificates, as well as historical precedents for such documents. But there is an obvious risk that such certificates could turn into digital national identity cards — a system that China began to use in 2018.” Once again, there are apparently reasonable arguments out there, but they shall not be examined, for we know the answer in advance – liberal thought at its best.

Consequently, additionally from authoritarian arbitrariness, this type of argumentation, which defines a good policy from a bad policy on the basis of its association with a certain people rather than on its own terms, becomes a racist argument de facto. Arguing against soft power, state planning or digital currencies on their own terms (i.e. assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these) is a rational type of argument; arguing against these same things because they are deemed “too Chinese” is another type of argument – a racist argument. If Ferguson wishes to argue against authoritarianism, which is most likely what he would claim to be doing under the charge of racism laid here, then he should do so, instead of making weak and arbitrary associations with no substantive weight, whose sole function is presumably to rally the troops against a perceived threat via rhetorical artifice.

Paradoxically, despite the US being on its way to perdition due to its unbearable imitation of China, Ferguson’s second central point is that the two powers are nonetheless engaged in a Second Cold War (presumably defined in terms of competition not imitation?). The short introduction to this argument compares the current pandemic to Chernobyl, thereby rhetorically laying the dual responsibility of this Second Cold War, and of the pandemic, strictly on China rather than, for example, the inherent geopolitical struggle between global super powers and a natural catastrophe. Responsibility for both the pandemic and the Second Cold War may indeed be debated, but they should nonetheless be assessed rather than assumed or dismissed based on Western imperialist assumptions.

Apparently agreeing that there are growing tensions between the two super powers is to agree that China is bad and at fault, and US imperialism has nothing to do with it. Proof of this, we are told, is that when Ferguson “began talking publicly about the Second Cold War at conferences, I was surprised that no Chinese delegates contradicted me”. Would US delegates contradict him? Or anyone else for that matter? Everyone knows there are severe tensions between the two powers; it is in the news all the time.

Ferguson then moves on to point out that Jiang Shi-gong, a Chinese professor, spelled out that “the history of humanity is surely the history for imperial hegemony”, but also that the “Anglo-American empire is ‘unravelling’ internally, because of ‘three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy… ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism’.” Interestingly however, it is not hard to find Western academics defending the exact same theses. The reason for this is not, as Ferguson seems to want us to believe, their fondness or cultural affinity for Chinese authoritarianism, but simply because this is (arguably) analytically true. In fact, we need to look no further than Ferguson himself to find a Western academic defending both of these theses.

His book Civilization: The West and the Rest, which could equally be re-titled The West Against the Rest (Ferguson even talks of Westerners and Resterners), attempts to explain how, beginning around 1500, the West came to dominate the rest of the world. In his books Empire and Colossus, he concludes that Britain should be proud of its colonial past, and that the world would likely be a better place if the US followed Britain’s footsteps and became a fully fledged liberal empire. So imperial hegemony: yes please, but only of the Western kind.

As for the second thesis – the unravelling of the Anglo-American empire – is that not exactly what Ferguson is concerned with in this article? Even in the specifics of Shi-gong’s thesis, Ferguson seemingly agrees. Regarding “the ever-increasing inequality create by the liberal economy” Ferguson states in a Guardian interview, which echoes his unilateral thoughts on imperialism: “Something that's seldom appreciated about me," he declares, "is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I'm on the side of the bourgeoisie." This statement alone makes Ferguson’s position on imperialism and economic inequality rather clear: both are good, as long as his class and ethnic group are the ones in power; self-determination of the working class or the colonised is detrimental. What does liberalism – let alone liberal imperialism – even mean if the struggle for power is accepted but the possibility of self-determination is excluded? As for the ineffective governance and cultural decadence of the West in the face of a genuinely threatening China, is that not exactly what Ferguson is arguing is happening in this article?

Now of course, the major difference is that Jiang Shi-gong, the Chinese scholar, is Chinese, whereas Ferguson is not. Therefore, in genuine classical liberal fashion, we are apparently supposed to read through these exact same theses differently, arbitrarily: what matters is not the argument, what matters primarily is who says it. The other difference is that, like other conservatives, but unlike Karl Marx, and unlike the Chinese professor, Ferguson presumably explains the decline of the West not by the inherent contradictions and limitations of liberalism, but by external forces, such as China and Russia, as well as by internal treasonous forces, such as the ideologically corrupted “elite universities, to newspapers, publishers and technology companies” (all those institutions historically standing for authoritarianism…).

The main point of contention here is not that I do not believe China is indeed aiming to be the next global empire, that just seems like the conspicuous historical development we find ourselves in. The point is that the only ethically and analytically tenable position is the anti-imperialist position, not Ferguson’s racist Western imperialism.

This is made clear by the fact that Ferguson does not provide an analytical argument but a moral one; he does not explain why China is rising, he merely argues (states?) that the rise of China is illegitimate and immoral. That is all well and good, but history and geopolitics do not care about his feelings and sense of Western entitlement.

Here is a much more rational explanation for the US’ recent actions than the “moral corruption by China” and the “wokeism” offered by Ferguson: the US is facing a political, economic and cultural crisis that it is trying to tackle the best it can in order to best serve US ruling class interests. Biden wants to resume soft power politics, implement massive domestic stimulus, rebuild infrastructure, protect the population against an epidemic and create a national digital currency because he believes it will serve the US’ interests. If any of the ideas he implements resemble Chinese programs, it is simply because they seem to work, not because they are Chinese.

On the other hand, China is doing what it is doing because it is pursuing its own self-interest. Is this not precisely the classic liberal ethos of self-interest and competition at the global geopolitical level – aka imperialism? Isn’t that exactly what Ferguson was cheering on a few books ago, when he could still assume absolute Western hegemony?

When analysing the rise of Western imperialism in his books he takes the position of the ‘cold materialist’ unencumbered by the burden of ethics, defending the greater good – judged by western imperialist standards of course. For example, he says: “I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for North America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in North America."

Brief side note: this is not an argument made by the left of the Marxist tradition. According to Marxists, communism may only arise from capitalism and, second, communism has internationalist not parochial aspirations; it is founded on solidarity, equal political and economic rights, all of which contrasts with the Western Imperialism Ferguson advocates for.

But the main point is that when he analyses the rise of Chinese imperialism and the decline of the West, as opposed to Western imperialism, the analysis conspicuously drops the careful material analysis and replaces it for a blatantly moralistic, and, as I have argued above, racist commentary. We do not get to learn why things are unfolding the way they are, we merely get to know that Ferguson doesn’t like it. For example, his “killer apps” that he claims led to the rise of the Western imperialism (competition, science, property, modern science, consumption and work ethic) can all quite easily be used today to explain China’s ascension. There is simply no analytical consistency.

Consequently, while we are told in his article to dismiss everything and anything Chinese (from government plans, to digital currencies, to lockdowns) and to undermine the legitimacy of our own liberal institutions such as universities, the free press and medical experts under the pretext that the “plague of ‘wokeism’” has turned them into “low-level totalitarian institutions”, Ferguson nonetheless demonstrates the moral illegitimacy of China by underlining their recent policy for schools to replace books that ‘‘obsequiously embrace all things foreign” for more Chinese material. Is he not seeing the osmosis at play?

Ferguson aptly notes that as “it turns out you don’t need a Communist party in charge to have censorship of the internet: just leave it to the big tech companies, which now have the power to cancel the President of the United States if they so choose”. If he had stuck to Marx a little longer, he would have known that the inherent contradictions of liberalism and the very logic of capital accumulation tends to concentrate power in ever smaller number of private hands with no democratic accountability.

I would have liked to comment on the “plague of ‘wokeism’”, which apparently, by some straining mental gymnastics, is also implicitly Chinese in essence (as with soft power and digital currencies of course), but I genuinely don’t understand how Ferguson gets there, and he doesn’t make much effort to explain, instead it seems we are expected to agree in advance and nod along.

We could argue however that the ‘wokeism’ conservatives like Ferguson rail about is very close to the kind of bottom up self-determination spirit that lead to the modern (Western) concept of democratic nations, in reaction to the conservative feudal aristocracy that held on to obsolete social forms of power and order. There is little doubt that the challenge of the ancient régime we are currently witnessing, under the form of domestic ‘wokeism’ as well as the major global geopolitical shift playing out, will be messy – the old is crumbling and no one knows what is to come – but one would think and expect that a prominent historian like Ferguson would provide us with the analytical tools to make better sense of it. Instead we are served up low-level moral punditry.

In an act of incredible moral simplification, Ferguson states elsewhere, "the moral simplification urge is an extraordinarily powerful one, especially in this country, where imperial guilt can lead to self-flagellation". He continues: “did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all". If the Chinese become the new world hegemon – which they might – there is little doubt that when they ask if the West benefited from Chinese rule (and judge it by Chinese standards), they, like Ferguson, will answer by the affirmative.

I just hope Xi doesn’t read too much of Ferguson’s imperial apology books, it would no doubt help fuel China’s imperial aspirations rather than discredit them – a sign of imperial cultural osmosis perhaps