How China Survived the End of History

In 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, a book arguing that liberal democracy had emerged as the only viable system of government for the world's countries after a seven-decade-long ideological struggle with Communism. The events of that period certainly seemed to support that thesis: 1989 saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the death throes of the Soviet Union, which collapsed entirely two years later. China, the world's other great Communist power, averted overthrow with the brutal crackdown of Tiananmen Square protesters but, in 1992, affirmed its commitment to market reforms during Deng Xiaoping's "Southern tour." It seemed inevitable that, once it reached a certain level of economic prosperity, China would transition into liberal democracy.

Instead, Chinese authoritarianism has only deepened. This outcome, too, once seemed unlikely — even to China's own leaders. According to Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd, formerly Australia's prime minister and a longtime expert on China, Beijing questioned whether it could forge its own path forward in the wake of democratic optimism in the 1990s.

"In the late '90s there was a massive, secret internal debate among the Communist Party, of whether the game was up," Rudd said Wednesday night at Asia Society, where he appeared in conversation with fellow Sinologist Orville Schell. "Are we going to face the end of history, as Fukuyama predicted? Do we need to begin the transition of the Communist Party into a social democratic party, maybe with Singaporean characteristics, rather than submit ourselves to a violent revolution at some stage?"

"China resolved that no, it could create its own history," Rudd continued. "And their own 'end of history' won't be defined by the West."

The past two decades have largely vindicated China's decision. The country has defied predictions of economic collapse and internal rebellion by growing into the world's second-largest economy, one whose military has become capable of prosecuting Beijing's assertive interests in East Asia and beyond. China's ability to dodge the worst of the global financial crisis, avoid being sucked into costly wars abroad, and stave off a Donald Trump-style populist uprising has popularized the notion, both within and outside of China, that the Chinese Communist Party has forged a successful model of governance independent of Western liberalism.

But Rudd isn't ready to concede that China's vision for the "end of history" will prevail.

"There's still a deep impulse toward what we'd broadly define as freedom," he said.

Rudd's new memoir, Not for the Faint Hearted, is now available for purchase. Watch the complete video of his conversation with Orville Schell below:

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.