Map #25: Has China Got It All Figured Out?

Chris Kutarna
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The Dictator Who Dethroned Democracy?

These days, the commentariat is talking a lot about China and what China’s rising confidence means for the world—and for the democratic world in particular. In almost all these conversations, at some point someone will mention Francis Fukuyama and his 1992 book, The End of History. Published in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa and waves of democratization across Latin America, it was a triumphant cry of victory. Democracy had won. Democracy had answered, definitively, the ages-old question that had driven human history for millennia, namely: What ideas should govern society?

Now that democracy had proven itself victorious, it was inevitable, everywhere—including in China. The 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square, which saw thousands of students gathered around a paper maché Goddess of Democracy, seemed to validate that view. It made the democratic world’s subsequent policy toward China seem wise: invite them into the WTO, give them concessions to open up their economy on their own terms…because once the liberal democratic order had tangled China’s economy in capitalism’s global web, Chinese society would inevitably follow suit.

That hasn’t happened. Just the opposite. The communications technology that was meant to give new voice to the people also gave new surveillance powers to the state. The riches of global market access gave the Party shiny new carrots with which to lure the loyalty of entrepreneurs, of the military, of foreign governments and businesses, to serve the Party’s own interests. And last week, China’s rubber-stamp parliament amended the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits. That paved the way for Xi Jinping to remain president for life, and put the final nail in the coffin for any dreams of a more democratic China—at least in his lifetime.

Trading One Simple Story For Another

Our failure to see this day coming is a reflection of our own limited vision, when it comes to understanding China. My guess is that we glimpsed something familiar in those students massed in Tiananmen Square. And from that brief, familiar glimpse, we fashioned for ourselves a simple lens through which to see everything else: the people want democracy, and only the Party keeps them from having it. It seems the only thing that the average citizen in the liberal democratic world knew about China through the 1990s were the facts that fit that lens: the plight of the Tibetan people; the coercive measures taken to enforce the one-child policy; the crackdown on Falun Gong.

No wonder we missed out on most of the real political changes taking place in Chinese society over the past quarter-century.

Now, we’re repeating the same mistake of oversimplification—in reverse. The people no longer want democracy, because the Party has proven that a strong central authority works better.

The Party certainly can weave a persuasive story. (To hear the Party’s leaders tell it) While China has been steadily eradicating poverty and modernizing its health and education systems, its industries, military and cities, the liberal democratic world: wasted $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives on an Iraq War that only made an unstable region worse; engineered a global financial crisis that destroyed whole economies and burdened half of Europe with crushing debts; and elected Donald Trump. ‘If the United States, the world’s strongest democracy, can elect someone as ill-suited to high office as Trump, why wouldn’t such an outcome be even more likely in China, where popular education in civic values is much weaker?’ Since 2016, this question has been asked millions of times in millions of ways across the Chinese mediascape.

And it seems a fair question. Isn’t the order, stability and competence of the Communist Party’s leadership objectively better than what the democratic world has managed to deliver of late? And if a strong authority does actually produce better outcomes, more reliably, than the messy and unpredictable political process called democracy, well…we start to wonder: how deep does our commitment to democracy go, really? A recent Pew Research survey found that one-quarter of Americans with a high school education or less think that rule by the military would be good for the country. At the other end of the social spectrum, I’ve personally been in rooms where senior academic and business leaders from Europe and North America speak gushingly about the political leadership now being supplied by the Communist Party to its people.

History, Fukuyama might say, is back.

Getting History Right

If history is back—if the 21st century is going to see a renewed global contest over which set of governing ideas is the right set—then let’s resolve to be less simplistic, less Cold War-ideological and more curious in our search this time around.

For starters, I’d like to point out to all the senior executives and analysts out there who gush glowingly about the Communist Party’s leadership: your good opinion of the Party’s management only demonstrates how successful it has been at burying the memory of its failures.

The mainstream portrayal of China today—both inside and outside the country—is a show of confidence: a consumer class confidently consuming global goods, or sending children to study and live abroad; a business class confidently claiming the giant Chinese market as their own, crowding out foreigners and gobbling up the best assets abroad; a political class confidently claiming center stage in world affairs. That confidence is a veneer that hides many deep flaws.

Let’s take a moment and recall some of them. And before we do, let me be clear: I’m not China-bashing. (I did my PhD in Chinese politics because I find its politics fascinating.) I’m not trying to say democracy is perfect, either. I’m trying to add nuance to a simplistic narrative before it spreads too far—a narrative that says, ‘Look at how much better that system works!’—so that we can raise the quality of maybe the most important conversation humanity will have this century.

Selective Memory

China’s present political system achieves enviable top-down results. Here’s how. All the strongest incentives—social, monetary, power—focus everyone in business, government and society on winning the approval of the Party official immediately above them. These incentives help to align the private and public actions of a whole country behind the single mind at the center. In this way, the Party has successfully driven nation-wide campaigns since the founding of the People’s Republic: in the Great Leap Forward, to take farming and industrial choices out of local hands and give them to central planners; in the Cultural Revolution, to shift social values from feudal to Communist; in the 1990s, to shift responsibility for people’s education, jobs and housing from state to markets; during the global financial crisis, to get local governments and banks to spend and lend money to prop up the economy; nowadays, to shift popular ambitions and business investment from ‘global catch-up’ to ‘global leadership’.

Do you play chess? In chess, a basic philosophy is that every move has tradeoffs. If I move my Queen to attack those squares, then it can no longer attack these squares. Politics is the same. The obvious tradeoff for the singlemindedness of China’s political system is that contrary views and evidence get ignored (or suppressed).

Given the sheer scale of the Party’s singlemindedness, the contrary consequences have often been catastrophic. The stories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are the best-known (outside the country at least). During the former, perhaps thirty million citizens died from starvation, as central edicts to plant seeds more tightly together exhausted fields and caused whole crops to fail. During the latter, a whole generation skipped out on an education because Mao’s Little Red Book contained all the wisdom they’d ever need.

But there are many other, similar stories—and new ones are being written all the time. They all tell the same tale: what the Party measures, gets done. Everything else can be ignored.

Many of these stories are ecological. A campaign under Mao to bring the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia under cultivation turned the grasses to mud, then sand. Grain production didn’t grow, but the Gobi Desert did—and began to plague Beijing with annual sandstorms. A campaign to turn the southern rainforests into productive rubber plantations sent Asian tigers, elephants, monkeys and peacocks straight to the endangered species list (and, because rubber trees drink far more water, dried up whole basins and altered the water cycle of the entire region).

Many stories are social. We’ve all heard of China’s one-child policy. I won’t rehash that complicated history here. Less told is China’s policy toward minority populations. Mao promised them autonomy in exchange for helping his Communists win China’s civil war in the 1940s. But that proved unworkable once the Communists were in power: distinct minority groups numbered in the hundreds, maybe thousands, all over the country. Plus, autonomy was always going to be incompatible with national unity under one Party. So, in a breathless feat of social engineering, the Party defined 56 ‘official’ ethnic groups, assigned each one a language, costume and dance, and trots them out for any public event that calls for multicultural tokenism (e.g., Olympic opening ceremonies. Watch for it when the 2020 Winter Games come to Beijing). Meanwhile, bids for genuine autonomy—in Tibet, in Xinjiang, in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere—were suppressed via military occupation.

Other stories of singleminded catastrophe don’t fit neatly into any bucket, because they span so many categories of wrong. As part of its nuclear weapons program, China exploded 46 nuclear bombs in Xinjiang Province (inhabited mostly by Uygurs, one of the recognized ethnic minorities). Those tests, carried out from 1964 to 1996, caused, by one academic estimate, at least 200,000 civilian deaths and 1.2 million cancer cases. (Such research is banned in China, so had to be conducted from the neighboring country of Kazakhstan, which also suffered from the fallout.)

Another common theme of these singleminded failures is short-sightedness. In the 2000s, responding to central policy directives to expand access to education AND cut the peasants’ tax burden, local officials across the country squared that circle by building schools as quickly and cheaply as possible. In 2008, when an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan Province, most of the buildings that collapsed and killed their occupants were, of course, schoolhouses.

Our 21st-Century Search For ‘Better’

Add up all these stories (and all the others that were buried before anyone knew about them), and it’s not at all clear that China’s Communist Party has found a better model of governance. Faster? Yes. Better? That depends what price you’re willing to pay for the speed you gain.

Ah, but the Party has corrected its errors, some say. To which I reply: it still seems a very expensive way to discover good policy.

Clearly, China’s political model is not ‘the end of history’, either.

More likely, the end of history is nowhere in sight, not with so many big changes on the horizon—changes to which our political systems will need to respond: ecological crises, the automation of work, the ability to create and spread fake news, audio and video content that no citizen can distinguish from the real thing.

Nobody’s got it all figured out. And if we can accept that the search for the best ideas to live by is unfinished, then maybe we should see the different models that govern China and America today, not only as a contest, but also as experiments—each of which generates important insights for the future. The China model demonstrates the power (and price) of unity; the liberal democratic model shows the power (and price) of diversity. The China model demonstrates the possibility of rapid, revolutionary change. The liberal democratic model shows that good policy is often slow policy. These are all good lessons.

Stepping back from both models, the most important lesson of the past twenty-five years is that we should keep up the search for good lessons, rather than engage in the conceit of claiming premature victory.

Sure, we can see Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency as evidence that democracy is an unreliable way to select a leader—and end our enquiry there. Or we can see it as proof of how reliably democracy keeps the peace during power transitions. In the U.S., even the most radical flip in governing philosophy, amidst the most heavily armed population on Earth, can take place without firing a single shot.

When Xi Jinping’s presidency ends, whenever that may be, will China be able to say the same?

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