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Is China the Governance of the Future?

In his 2009 book When China Rules the World, Martin Jacques notes with satisfaction that “as a Chinese world order begins to take shape, the American world order is eroding with remarkable speed.” His widely praised book is highly complimentary to the present Chinese polity and to its president, Xi Jinping—Jacques sees the huge nation as an example to developing countries, especially in its creation of what he calls a “proactive, competent, and strategic state.”

Jacques is one of the most enthusiastic boosters of China in the West, and his book aims to show that an increasingly dynamic China will soon lay a claim to global hegemony. Since its publication, he has increasingly acted as the country’s promoter, welcoming its growing strength and hoping it will take its rightful throne as soon as may be. His commentary does make clear, although without adverse comment, that China lacks democratic institutions. Nevertheless, his emphasis is on its efficiency and its strategic thinking—an ability, he writes, that the US, “locked in old ways of thinking” and with “hardened arteries,” no longer possesses.

As time has passed, Jacques has only become more bullish about China’s rise. In a recent video for China Daily, the hardline English language state newspaper, he forecasts that China’s world dominance will be complete by 2030. In the accompanying text, he adds that “the fact is that an international system led by China and the developing world will be much superior to one characterised by Western dominance, with the US and Europe accounting for less than 15 percent of the world population.” With charts and graphs, he stresses that China now leads the US in GDP as measured by purchasing power parity (it has since 2014) and will, in the next decade, overtake it on nominal GDP as well. Jacques believes that China is a “good global citizen,” even though it had no say in developing the rules which govern global relations. He finds it “disgraceful” that Western states, led by the US, blame China for its management of the pandemic. On the contrary, it has, he says, been wholly responsible and performed much better in dealing with COVID-19 than any other country.

Jacques’s work—When China Rules the World has been a bestseller—is not just an unusually strong endorsement from a Western source of wildly successful economic policies, it is also a forecast coupled with a recommendation that China’s system of rule ought to become universal. In the light of China’s success, and the West’s weakness—which Jacques stresses is already evident and will become more pronounced over the next decade—it’s necessary to take his position seriously. Is he right on the central issue? Is China’s rule the prime example for the future, and indeed an inevitable destination for Western states? And will Western populations, increasingly sceptical of the actions and characters of their politicians, turn to an illiberal system of enlightened, highly educated technocrats which cancels the disputes, delays, compromises, and grandstanding of competitive representative politics?

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The reduction in China’s poverty has been without parallel. The country’s opening to a semi-market economy allowed it to lift 850 million people out of poverty in the quarter-century before 2005. The UN Development Programme’s discussion paper on “China, the Millennium Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda” states:

Over a relatively short time span starting from China’s reform and opening-up since late 1970s, China has substantially reduced extreme poverty, infant, child, and maternal mortality rates; increased access to primary and secondary education; and made important gains in gender equality and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. This means that millions of people now have a steady supply of healthy food, safe drinking water, reliable shelter, and sanitation facilities. It also means that boys and girls have equal opportunities to receive education from the primary level to university, which can lead to better jobs and steady income for their families.

The improvement in peoples’ working lives, security, opportunities for education, leisure, and more fulfilling and equal personal relationships have been immense. The Chinese Communist Party introduced and controlled the opening of the economy, and with these reforms it made massive gains in credibility and public support, and continues to do so. Its credibility was in need of rescue. During the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962, imposed by then-Party leader Mao Zedong, deaths from the resulting famine totalled somewhere between 15 million (the official estimate) and 45 million, a figure estimated from later research by Frank Dikötter, author of Mao’s Great Famine. And with the starvation came a wave of brutality, commanded by the Party, in which 2–3m were executed or tortured to death for the slightest infraction.

It seems that the turn to the market has worked. From my own limited contacts, mainly with Chinese journalists some years ago, many take the view that China’s increased wealth, social stability, and global status mean they can trust the Party, or at least acquiesce in its rule. A few—often without jobs in journalism due to past excesses of investigative zeal—mourn the passing of a period of relative freedom for their trade from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. But they count for little to a leadership which presides over a media world in which—as Xi emphasized soon after taking the presidency—the Communist Party is firmly in control, not just of Party media but of all media. David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, has said that “the sense is, ‘we own you, we run you, we tell you how things work. The party is the centre, and you serve our agenda.’ This is much more central now, and it’s being defined for all media platforms, from social media to commercial media.”

What has emerged under Xi is an approach that rests on four mutually supportive pillars. These are:

  • Leninism, the central and unopposable power of the Communist Party over every facet of Chinese life.
  • Confucianism, recently pressed into service, its main characteristics of loyalty, consideration, and righteousness emphasised in ways that make them appear a good fit with communism.
  • Capitalism, disguised as “communism with Chinese characteristics” and kept in check by the widely understood proviso that the party will always retain control over even the most powerful corporation.
  • Rissentiment, or the assignation of one’s frustration or opposition to a particular cause. In China’s case, this cause is its “years of humiliation” at the hands of Western imperialists in the decades of the latter half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th—a way of strengthening nationalist feeling through hatred of foreign enemies.

In a recent book entitled The Rise of the Civilizational State, the London School of Economics international relations scholar Christopher Coker emphasises that communism in China is an ironic conception, given its promotion of free market individualism; that its definition of Confucianism excises the philosophy’s central concern, that of the need for justice; and that its version of past humiliations, weaponised to rouse the indignation of its citizens, rests on much bad history. Still, it works well, and underpins the Party’s claims to legitimacy and demands for obedience. And its future as a “far superior” global hegemon? The reason for believing that this will come to be seen widely as a model to copy lies in China’s success in achieving vastly ambitious goals under the proactive guidance of its unique governance. It is thus arguably in much better shape to face the constellation of threats, many of them existential, than Western governments which presently stumble with only one of these—the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the United States, the presidency of Donald Trump has degraded executive power and widened existing splits in the country. In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman write that:

[Previous] crises of democracy did not occur randomly. Rather, they developed in the presence of one or more of four specific threats: political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power. When those conditions are absent, democracy tends to flourish. When one or more of them are present, democracy is prone to decay. Today, for the first time in its history, the United States faces all four threats at once.

The European Union has not, in more than a half-century, succeeded in becoming the federal state its founders—and American administrations—wished it to be. Its foreign policy is weak, it has no unified military, and it remains dependent on NATO—that is, the US—for defence. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, discreetly the most powerful figure in Europe, will not seek re-election next year. The French president Emmanuel Macron is positioning himself as the leader of a more unified Europe—a move that is unlikely to be accepted—while continuing to face strong domestic opposition. The UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson presently faces growing opposition to a haphazard governing style, while Britain’s exit from the EU, voted for in a 2016 referendum, will be disruptive to its economy, at least in the short term. All EU states face continuing waves of COVID-19, and when these subside, all will face vast debts and reduced GDP (while China’s GDP is forecast to increase, even if only at one percent, in 2021).

The problems facing the globe will tend to force governments to exercise greater control over their populations. The coming crises, which could lead to popular demands for more state intervention and control, include the following:

  • Climate change: The remedies required by global warming will include draconian measures, some of which will result from public demand. If temperatures rise between one and three degrees centigrade, there will be heavier rainfalls leading to more frequent and larger floods; droughts will become more common; the sea levels will rise by between one and eight feet by 2100; the Arctic could be largely ice-free by 2050 and summers’ heat will be more and more extreme. All of these developments will call for state intervention of some kind—in building and maintaining flood barriers, cutting water use; providing defences against sea levels, moving populations inland and protecting vulnerable groups from oppressive temperatures. Some will tend to lead to heavily policed regulations, with fines and even imprisonment for their breach.
  • Pandemics: The main lesson gleaned from the COVID-19 experience by governments is to institute a policed lockdown. In many states, protests have been organised against (relatively mild) lockdowns, and these could spiral into the creation of major movements of opposition, requiring police and even army intervention.
  • Migration: Increased migrant flows are likely to meet with resistance in destination states, particularly those with wealthier economies. Stronger protection against mass immigration attempts will be demanded: police, military, coastguard, and other security forces may have to be deployed, and the scope for conflict will be large.
  • Food and water shortages: In poor countries, shortages will necessitate relief efforts, which may become hazardous if the distress in these countries is acute and produces violence against Western humanitarian missions. Droughts and famine will create extra incentives for desperate efforts to reach wealthy countries.
  • Artificial intelligence: The growth of AI and automation will lead to mass layoffs, rising economic hardship, and growing opposition on the streets.
  • Nuclear proliferation: The spread of nuclear weapons and other WMDs will lead to a greater militarisation of states and tougher domestic security regimes.
  • Inequality: Greater social conflict in the Western democracies over issues of discrimination and economic justice (access to housing and goods) will radicalise younger generations, throwing yet another burden on law and order forces.
  • Weakening international institutions: The possible failure of organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, and other bodies, would mean a reduction in the availability of aid and crisis management by experienced teams.
  • The disunity of the United States: Since the end of World War II, the US has been the leader of the West, and of the democratic bloc of states. For most of that time, and particularly since the late-60s, it has suffered internal political rifts, especially around matters of war and race. The latter of these is presently prominent once more, as protests against police violence have again resulted in widespread demonstrations. These were accompanied in some areas by looting and violent rioting, with a few confrontations between the Black Lives Matter protestors and far-Right groups. These could worsen dramatically.

An overarching fear now is growing that the American democratic and electoral systems are themselves now endangered by two more immediate threats: First, if COVID-19 continues to make a drear harvest of American lives, especially elderly ones, while China’s infection and death rates remain low. Second, if the result of the presidential election in November is disputed.

Presently, China has succeeded in controlling the virus better than many Western democracies and large democratic-authoritarian states like India and Brazil, both of which have seen surging numbers of infections. China’s present record has done much to dispel allegations of duplicity surrounding the emergence of an epidemic in Wuhan, and the pressure it is alleged to have exerted on the World Health Organisation. Indeed, such allegations may have been exaggerated, as an extensive investigation by Philippe Lemoine for Quillette has indicated. Notwithstanding its resistance to calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the disease, China’s record of suppression compares favourably to the chaotic attempts to manage the virus by the Trump administration. In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama writes:

The global distribution of power will continue to shift eastward, since East Asia has done better at managing the situation than Europe or the United States. Even though the pandemic originated in China and Beijing initially covered it up and allowed it to spread, China will benefit from the crisis, at least in relative terms. As it happened, other governments at first performed poorly and tried to cover it up, too, more visibly and with even deadlier consequences for their citizens. And at least Beijing has been able to regain control of the situation and is moving on to the next challenge, getting its economy back up to speed quickly and sustainably.

The United States, in contrast, has bungled its response badly and seen its prestige slip enormously. The country has vast potential state capacity and had built an impressive track record over previous epidemiological crises, but its current highly polarized society and incompetent leader blocked the state from functioning effectively. The president stoked division rather than promoting unity, politicized the distribution of aid, pushed responsibility onto governors for making key decisions while encouraging protests against them for protecting public health, and attacked international institutions rather than galvanizing them. The world can watch TV, too, and has stood by in amazement, with China quick to make the comparison clear.

The degradation of US politics has paralleled China’s efficiently managed growth of its economy, and an expansion of its influence worldwide. This cannot all be put at the door of Trump. In his forthcoming book The Upswing, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argues that Americans have lurched too far from “earlier communitarian values” in favour of individualism. He quotes the philosopher Danielle Allen:

We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped towards freedom. Under the general influence of libertarianism, both parties have abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony. Such a choice is dangerous. If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.

President Trump has tipped very far towards freedom, particularly his own, redefining the presidency as a narcissistic perch he appears increasingly reluctant to relinquish. He has refused to say unambiguously that he will leave if his opponent, Joe Biden, is awarded a clear victory, and has been energetically sowing doubt about the trustworthiness of postal votes in an apparent attempt to undermine the result. He has also warned that the contest will be, in some as yet unspecified way, “rigged”—either in the popular vote (which he lost in 2016), or in the crucial Electoral College (which he won). In the Atlantic, Barton Gellman writes that:

The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power.

An America consumed with fury on both sides would be a greater disaster than anything seen to date under Trump’s presidency, especially if it sparked widespread violence and armed confrontation in a heavily weaponised country. It would show the world that democratic institutions have no defence against the rage of a charismatic would-be tyrant. It would set the seal on the claim that a party of enlightened and decisive technocrats, with the interests of their citizens provably well-served across several decades, would be the better system. Were that to become a perceived truth held to be self-evident, China would become the engine for the spread of a system dependent on some variant of its present party monopoly. At which point, a second disaster would unfold.

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For China is no model for a modern state. It is an autocracy, generally congenial in the face it turns to the outside world, but cruel and despotic at home, and threatening to its immediate neighbours. Hundreds of Chinese citizens have been imprisoned for pursuing political freedom, accusing the state of corruption and suppression of human rights, and criticising Xi Jinping and other leaders of the Communist Party. Arch Puddington of Freedom House writes that:

Since the bloody 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the Communist Party leadership has consistently jailed political dissidents, especially those who argued publicly for democratic change. And under Xi Jinping, the regime has rapidly expanded the scope of its repression, engulfing a numbing procession of lawyers, journalists, bloggers, women’s advocates, minority rights campaigners, and religious believers who have been detained, placed under house arrest, disappeared, or formally sentenced to prison.

A September 2020 study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that one third of the mosques in Xinjiang have been destroyed, the reversal of a trend for growth after the low point of the Cultural Revolution. An estimated one million citizens in Xinjiang, most of these Uighur Muslims, are estimated to be held in camps. A leaked memo sent by the deputy general secretary of the region’s Communist Party, Zhu Hailun, shows that these camps have been placed under ever-stricter regimes designed to make escape impossible, and to introduce stricter discipline, the promotion of “repentance and confession,” and forced learning of Mandarin.

In Tibet, a harsher regime is also now evident. According to Human Rights Watch, “authorities… continue to severely restrict religious freedom, speech, movement, and assembly, and fail to redress popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and arbitrary violence by security forces. Authorities intensified surveillance of online and phone communications.” In a separate report, Human Rights Watch writes of Hong Kong that:

Authorities have rapidly begun to apply the new National Security Law to prosecute peaceful speech, curtail academic freedom, and generate a chilling effect on fundamental freedoms in the city. The law, which China’s government imposed on June 30th, 2020, is Beijing’s most aggressive assault on Hong Kong people’s freedoms since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997… (provisions) include creating specialized secret security agencies, denying fair trial rights, providing sweeping new powers to the police, increasing restraints on civil society and the media, and weakening judicial oversight.

Taiwan, the democratic breakaway from China, is now under growing pressure, as Chinese military jets routinely overfly its airspace. “China is completely open about the threat. President Xi Jinping framed it himself in a high-profile speech in 2019: ‘We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures.’” If it succeeds in taking the lead from the West in the coming decades, the Chinese Communist Party will rise to global power as a tyranny with no recognition of human rights or toleration for a civil society independent of Party and state. Its success would be a turn not towards efficiency, but to a particular kind of high-tech barbarism, in which dissent is routinely silenced and ethnic and religious differences ironed out. To ignore it—worse, to succumb to it in the name of efficiency—would be to destroy democratic civilisation.

Freedom, democratic choice, independent institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly and the press are all largely or wholly absent in China. But these characteristics are the legacy of centuries in the West—centuries, including the 20th, in which Western states were themselves despotic and murderous. In the past 75 years, the lessons of 1914–18 and 1939–45 appear to have been learned: Inter-state wars no longer happen in the Americas or in Europe (the Balkans being the exception).

The achievements of democratic government and active civil societies in the West since 1945 have been as stirring and remarkable as China’s economic growth. Advances in human and civil rights in every sphere of life, while rarely uncontentious (as democracy prescribes) have accompanied liberal reforms of social welfare, greater access to medical care, and a huge expansion of education. However tarnished, these remain the glory of liberal democratic rule, whether of the Right or the Left. They may also be, in the long run, the way in which societies under pressure best restore themselves, as a thousand civil safety valves maintain a—sometimes, as now, rocky—equilibrium.

Have the West’s electorates become so disappointed and distrustful of these values and practices—so spoiled, so hooked on pleasure and entertainment—that they are a pushover for the disciplined cadres and cowed populations of the authoritarian states? Is an authoritarian state, a Leviathan capable of suppression of conflicts, the only recourse we will soon have? It is not a silly question: But even now, it is hard to believe that the answer to these questions is a dispirited “yes.”

 

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence (Polity Press).