The Economist is at it again. The oracle of occidental economy published a March 1 cover story titled “How the West got China wrong.”
Noting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent leap from autocracy to dictatorship by abolishing constitutional term limits, the magazine details how the West’s gamble that China “would head towards democracy and a market economy has failed.” Like its other China-bashing efforts, The Economist’s cover art is more impactful than what’s printed on its pages.
The article bemoans the fact that the West welcomed China into the rules-based system set up after World War II in the hope that China would evolve into a market economy and that, as it grew wealthier, “its people would come to yearn for democratic freedoms, rights and the rule of law.”
“It was a worthy vision, which this newspaper shared, and better than shutting China out,” The Economist opined, indicating in so many words that there is indeed a Western conspiracy to “contain” China.
Smug in its moral imperium, the magazine never examines the question of what exactly gives the West the right to remake China in its own image. The West’s supposedly superior values are often cited in this regard. But there’s little consensus in increasingly dysfunctional Western societies on what these “values” consist of.
US President Donald Trump veered perilously close to implying in a July speech in Poland that those values basically have to do with being white and Christian. The Economist more sanely sees such values as embracing democracy and free markets.
Let’s consign Trump and his alt-right supporters to the rubbish heap of history and dissect The Economist’s paean to democracy and the market economy. At the end of the day, what it’s talking about has little to do with morality and everything to do with self-interest.
Remaking a nation such as China in your image, as God did with Adam, makes it a chip off the old block. It makes it much less of a threat because everyone sits down at the same Monopoly board.
When China opened its markets in the 1980s, it also created an irresistible opportunity. It rekindled that old, self-serving British maxim, “If we could add one inch to the tail of the Chinaman’s shirt, we could keep the mills of Manchester running for a year.”
But the commercial energies of more than a billion Chinese spawned a far different result. Not only does the world’s second-biggest economy make shirts, it churns out plenty of advanced tech, industrial and military products. There’s not much weaving going on in Manchester these days – and that’s the rub.
When the West crested on the economic boom that followed World War II, it was easy to tout itself as a model. However, the prosperity fueling these free-market democracies has proved fleeting
When the West crested on the economic boom that followed World War II, it was easy to tout itself as a model. However, the prosperity fueling these free-market democracies has proved fleeting. So much that a rising China is now viewed as an ideological as well as economic rival to the US and its allies. The fear is that other nations will begin voting with their feet by following China’s economic and political model.
Sadly, the West no longer offers much of a model with its stagnant growth rates, political discord, anti-immigrant racism, mass shootings, opioid addiction and other post-industrial maladies. Brexit and Catalonia may herald greater political divisions to come.
It brings to mind Mahatma Gandhi’s response when asked by a Western journalist what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” Gandhi replied.
Perhaps the West should stop blaming the Chinese and redouble its energies on resuscitating itself. Success may be the best defense. In doing so, it might also borrow a page from China’s playbook by putting its science and engineering graduates on a par with China and making massive investments in next-generation technologies.
Such government intervention might be inimical to The Economist’s free-market principles. But it’s clear that the entrepreneurial zeal of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk alone will not save Western civilization.
The West should also consider how much it has benefited from China in the last 40 years. It was the Sino-US alliance of the 1980s that squeezed Moscow on two fronts and helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As “factory to the world,” China became a godsend for Fortune 500 companies searching for comparative advantage. It opened its huge market to joint ventures and tech tie-ups, providing a critical catalyst for global growth. It’s now a cliché that General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in the US.
And when the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse in 2009, it was Beijing that pumped billions into a US stimulus package that helped save the day.
As for Xi’s pole-vault to lifetime rule, is it so strange that a nation that has been ruled by emperors for virtually all of its 5,000-year history still views one-man rule (and not John Locke) as part of its comfort zone?
Democratic elections are also not the only way to achieve accountability. Keyu Jin, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, perceptively made this point in a recent article about why “The West is wrong about China’s president.”
“In the West, government accountability is closely identified with democratic elections. In China, it is a function of how – and how well – the government responds to and protects the needs and interests of the people,” Jin wrote.
By this measure, Xi is doing pretty well. Jin notes that Xi’s approval rating, according to most international surveys, appears to exceed the combined approval ratings of Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
At the same time, it’s also clear that more than a few in China are unhappy with Xi’s constitutional changes. This is something for Chinese to sort out. The last thing China needs is sermonizing from a Western pulpit.
Foes of China now pore over every tract from Beijing hunting for signs that Xi Jinping is about to launch an ideological blitzkrieg against democratic institutions worldwide. Yet is democracy really under threat?
The Economist likewise made much ado of Xi’s observation at the Communist Party’s 19th Congress last autumn that China offered “a new option for other countries” that would involve “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”
Xi later clarified that China would not export its model. But foes of China now pore over every tract from Beijing hunting for signs that Xi is about to launch an ideological blitzkrieg against democratic institutions worldwide.
Yet is democracy really under threat? Given China’s history, it’s unlikely to export its political model to other nations – and certainly not in the way the US has done since 1945. The US itself is yet to grasp that its own political system was forged in a confluence of unique political events. While admirable, its specific brand of democracy is hard to export and can never be imposed.
India and Japan, moreover, are two of the world’s largest democracies. Both have formidable economies, and neither is likely to adopt the Chinese system any time soon. The same can be said of South Korea and other Asian nations.
Though much has been credited to the reforms enacted by the US occupation, Japan did have a multi-party democratic political system in place before World War II.
Who is to say that democracy is a purely Western attribute? Democracy’s future and the future of free markets may well lie with Asia.