China’s record may look appalling when seen through the lens of most Western media, and thus foreigners expect a country in tatters, on the brink of collapse.
Millions imprisoned in Xinjiang; Tibet in a state of siege; Hong Kong falling from its former glory with the best and brightest flying away for their freedom; and over a billion people under constant surveillance by an almighty and omniscient state monitoring every voice, every facial expression through billions of spy devices of all shapes and forms.
To top it all, some kind of Red Catechism of Xi Jinping’s thoughts is being pushed through all schools from elementary to universities, more systematically than Mao’s Red Book during the Cultural Revolution, to preemptively cleanse the mind of any dangerous idea.
These are all acts of force. It is Orwell’s 1984 on mega-steroids and very scary, but it does not answer a basic question: Why has China not buckled under this impossible weight, and in fact, not even apparently budged because of it?
If all this list is taken at face value, and if Chinese persecution of any dissent is as effective as some tend to believe, no system would survive in these conditions.
Quite on the contrary, Xi’s picture inside is quite different, and it’s not just “propaganda.” Xi is actively pursuing a “neo-socialistic” society and is having a lot of success for it.
He announced that extreme poverty was ultimately defeated. He promised pensions and a free health care system covering everybody in 15 years. Both are unprecedented feats in Chinese history. One can poke holes in these claims, but the overall improvement of life for everybody is evident.
Xi also acted against and broke up large internet monopolies, opening the field to new competition—something that the US has been reluctant to do. It closed gray areas that allowed Chinese companies to list on the New York Stock Exchange by revealing all details of their Chinese operations, some of which are sensitive. He thus shook off the influence of large semi-private companies that could have been conditioning public policy in favor of private interests.
He even attacked online tutoring companies, which bank on the faults of a public school system failing to really cater to all, and promised improvement in the education organization, something that would also go against small and medium enterprises.
He pledged massive cuts in waste and CO2 emissions, setting the country, presently the largest global polluter, on course to become much greener in the next couple of decades.
He is mindful of the welfare of the middle class and encourages small and medium enterprises (SME) by facilitating their access to credit and cutting red tape and corruption.
China, differently from the USSR, doesn’t kill large companies. China just clipped their wings. It doesn’t fight the rich; it just doesn’t want them to muddy political waters with private interests. It encourages SMEs and wants most of its people to be middle class.
From this perspective, Xi also doesn’t want religion in Xinjiang or Tibet to stand in the way of real practical welfare to the people while a few priests fatten themselves on people’s donations. He’s also against ideological worship of Western “fake freedom,” which cheats all common people of their real interests and grants freedom only to large companies that sway the state and the public opinion for their private interests. From this perspective, the life of poor people in the US is a testament to the Western capitalists’ brainwashing.
In the meantime, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is changing global trade and realizing the geopolitical revolution Halford Mackinder saw a century ago: the new centrality of the big continental unity that could defeat England’s and now America’s sea power, the landmass continuity that made possible the 13th-century Mongol conquests.
This is no reign of terror and intimidation. Xi is setting a real-size model that could have a chance as it proposes actual solutions to some existing problems: the excessive power of private companies that put their interests before public good and hijack state policies for their gains; the difficult life of SMEs, which create jobs and foster innovation but suffer from unfair competition from large companies and excessive bureaucracy from the state; and the shrinking middle class, the core of any society and also the mass market for the consumption of any good.
Looking at things through a different lens, the rich and the high-tech companies may believe now that they can’t trust the Chinese government for its crackdown on large companies. The rich have an objective interest in a democracy that safeguards their interests in many ways from any possible bullying of the state.
But if democracy doesn’t take care of the poor people, they have only dictatorships to rely on.
Democracy without care for common people withers and dies. There is no grooming of new talents, no social turnover, and the existing capitalists turn into medieval lords. This historically already happened, when in the Italian Renaissance cities the merchants and the guilds slowly stifled possible future competition and concentrated all power in their hands. The merchants became aristocrats, the market a closely guarded monopoly. After a few decades, their once mighty powers withered and died before new, more effective states.
The Chinese objective alternative is no naïve proposition. Despite the qualms one may have about personal liberties and state control, this Chinese state may claim to guarantee a better life for its people and those who choose to follow.
A challenge for the USA
If the US wants to meet the Chinese challenge, it has to consider the real strengths of the Chinese structure. The USSR offered answers to the plight of the extremely destitute proletariat of the world. When the West offered a welfare state, access to the middle class, real opportunities for improvement in social status, it drained the pool of internal support for the soviets and eventually started to turn the Cold War around.
Here, China was not set on a war with the Western world since decades ago, and one important element in the present predicament is that, after the 2008 financial crisis, it lost faith in the effectiveness of the US method. If the US regains strength, much could be different.
The issues with China are possibly more obvious, even rejecting as a sheer exaggeration all qualms about the narrative of the “ruthless dictatorship.” Any authoritarian regime, no matter how enlightened and benign, by restricting the circulation of information restricts possible avenues of future growth and development. History has proved time and again that unintended consequences are a very important driver for change, and liberal societies have created an imperfect but so far fairly effective method to boost the flow of ideas and harness their unintended consequences. Some of them are negative but many are positive.
These issues even if tackled won’t make up for all the damage done so far. America may be in a difficult position but so is China. Things, as many have noticed, may look similar to the period leading to World War I that eventually brought about the demise of the old European order.
Strategically, Germany was stronger than any of its foes. It had better-educated people, the largest Social Democratic Party, and better science, literature, philosophy, and technology than the rest of the world. It perhaps reasonably also had a freer press than elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, there was a large middle class with the first-ever health care and pension system.
All of this was not enough. Germany was the challenger of an existing order and got defeated. Its basic mistake was not winning America over and eventually tipping the US over to the British side.
China perhaps has to understand how this Western world works. Its basic geostrategic fault is: You cannot challenge America plus Japan and India at the same time. Both the US and Japan-India by themselves could be enough to take on China, but the combination together looks invincible.
Beijing conversely and erroneously bet on the EU as a counterbalance to the US, seeing a coming conflict on the two sides of the Atlantic. It is a huge mistake—China bought an idea of the EU that doesn’t exist. The EU lives largely as a US invention. On the two sides of the Atlantic, there may be constant bickering, but there is no real fight.
Moreover, China has little or no free press to really convince its own and other people.
Then China despite its possible successes at home, even if one were to take at face value all Beijing claims, it is still cornered. Too many enemies and no voice to argue.
On the other hand, the USA may need more than just tough confrontation with China to get over this moment.