China is not the next America

Most Westerners assume China is on the road to democratization because emergent middle classes generally force their nations to democratize. Martin Jacques writes that China will avoid democratizing for much longer than we presume:

Again and again, our predictions and beliefs about China have proved wrong: that the Chinese Communist Party would fall after 1989, that the country would divide, that its economic growth could not be sustained, that its growth figures were greatly exaggerated, that China was not sincere about its offer of “one country two systems” at the time of the hand-over of Hong Kong from Britain — and, of course, that it would steadily Westernize. We have a long track record of getting China wrong.

The fundamental reason for our inability to accurately predict China’s future is our failure to understand its past….

The Chinese state enjoys a very different kind of relationship with society compared with the Western state. It enjoys much greater natural authority, legitimacy and respect, even though not a single vote is cast for the government. The reason is that the state is seen by the Chinese as the guardian, custodian and embodiment of their civilization. The duty of the state is to protect its unity.

Perhaps an even stronger argument for the China-won’t-democratize-any-time-soon claim is that ordinary Chinese — and even many elites — value economic growth above political freedom. Political freedoms have expanded in recent decades, but the Chinese are most concerned with their pocketbooks. The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy is based as much on its excellent economic leadership in recent decades as on the Chinese people’s long-standing interest in stability.

Many are surprised China played Obama so tough during his visit, largely shutting him out of the Chinese media and giving him no trophies to bring home. But Jacques believes Chinese hubris — already apparent — will only continue to grow:

China, moreover, is possessed, like the West, with its own form of universalism. It long believed that it was “the land under heaven,” the center of the world, superior to all other cultures. That sense of self, which has engendered a powerful self-confidence, has been persistently evident over the last 40 years, but with China’s rise, it is becoming more apparent as the country’s sense of achievement and restoration gains pace. Or to put it another way, when the presidents of China and the United States meet in Beijing in 2019, with the Chinese economy fast approaching the size of the American economy, we can be sure that the Chinese sense of hubris will be far stronger than in 2009.

The Chinese do not view themselves as a weak power growing into a strong power. They view themselves as long the world’s most successful nation. Sure, they’ve suffered several hundred years of setbacks — largely caused by foreign invaders — but they’ve gotten past that speed bump and are now regaining their rightful place as the world’s greatest country.

America’s failure to pursue smart policies is due in no small part to some very serious flaws of our democracy; Washington is owned by large corporations, so laws advantage mega-companies at the expense of ordinary Americans. In theory, a communist nation — or a benevolent dictatorship like Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew — can impose wise policies faster and more effectively than a nation ruled by a Congress and a Presidency addicted to and utterly dependent on corporate campaign contributions. China’s economy has indeed greatly benefitted from its government’s generally smart economic policies and does not look admiringly on American-style “democracy.”

Posted by James on Wednesday, November 25, 2009