China’s record may look appalling when seen through the lens of most Western media, and thus many 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 and facial expression through billions of spy devices of all shapes and forms.
To top it all, some kind of Red Catechism of President 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 ideas.
These are all acts of force. It is George 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 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.
Xi’s neo-socialistic success
On the contrary, the picture inside China 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 has announced that extreme poverty was ultimately defeated. He has 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 all Chinese 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 organization of education.
Xi has 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, different from the old USSR, doesn’t kill large companies; it just clips 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 genuinely 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 for 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 public opinion for their private interests. From this perspective, the miserable lives 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.
Rather, 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 the 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 state bureaucracy; and the shrinking middle class, the core of any society and also the mass market for consumption and growth.
Looking at things through a different lens, the rich and high-tech companies may believe now that they can’t trust the Chinese government after its corporate crackdown. The rich have an objective interest in a democracy that safeguards their interests from any possible bullying of the state. But if democracy doesn’t take care of the poor people, they have only dictatorships to rely upon.
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, the Chinese state may claim to guarantee a better life for its people and those who choose to follow.
A challenge for the US
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 and 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.
Then, China was not set on a war with the Western world. One important element in China’s present predicament is that, after the 2008 global financial crisis, it lost faith in the effectiveness of the US method. If the US regains strength after the pandemic, much could be different.
The issues with China are possibly more obvious, even while rejecting as 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. The situation, 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, though. Germany was the challenger of an existing order and was 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 transatlantic conflict. 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 both sides of the Atlantic, there may be constant bickering but there is no real fight.
Moreover, China has little to no free press to really convince its own and other people. As such, despite its possible successes at home, even if one were to take at face value all Beijing claims, China is still cornered. It has too many enemies and no voice to argue.
On the other hand, the US may need more than just tough confrontation with China to get over this trying moment.
This story originally appeared on the Settimana News website and is republished with permission. To see the original, please click here.