[Overseas view]Listen to China’s poor, humble, oppressedThe Chinese leadership would like the world to believe they have found an alternative to Western liberal democracy by striking the right balance between a free market and enlightened despotism, a view shared by those in the West who put economic efficiency above political freedom. Is China a class apart? This claim does not stand up to scrutiny.
The Chinese economy has only succeeded when the basic principles of the free market were applied: entrepreneurship, competition, free trade and a stable currency. These principles are universal, not just Chinese. Whenever China did not adhere to these principles, she has had to pay the price. A behemoth public sector is still dragging down her economy and unsound banks are giving rise to bad loans and unhealthy speculation. In the absence of the rule of law, corruption is rampant and the scant respect for intellectual property is hampering innovation. The so-called “Chinese characteristics” of the market economy are neither Chinese nor progressive; they are merely symptomatic of the transition from socialism to the market economy.
Undeniably, there are now 200 million Chinese who, fortunate enough to work for an ever expanding global market, enjoy a comfortable, middle-class standard of living. But the rest, the remaining one billion, still rank among the poorest and most exploited people in the world. In terms of per capita income, China lies at the bottom of the table in 101st position. The people’s discontent is simmering, especially in the countryside where it flares into bloody confrontations with Communist Party officials. There is no Chinese economic model as such.
There does not appear to be anything innovative either about the political institutions in China. Though the Communist Party has 60 million members, it can hardly claim to represent the Chinese people as a whole. The Party recruits only educated men from the cities. It has very few women and virtually no peasants or workers on its rolls. The educated technocracy, the backbone of the party, considers it knows what is best for the people and does not think it fit to ask them what they want. It is perhaps for this reason that countless decisions made at the top without consultation at the grassroots have failed to yield results. The party prefers grandiose political gestures and high-sounding rhetoric to actual implementation. As things stand, it is hardly surprising that rebellion is the only recourse left for people to express their discontent.
What is even more worrisome is the question of succession. So far, Mao’s successors, beginning with Deng Xiaoping (in spite of Tiananmen), have behaved rationally. But there is nothing to guarantee that the next despot will be enlightened. Even if the party has succeeded in throwing up four relatively enlightened despots, the process of choosing a leader remains obscure. There is no telling what the next one will be like. Internecine factionalism will make the outcome unpredictable. Without elections, China can only count on her luck for the succession to be orderly. Till now, fortune has favored China. If her lucky streak continues, the status quo could be maintained for awhile. The Party has a well-oiled machinery to deal with protest. Moreover, the Chinese abhor disorder, their history having nurtured in them a deep-seated fear of civil strife. The party leadership knows how to play on this fear. But fortune is transient and so is fear. Eventually, the enlightened despotism of the party will be replaced, but by what? A military dictatorship, chaos or, if one is optimistic, a liberal democracy.
I personally believe there is no reason, cultural or otherwise, for China not to become a free nation. I have visited the country frequently for long stretches and have always been struck by the fact that the Chinese, like us, desire prosperity and freedom. The proclivity of the Chinese for an enlightened Communist Party is an ideological artifact. My trust in a free China clashes with conventional wisdom. But the West has a long history of misreading China. French and Italian Jesuits traveled to the country in the 17th century and the accounts they gave us so captured our imagination that they continue to influence us to this day. It was said that the Chinese were not like us: without religion or any notion of freedom, they were supposed to gravitate naturally towards the enlightened despotism of the philosopher-emperor. In the 18th century, Voltaire wrote in praise of the Mandarins, hoping that Europe too be ruled by such an enlightened class. In the 1960s and 1970s, leftist intellectuals celebrated the heroism of Mao Zedong, and the business elite of today is happy to go along with the communist propaganda that democracy and freedom of speech are alien to the Chinese ethos.
None of this is to suggest that the West boycott China. In fact, we must continue to engage with her not only through trade but also through cultural exchange. The renaissance of China, however imperfect, is good news. Hundreds of millions of people are shaking off the mantle of poverty; the process is slow and chaotic, but it is any day better than totalitarianism and hunger. Importing Chinese goods also helps the economies of the West for it makes us raise our productivity and offers Western consumers cheaper goods. Cheap Chinese goods hasten the destruction of some low-tech industries in the West. But isn’t creative destruction the force that drives the free market? China is still a poor country. Her economy can hardly be called sophisticated and the possibility of her overtaking the United States, Europe or Japan is remote. Neither is there any threat from China in the international arena, at least not as yet. Her army is still lagging and her diplomatic clout is limited. We need not fear her, but we must innovate more to stay ahead.
My eventual recommendation would be to back pro-democracy and human rights activists in China, as we did in the erstwhile Soviet Union. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the West continued to trade with the Soviet Union even while offering support to the dissidents. There is no reason to treat China differently. We must not be swayed by the claims of the communist leadership that China is so distinct that her people are not committed to freedom. The Communist Party may govern China but it cannot claim to be representative of the Chinese. Over the stridency of the party, it is time we listen to other voices, starting with the humble, the poor and the oppressed.
*The writer is a French journalist, economist, philosopher and civilization critic.
by Guy Sorman