Ever more academic and business leaders from Europe and North America speak gushingly about the political leadership now being supplied by the Communist Party to its people.
To put it charitably, history, Fukuyama might say, is back.
Getting history right
If history is back—if the 21st century is going to see a renewed global contest over which set of governing ideas is the right set—then let’s agree on one outcome: Let us resolve to be less simplistic, less Cold War-ideological and more curious in our search this time around.
For starters, I’d like to point out to all the senior executives and analysts out there who gush glowingly about the Communist Party’s leadership one curious fact: Your good opinion of the Party’s management only demonstrates how successful it has been at burying the memory of its failures.
Let’s take a moment and recall some of them. And before we do, let me be clear: I’m not China-bashing. (I did my PhD in Chinese politics because I find its politics fascinating).
And I’m not trying to say democracy is perfect, either. I’m trying to add nuance to a simplistic narrative before it spreads too far—a narrative that says, ‘Look at how much better that system works!’—so that we can raise the quality of maybe the most important conversation humanity will have this century.
China’s present political system indeed achieves enviable top-down results. Here’s how: All the strongest incentives—social, monetary, power—focus everyone in business, government and society on winning the approval of the Party official immediately above them.
These incentives help to align the private and public actions of a whole country behind the single mind at the center. In this way, the Party has successfully driven nation-wide campaigns since the founding of the People’s Republic.
First, in the Great Leap Forward, to take farming and industrial choices out of local hands and give them to central planners; second, in the Cultural Revolution, to shift social values from feudal to Communist; third, in the 1990s, to shift responsibility for people’s education, jobs and housing from state to markets; fourth, during the global financial crisis, to get local governments and banks to spend and lend money to prop up the economy; and fifth, nowadays, to shift popular ambitions and business investment from “global catch-up” to “global leadership.”
Chess and politics
Do you play chess? In chess, a basic philosophy is that every move has tradeoffs. If I move my Queen to attack those squares, then it can no longer attack these squares.
Politics is the same. The obvious tradeoff for the singlemindedness of China’s political system is that contrary views and evidence get ignored (or suppressed).
Given the sheer scale of the Party’s singlemindedness, the contrary consequences have often been catastrophic. The stories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are the best-known (outside the country at least).
During the former, perhaps 30 million citizens died from starvation, as central edicts to plant seeds more tightly together exhausted fields and caused whole crops to fail. During the latter, a whole generation skipped out on an education because Mao’s Little Red Book contained all the wisdom they’d ever need.
But there are many other, similar stories—and new ones are being written all the time. They all tell the same tale: What the Party measures, gets done. Everything else can be ignored.
Many of these stories are ecological. A campaign under Mao to bring the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia under cultivation turned the grasses to mud, then sand. Grain production didn’t grow, but the Gobi Desert did—and began to plague Beijing with annual sandstorms.
Similarly, a campaign to turn the southern rainforests into productive rubber plantations sent Asian tigers, elephants, monkeys and peacocks straight to the endangered species list (and, because rubber trees drink far more water, dried up whole basins and altered the water cycle of the entire region).
Many stories are social. We’ve all heard of China’s one-child policy. I won’t rehash that complicated history here. Less told is China’s policy toward minority populations. Mao promised them autonomy in exchange for helping his Communists win China’s civil war in the 1940s.
But that proved unworkable once the Communists were in power: Distinct minority groups numbered in the hundreds, maybe thousands, all over the country. Plus, autonomy was always going to be incompatible with national unity under one Party.
So, in a breathless feat of social engineering, the Party defined 56 “official” ethnic groups, assigned each one a language, costume and dance and trots them out for any public event that calls for multicultural tokenism (e.g., Olympic opening ceremonies. Watch for it when the 2020 Winter Games come to Beijing).
Meanwhile, bids for genuine autonomy—in Tibet, in Xinjiang, in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere—were suppressed via military occupation.
Other stories of catastrophe don’t fit neatly into any bucket, because they span so many categories of wrong. As part of its nuclear weapons program, China exploded 46 nuclear bombs in Xinjiang Province (inhabited mostly by Uygurs, one of the recognized ethnic minorities).
Those tests, carried out from 1964 to 1996, caused, by one academic estimate, at least 200,000 civilian deaths and 1.2 million cancer cases. (Such research is banned in China, so had to be conducted from the neighboring country of Kazakhstan, which also suffered from the fallout).
Our 21st-century search for “better”
Add up all these stories (and all the others that were buried before anyone knew about them), and it’s not at all clear that China’s Communist Party has found a better model of governance. Faster? Yes. Better? That depends what price you’re willing to pay for the speed you gain.
Ah, but the Party has corrected its errors, some say. To which I reply: It still seems a very expensive way to discover good policy.
Clearly, China’s political model is not “the end of history,” either. More likely, the end of history is nowhere in sight, not with so many big changes on the horizon.
Just consider the changes to which our political systems will need to respond: Ecological crises, the automation of work, the ability to create and spread fake news, audio and video content that no citizen can distinguish from the real thing.
Nobody’s got it all figured out. And if we can accept that the search for the best ideas to live by is unfinished, then maybe we should see the different models that govern China and America today, not only as a contest, but also as experiments—each of which generates important insights for the future.
The China model demonstrates the power (and price) of unity; the liberal democratic model shows the power (and price) of diversity. The China model demonstrates the possibility of rapid, revolutionary change. The liberal democratic model shows that good policy is often slow policy. These are all good lessons.
So is the fact that China is in a cycle of economic ascendance, while that same cycle in the West has already run for decades and may, at a minimum, be topping out. China, too, will reach that moment before long, at which it too will have to contend with major stresses that will affect political, economic and social structures.
What matters most along the entire way is that we should keep up the search for good lessons, rather than engage in the conceit of claiming premature victory.
It’s not at all clear that China’s Communist Party has found a better model of governance. Faster? Yes. Better? That depends what price you’re willing to pay.
The 21st century is going to see a renewed global contest over which set of governing ideas is the right set.
We should see the different models that govern China and America today, not only as a contest, but also as experiments—each of which generates important insights for the future.
The China model demonstrates the power (and price) of unity; the liberal democratic model shows the power (and price) of diversity.