Unlike the old superpower contest between the US and the Soviet Union, the incipient “cold war” between China and the US does not reflect a fundamental conflict of unalterably opposed ideologies. Instead, today’s Sino-American rivalry is popularly portrayed as an epic battle between autocracy and democracy.
Moreover, the facts seem to suggest that autocracy has won, while democracy has fallen flat on its face. Whereas US President Donald Trump has fumbled disastrously during the COVID-19 pandemic, China has brought the coronavirus under control. In the US, even wearing masks has been politicized, but in Wuhan — the pandemic’s original epicenter — the authorities tested the city’s 11 million residents for the virus within 10 days, in an astounding display of capacity and order.
For many, the verdict seems clear — authoritarianism is superior to liberal democracy — but such a conclusion is simplistic and even dangerously misleading, for three reasons.
Illustration: Kevin Sheu
First, just as the US under Trump is not representative of all democracies, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) should not be held up as a paragon of autocracy.
Other democratic societies, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have handled the pandemic ably, and political freedom did not hobble their governments’ ability to implement virus-containment measures.
As for examples of autocracies that brought catastrophe upon themselves, look no further than China’s recent history. No modern Chinese leader held more personal power than Mao Zedong (毛澤東), yet his absolute authority led to a massive famine followed by a de facto civil war during the Cultural Revolution. Chaos is by no means unique to democracy — under Mao, it was insidiously deployed to maintain his power.
Second, there are democracies with illiberal features and autocracies with liberal ones.
The current troubles in the US do not reflect a universal failure of democracy, but rather the failure of a democracy with the illiberal traits that Trump has brought to the presidency. As commander-in-chief, Trump has ignored democratic norms, such as bureaucratic autonomy, the separation of private interests and public office, and respect for peaceful protest.
If democracies can take an authoritarian turn, the reverse can be true in autocracies. Contrary to popular belief, China’s economic ascent after opening its markets in 1978 was not the result of dictatorship as usual — if it had been, Mao would have succeeded long before. Instead, the economy grew rapidly because Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), insisted on tempering the perils of dictatorship by injecting the bureaucracy with “democratic characteristics,” including accountability, competition and limits on power.
He set an example by rejecting personality cults. (Ironically, Chinese banknotes feature Mao, who despised capitalism, rather than Deng, the father of Chinese capitalist prosperity.)
This history of “autocracy with democratic characteristics” under Deng is widely overlooked today, even within China. As Carl Minzner, professor of Law at Fordham University, has said, Xi, who became paramount leader in 2012, has ushered in an “authoritarian revival.” Since then, the official narrative is that because China has succeeded under centralized political control, this system should be maintained. In fact, under Deng, it was a hybrid political system married to a firm commitment to markets that moved China from poverty to middle-income status.
Taken together, this means that both the US and China have grown illiberal. The lesson from the upheavals in the US today is that even a mature democracy must be constantly maintained to function — there is no “end of history.” As for China, we learn that liberalizing tendencies can be reversed when power changes hands.
Third, the supposed institutional advantages of China’s top-down rule are both a strength and a weakness.
Owing to its revolutionary origins, concentration of power and penetrating organizational reach, the Chinese Communist Party typically implements policies in the manner of “campaigns” — meaning that the entire bureaucracy and society are mobilized to achieve a given goal at all costs.
Such campaigns have taken many forms. Under Xi, they include his signature policies to eradicate rural poverty, root out corruption, and to extend China’s global reach through the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese policy campaigns deliver impressive results because they must. Xi’s poverty-fighting campaign lifted 93 million rural residents out of poverty in seven years, a feat that global development agencies can only dream of accomplishing.
The Chinese authorities also went into campaign mode during the COVID-19 outbreak, mobilizing all personnel and resources to contain the virus. These results lend support to the official Chinese media’s oft-trumpeted claim that centralized power “concentrates our strength to accomplish great things.”
However, pressured to do whatever it takes to achieve campaign targets, officials can falsify results or take extreme measures that trigger new problems down the road. In the drive to eliminate poverty, Chinese authorities are abruptly relocating millions of people from remote areas to towns, regardless of whether they wanted to move or were able to find sustainable livelihoods.
The fight against corruption has led to the disciplining of more than 1.5 million officials since 2012, inadvertently resulting in bureaucratic paralysis. In their desperation to meet pollution-reduction targets, some local officials tampered with devices that measure air quality. Big and quick results rarely come without costs.
The idea that we can choose only between freedom in a US-style democracy and order in a Chinese-style autocracy is false. The real aim of governance is to ensure pluralism with stability — and nations everywhere must find their own path to this goal.
We must also avoid the fallacy of rushing to emulate whichever national “model” is fashionable, whether that of Japan in the 1980s, the US post-Cold War or China today.
When you are considering whether to buy a vehicle, you want to know not only its pros, but also its cons. This is the kind of common sense that we should apply in assessing any political system. It is also an essential intellectual skill for navigating today’s new “cold war” climate.
Yuen Yuen Ang is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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