THOSE who think about our future are paying a lot of attention to China, though not in terms of possible military confrontation even if that is always a live issue as China’s geopolitical and economic muscle expands around the globe in competition with the US.
What interests them is governance. Should the West stay loyal to its present democracy which is more and more fractious? Or should we emulate the Chinese model of capitalism, tightly controlled by authoritarian, one-party government but highly efficient as far as outsiders can tell?
The Chinese model has been admired by opinion-formers in the West for its nimble response to Covid, which is an issue separate from its responsibility for the outbreak of the pandemic. Communist Beijing’s decisiveness has been compared favourably with the confused and politicised management of Covid in Western countries which still lack convincing public proof that they have anything like control of the virus.
Of course, China – the world’s first market dictatorship and Marxist in name only – has had the advantage of being able to crack down hard on both the disease and dissent. It gets the job done while we fumble and try to keep angry and struggling electorates on board.
The Chinese model has nothing in common with the Western tradition that has grown organically since classical Greece. Personal freedom is a given with us that we would not surrender lightly, or so we think. Keep that caveat in mind. We object to coercive government and our confrontational politics more resembles a continuous operation of Hegelian synthesis that yields progress; at least, that’s the theory.
New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a column a few years ago wishing ‘we could be China for a day’. That ‘for a day’ summed up the entirety of the dilemma. Twenty-four hours to impose all the solutions to all the problems besetting Western governments because democracy is messy. Reversion next day to the freedoms we take for granted. Or those that are left. It would inevitably be discovered that many had been destroyed by the previous day’s revolution. Think how the revolutionaries would have solved climate change alone. (Welcome to Greta Thunberg’s wildest dream.)
Friedman was making a leap of imagination like a child in a fairy story, but not entirely. Democracy is not a static thing. It is in a constant flux that sometimes is not noticed until it is too late. Tomorrow’s democracy may resemble today’s but it won’t be the same.
It is not fanciful to say that the European Union is already becoming a Western form of the Chinese model, draining sovereignty from its member countries and centralising administrative power in Brussels on its way to becoming a Federal Europe. When that is accomplished, Viktor Orban’s dissident Hungary will be no more capable of defying Brussels than Hong Kong or Wuhan can resist Beijing.
What began as a postwar coal and steel community reconciling France and Germany will be a superstate with little room for national politics, which is to say democracy itself. Rights will be collective rather than individual and it will all have been accomplished through the acquiescence of everyone in it except Brexit Britain.
Naturally, Europhiles will see nothing negative or even anti-democratic in their creation. It will be portrayed as part of democracy’s natural and necessary evolution in a complex, globalised world. The world changes and we must change with it to meet the challenges of the moment. A Remainer might say that was the logic that underlay their opposition to leaving the EU.
What the EU has done contradicts what I said earlier about the inviolability of our freedoms. We can be persuaded to relinquish them if it’s done gradually – not by revolution but through process.
What we’re talking about here is China as a model in relation to other kinds of government including democracy, not as something you’d ever plonk down as an oven-ready alternative in Europe or the United States. A fully realised Federal Europe – economic and political union between millions of people who have in common only that they inhabit the large and diverse European continent – would not be a Chinese clone. It would however operate like one in many respects.
There is no doubt that traditional democracy is under assault from within in Europe and the United States in ways that the Chinese model is not. China is more likely to be stable in the coming years than either or both of the others.
If they win control of the US Senate in next month’s elections, Democrats are planning the biggest change in its history to the way the Congress works and the Founders intended. Senate rules will be altered to make a simple majority all that is needed to pass legislation as it is in the House. Together with packing the Supreme Court this will be sufficient to neuter the Republican party for the foreseeable future if the US continues to trend left. (Note: Should Trump thwart these Democratic objectives at this election, they will be enacted the next time Democrats do win.)
The presidency would remain in contention between the parties but Republican presidents would be relative ciphers. Federally, the United States would have one-party rule in a nominally two-party system. Republicans could still win power in the individual states but these are heavily reliant on federal money which makes them easy marks for Washington bullying.
Like the coming federalised Europe, US Democrats would gain many of the advantages or disadvantages (depending on your point of view) of the Chinese model without adopting the model itself. It could happen in the United States very quickly.
As things stand, the Chinese model or variants of it look like being the future for much of the world. We British didn’t realise how wise we were to reject the EU in 2016.