Like George Kennan’s long telegram, Martin Wolf lays out the challenges facing the West:
Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” Thus in 1956 did Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, predict the future.
Xi Jinping is far more cautious. But his claims, too, are bold. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era,” the general secretary of the Communist party of China told its 19th National Congress last week. “It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” The Leninist political system is not on the ash heap of history. It is, yet again, a model.
China has succeeded where past socialist systems have failed. Primarily because Deng Xiaoping recognized that a centrally planned economy was too inefficient. Instead he opted for a system that combined an open free market economy with tight political control. Effectively, a free market system ruled by an autocracy.
What are the implications of China’s marriage of Leninism and market. China has indeed learnt from the west in economics. But it rejects modern western politics. Under Mr Xi, China is increasingly autocratic and illiberal. In the Communist party, China has an ostensibly modern template for its ancient system of imperial sovereignty and meritocratic bureaucracy. But the party is now emperor. So, whoever controls the party controls all. One should add that shifts in an autocratic direction have occurred elsewhere, not least in Russia. Those who thought the fall of the USSR heralded the durable triumph of liberal democracy were wrong.
Will this combination of Leninist politics with market economics go on working as China develops? The answer must be: we do not know. A positive response could be that this system not only fits with Chinese traditions, but the bureaucrats are also exceptionally capable. The system has worked spectacularly so far. Yet there are also negative responses. One is that the party is always above the law. That makes power ultimately lawless. Another is that the corruption Mr Xi has been attacking is inherent in a system lacking checks from below. Another is that, in the long run, this reality will sap economic dynamism. Yet another is that as the economy and the level of education advances, the desire for a say in politics will become overwhelming. In the long run, the rule of one man over the party and that of one party over China will not stand.
It is likely that the Chinese “model” will collapse under its own weight, as its inherent weaknesses are exposed. But the West cannot afford to bury its head in the sand and ignore the rising threat.
History has shown that a combination of autocracy and economic power is dangerous for global stability. Untempered by the restraining influence of an effective democracy, autocracies tend to treat their own citizens harshly and their neighbors even harsher. Respect for rule of law, whether domestic law or international law, becomes subservient to the goals of their leaders.
Look no further than Russia’s behavior in Eastern Europe or China in Tibet and the South China Sea. Whether the objective is establishing a sphere of influence, a defensive cordon or global hegemony, rule of law and respect for the rights of others are the first casualty.
Autocracies are not to be trusted.
As Martin Wolf says “China is our partner. It is not our friend.”
The challenges to the West are clear:
- Get it’s political house in order
- Protect its intellectual property
- Ensure a level playing field on the economic front
- Don’t tolerate gradual encroachment and erosion of Western democratic standards