Is China Succeeding Because of Its Totalitarian Heritage, or in Spite of It?

That’s the question people in the West simply will not ask:

The second problem, and this is the most serious, is that Shirk fails to demonstrate that China has made such a great economic leap not only because it engaged in market reform – the former Soviet Union and East European countries did the same and with disastrous results for their economies – but because China has preserved the totalitarian skeleton of its past.

This is what has allowed China to produce real goods instead of resorting to the service bubbles of the US and those East European and post-Soviet countries which followed the advice of American experts. It is the totalitarian aspects of China that make it possible for the leaders to pursue policies that benefit the country in the long run; they do not think about quick profits that enrich the few – which is what has pushed the US into an economic abyss.

Thus, the author fails to understand that the totalitarian framework of China – as was the case with the Soviet Union – was both a dangerous poison and an elixir of life at the same time.

On one hand, totalitarianism makes the country and regime fragile; on the other hand the very same qualities could well propel the country to global dominance. The Soviet Union could have done the same if it had not been beset by what Russians called “katastroika” (a play on the word in which “perestroika” is blended with the word “catastrophe”) launched by Mikhail Gorbachev.

That the author did not elaborate on the positive implications of totalitarian rule in China (and elsewhere) is understandable. A person expressing this view would be unlikely to be employed by the US government, and major academic publishers would hardly accept such a manuscript.

It’s conventional wisdom in the West that a country, in order to make progress, must adopt democratic institutions.  It’s really more than conventional wisdom; it’s enforced groupthink.  It’s strange to realise that the superiority of democratic institutions is shoved down the throats of the “democratic” West in such an undemocratic way, but that’s life.

But China has bucked the trend, going its own way and making progress.  There’s no sign that democratisation in the Western sense is going to take place any time soon.

With experience in both China and the Soviet Union/Russia, let me observe first that it’s very difficult for a country with a long tradition of authoritarianism to suddenly turn and move forward under a “democratic” structure (or lack of it, in the case of the Russians.)  Both China and Russia tried this.  The Chinese did after the end of the Qing Dynasty, and the result was what one observer referred to as “democrazy.”  (The People’s Republic was the end result of this mess.)  The Russians endured the dismemberment of their country and a decade and more of corruption and rule by organised crime, and now Vladimir Putin, reviled by much of the West, is trying to pick up the pieces the old way and get things going again.

Let me put this bluntly: a people who are conditioned to do what they’re told (at least while someone’s looking) will either succeed in this way or they won’t succeed at all.  But history tells us that it’s certainly possible to succeed in this way.

Exceptions that are raised are France and Taiwan.  France’s transition took longer (and went through more forms of government in the process) than most people care to admit, least of all the French.  And their system is more heavy-handed than most of us in the Anglophone world would care to have.  With Taiwan, its run to greatness started when the Guomindang finally decided to stop being a gang and start being a government.  But until the 1980’s Taiwan was very much a one party show.

And what about us?  Our élites would very much like to have us believe that democracy is not only their creed but their practice.  But their contempt for the rest of American society belies their “party line.”  The current tug of war in our own society is between those who believe the people should rule themselves and those who don’t believe they’re capable of it.  We need to stop acting like this debate doesn’t exist and start telling each other the truth, both about the Chinese and about ourselves.

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