By Rj Batkhuu
Google ‘China’ and the headlines being run concern the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) iron grip and expansive influence. Pick up any paper and see how China’s barnstorming growth compares to our own measly progress. The commentariat in Britain seem resigned to the fact that China will dominate the world order this century. But is such fatalism misplaced? Here, I consider the wider picture, trends, and structures that belie such pessimism.
As the world’s second-biggest economy, a leading investor in AI, biotech, and space exploration, with a mighty military to match, China is undoubtedly a rising superpower.
The country’s power has been compared to the state of the West these last few years, which has seen itself engulfed by Covid-19, democratic decline, racial strife, and economic stagnation. Most acutely, China’s initially successful handling of Covid-19, as the virus ripped through Europe and North America seemed to vindicate the autocratic method of societal organisation.
This media frenzy reached a new stage as insurrectionists stormed the United States Capitol on 6th January. For many outlets, the image of ascendent, orderly China and the American conspiracy theorists who managed to storm the Capitol seemed to encapsulate the decline of democratic hegemony. But is the West in such a state? Further, is China’s power really that inevitable? Do not assume so just yet.
The CCP’s relationship with its people is based on a simple bargain: lots of growth in exchange for political compliance. So far the deal has been held up on both ends, China’s growth these last thirty years has rightly been dubbed a ‘miracle’, and the CCP’s grip on everyday Chinese lives is all-encompassing.
As a result of this substantial growth, a vast, new middle class has emerged. These relatively affluent Chinese purchase consumer goods and are more literate and educated than their parents’ generation could have ever thought possible.
For now, content with endless growth, these middle-class Chinese support the CCP. But what happens when the party comes to an end, as it surely must do? A sizable middle class, many of them educated at foreign universities, will form controversial opinions and ask difficult questions if Xi Jinping cannot continue to deliver for these groups of men and women. As the Chinese population ages and growth slows, questions will arise on how to pay for state pensions, care for the elderly and provide enough workers for the future.
Even though China’s political system is autocratic, it still rests on a perverse form of consent. If old Chinese feel Mr Xi has failed them, a new and dangerous constituency will arise out of this. Repressing young democracy activists in liberal Hong Kong is one thing, repressing old, disgruntled Chinese in the provinces is another.
Finally, consider the question of ‘ideological’ victory. China’s economy is avowedly market-orientated but this places party leaders in the awkward position of feeling obliged to pay lip service to Mao while at the same time, their economy is unquestionably liberal and capitalist.
A cognitive dissonance that began in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping has reached new heights as China exports globally and its citizens trade freely. As such, China never had the ideological appeal the USSR carried, such as during the 60s when American officials were paranoid of losing the argument over ideas. No such threat exists today, the ideological debate in favour of economic freedom has been squarely won.
Democracies have had a torrid two decades: the financial crisis, disillusionment with the status quo, and weakening of social bonds everywhere have given China, and other autocrats, the illusion that the West is irrevocably in decline.
But what democracies have is their inherent dynamism. New ideas, freely formed, have seen Western political systems produce energetic and lively solutions to today’s problems. Ancient injustices such as racism and inequality have seen democratic political parties try to solve them – if not too well, but the intention is there, nonetheless.
In contrast, Xi can only sit on his paranoia and hope that China’s growth party never comes to an end.
Image: Paul Kagame via Creative Commons