If the price of political freedom is division and polarization, it comes at a steep opportunity cost. While the West — including a Europe riven by populist and separatist movements — stalls in internal acrimony, China is boldly striding ahead. It has proactively set its sights on conquering the latest artificial intelligence technology, reviving the ancient Silk Road as “the next phase of globalization,” taking the lead on climate change and shaping the next world order in its image. If the West does not hear this wake-up call loud and clear, it is destined to somnambulate into second-class status on the world stage. Waiting for China to stumble is a foolish fallback.
That is not to suggest, of course, that open societies ought to turn toward authoritarianism to unify the body politic. But it is to say that unless democracies look beyond the short-term horizon of the next election cycle and find a way to reach a governing consensus, they will be left in the dust by the oncoming future. If democracy has come to mean sanctifying the splintering of society into a plethora of special interests, partisan tribes and endless acronymic identities instead of seeking common ground, there is little hope of successfully competing with a unified juggernaut like China.
The WorldPost this week plumbs the meaning — for China and the world — of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that met in Beijing to affirm the consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping and chart the path ahead for the Middle Kingdom. In conversations I’ve had over the years with the late sage of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, he always returned to a theme dissonant to the tin ear of Westerners. China will never become a democracy or an honorary member of the West, he lectured, but will move forward and succeed on its own terms. And so it has.
Writing from Shanghai, Eric Li follows up this theme. Despite nearly unanimous predictions in the Western media and political class during the last three decades that China was on the wrong side of history, he chides, it has not failed but has grown stronger and more powerful. Standing “tall and firm in the East” is how Xi put it at the party congress.
“The prevailing theories that have guided the world’s thinking about the rise and fall of nations no longer make sense,” Li argues. “If elections and privatization are the prerequisites to development, why has China succeeded without them, while so many others have failed after taking these prescriptions? In the past 30 years, China has effectively combined socialism and the market economy.”
Despite critiques in the West that the idea of a socialist market economy is an “oxymoron,” Li sees Xi’s project of “sinicizing” Marxism as akin to China’s ancient capacity to absorb the foreign ideas of Buddhism into Confucian civilization. This ideological innovation, writes Li, “may be China’s most significant contribution to the 21st century. Not since the European Enlightenment has the world been so hungry for new approaches.” As one of China’s more prominent venture capitalists, Li has no doubt where to place his confidence. “My bet is that Xi will indeed ‘change China, and the world, for the better,’” he concludes.
Veteran China watcher Steve Tsang also sees this week’s party congress as marking a departure from the Deng Xiaoping era of “reform and opening” to a new era in which “the Chinese Communist Party is confident of its own socialist developmental model. It no longer looks outside its borders for inspiration, and it emphatically rejects any democratic or Western model.”
But, most worrying to Tsang is that Xi has signaled that “he will not relinquish power at the next congress in 2022. He has left open the possibility for him to stay in charge, altering the party’s practice since the Deng era of institutionalizing leadership succession ahead of time.” With that kind of unrivaled authority that can’t be contested even by his colleagues, Tsang fears what others have called the “bad emperor problem.”
“If Xi’s advisers do not dare to contradict him, the risk that Chinese policies will be grounded in inappropriate assumptions or calculations will increase, carrying a danger that misguided policies will be introduced and forcefully backed by the full might of the party and military,” he concludes.
Yu Jie acknowledges China’s accomplishments but also sees big hurdles in the times ahead. “Unlike the Soviets,” she writes, “Chinese leaders have repeatedly demonstrated an impressive capability to surmount existential challenges. But rarely have those challenges looked greater than they do for the coming decade.” On the domestic front, says Yu, “continuous economic growth has produced vested interest groups that refuse to give up their power and authority which — together with extreme wealth inequality and severe environmental damage — could challenge the very survival of the party leadership. If the party defends a status quo that is manifestly unfair in its distribution of wealth and opportunity, trust from ordinary people will collapse.”
Yu, who heads the China Foresight project at the London School of Economics, also worries about the nationalist tone the country has taken under Xi’s leadership. “A dangerous mixture of China’s historical humiliation and its staggering economic success,” she warns, “has unfortunately bred a strong sense of complacency on one level and an equally powerful current of hubris on another. This could turn out to be lethal inside China as well as detrimental to its neighbors and distant great powers.”
Spanish-Catalan crisis comes to a head
This week, the confrontation between Spanish authorities and the Catalan independence movement met its denouement as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, backed by the opposition Socialist party, imposed Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which annuls Catalonia’s elected government and turns over power to Madrid. He did so just after Catalonia’s parliament declared the region’s independence Friday.
One of Catalonia’s most well-known intellectuals, the sociologist Manuel Castells, passionately writes that “the intervention in Catalan institutions by the Spanish government is an assault on democracy without precedent in the European Union.” For Castells, the issue is not independence but the right of Catalan citizens to express their will through a referendum not unlike those we’ve seen in Scotland and Quebec in recent years. “The key issue at stake is whether constitutional legality has to follow the evolution of people’s minds. The law must adapt to reality through political mediation,” says Castells. “Ultimately, only a political dialogue can solve the current crisis. In the meantime, one of the most democratic and tolerant areas of Europe is being deprived of its basic civil rights.”
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EDITORIAL BOARD: Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Eric Schmidt, Pierre Omidyar, Arianna Huffington, Juan Luis Cebrian, Walter Isaacson, John Elkann, Wadah Khanfar, Yoichi Funabashi
CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Moises Naim, Nayan Chanda, Katherine Keating, Sergio Munoz Bata, Parag Khanna, Seung-yoon Lee, Jared Cohen, Bruce Mau, Patrick Soon-Shiong
ADVISORY COUNCIL: Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei Kudrin, Pascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon Musk, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel Roubini, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter Schwartz, Amartya Sen, Jeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry Summers, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Zheng Bijian, Marek Belka, Tony Blair, Jacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar Issing, Mario Monti, Robert Mundell, Peter Sutherland, Guy Verhofstadt