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The Emperor Wears No Clothes

Published at: 16-02-2020

Posted on: February 16th, 2020 by RaduC No Comments

A deep concern is haunting part of the Western elites vented as well in the main stream media: economic success is no longer within the exclusive remit of liberal societies. China`s spectacular developments in the past decades and its dominant position in spite of the autocratic political regime that originated them have prompted analysts to seriously wonder whether the Chinese political establishment can be regarded as a model of economic growth whose success might appeal to other countries. In other words, the question that got so many worried is whether we are headed towards a world where non-democratic regimes might be more readily accepted by the public for the sake of rapid China-type growth.

I do not believe that to be the case and here is why.

Indeed, over the past decades China`s economy skyrocketed. A World Bank document noted that four decades after the reform started in the late 1970s, an average annual 10% growth rate has lifted over 850 million of Chinese out of poverty. Mind-boggling and, most likely, unprecedented… China is a textbook example of the effects that globalization has had on some emerging economies, true, to the detriment of significant swathes of the population in the developed countries. Were these changes in China inevitable? Not necessarily.

Let`s not forget that the defining moment was the advent to power in late 1970s of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed „the architect of modern China”. His gradual rise to power came in the aftermath of the communist dictator Mao Zedong`s death, known for his dictatorial excesses, the isolation and underdevelopment in which he had kept the country. This  takes me to the key element of success of the Chinese growth: the enlightened despot.

A country under authoritarian regime is usually subject to a supreme ruler who has consolidated his personal power via political and military means. The fact that a president may now stay in office for life can only confirm the Chinese trend of strengthening the autocratic establishment. Such a country is conditioned in its remarkable economic success by one thing: to be run by a man of vision and courage. And this is exactly what China has had. A leader of vision who secured mineral resources in Africa, expanded China`s geopolitical influence through the “Silk Road” and had the courage to advocate China as a regional power, even if that risked calling into question the American influence in Asia. And if we look at what happens in Latin America or even Europe, there are signs that China will not stop at Asia.

During its first decades of growth, China`s main card up its sleeve was a huge population willing to work on low wages but presenting a massive consumption growth potential. This single advantage had Western countries and their businesses rush to China to invest, turning a blind eye to the sometimes harsh business environment, such as the mandatory hiring of Chinese managers to “shadow” foreign managers or weak intellectual property safeguards.

Let us not forget one fact: China`s development was for a long period of time the result of the capital and technological know-how produced by developed economies in liberal regimes. Had it not been for them, the economic success of the Chinese autocratic regime would not have been possible.

Will China be able to further take advantage and continue to grow? Probably yes, on one major condition: to be run by enlightened despots going forward. This is actually the risk of any autocratic society centered around a single leader: the reliance on „the roulette” of appointments. It is not hard to imagine how having the wrong person in power may, in such a centralized command structure, lead to a chain reaction that might destroy the country. There are plenty of examples around the world, Venezuela being among the most conspicuous, a once thriving country ruined by a “dark despot”.

The lack of democratic checks and balances rather leaves the success of such countries to chance as a leader, once in power can hardly be challenged. The whole system will go out of its way to protect its leader, to ensure the survival of the establishment and prevent any cracks in the organization of power. This comes with silencing critics, opinions, free speech and free movement of information.

The main issue with such a society is that, when faced with internal weaknesses, the first reaction is to hide and disguise them. Because it can as it holds all the levers of communication. The coronavirus outbreak made the issue abundantly clear. The first government reaction was to cover it up and punish those who raised the alarm. The absence of a free press, of strong civil society organizations did not allow the disclosure of such an extremely serious problem and had it smothered out.

This would have been unlikely in a free country. Democracies do not concentrate power in the hands of one institution, and the press and civil society are the fearful watchdogs of democratic rules and transparency. If authoritarian behavior occurs, both use official or unofficial ways to act and bring things back to normal. By the way, were there any other news about Trump`s children and son-in-law who were about to be entrusted with the US foreign policy at the beginning of his term? We can add to that a series of bipartisan resolutions meant to limit the president`s ability to arbitrarily engage the United States in war in the Middle East. And the US is just one example of cases across most consolidated democracies where the balance of powers was restored.

The Chinese leadership`s major challenge is that, as long as China`s economy was growing and people were thriving, the lack of civil and political liberties was a bitter pill easier to swallow. The problems that a terrible outbreak such as the current one and possible economic stagnation inflict on the population may turn public anger against the supreme leader and the system that enabled his creation. No surprise that so far, his public presence was near-inexistent. In democratic countries, pressure from popular anger is released through rallies and translates into the election of alternative political forces, as punishment for the incumbent.

In a country like China, this is not possible and there isn`t really a release valve. There may be one exception, the “foreign enemy” used so successfully in Russia. But Russia`s appetite for isolationism is much stronger and also illustrates the disadvantages that a confrontational approach ordered by another authoritarian ruler brings: slipping further behind China.

Unlike Russia, however, the key to China`s development will continue to rest on its openness to the outside world. That is a compelling reason to becoming one of the most vocal advocates of globalization, free trade and economic integration. Using the “foreign enemy” card can only go so far if it does not want to upset its open borders for trade strategy.

Given all this, putting an end to the outbreak and resuming economic growth have become vitally important for the security of the Chinese illiberal system. Otherwise not even the sophisticated Orwellian technologies that increasingly invade private life will not suffice to reign in the ensuing tensions.

Can this type of society really stand as an appealing development model?

Have a nice weekend!


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