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China's dark triumph

The success of its economy poses a serious challenge to liberal democracy.

January 13, 2008|Ian Buruma | Ian Buruma is a contributing editor to Opinion. He is a professor of human rights at Bard College, and his most recent book is "Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance."

2008 will be China's year. The Olympic Games -- no doubt perfectly organized, without a protester, homeless person, religious dissenter or any other kind of spoilsport in sight -- will almost certainly bolster China's global prestige. While the U.S. economy gets dragged down further in a swamp of bad property debts, China will continue to boom.

Exciting new buildings, designed by the world's most famous architects, will make Beijing and Shanghai look like models of 21st century modernity. Chinese entrepreneurs will be featured more and more in those annual lists of the world's richest people. And Chinese artists, favored by their newly rich compatriots, will command prices at art auctions that many others can only dream of.

To come back from near destitution and bloody tyranny in one generation is a great feat, and China should be saluted for it. But China's success story is also the most serious challenge that liberal democracy has faced since fascism in the 1930s. This is not because China poses a great military threat. War with the U.S., or even Japan, is only a fantasy in the minds of a few ultra-nationalist cranks and paranoiacs.

No, it is in the realm of ideas that the China model is scoring victories because the country's material success (despite its consequences for the natural environment) is making its political-economic model look like an attractive alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.

Contrary to what some pundits are saying, Chinese capitalism is not like 19th century European capitalism. The European working class, not to mention women, may not have had the right to vote 200 years ago, but it was possible to have many forms of organized life, for all social classes, that were independent of the state. Even during the most ruthless phases of Western capitalism, civil society in Europe and the U.S. was made up of a huge network of clubs, parties, societies and associations ranging from churches to sports clubs. The same was true of far-from-democratic China before Chairman Mao Tse-tung crushed everything that challenged the absolute monopoly of his Communist Party.

Since the death of Maoism, Chinese individuals have regained many personal freedoms, but not the freedom to organize anything politically, or otherwise, that is not under the control of the party. Communism may be bankrupt as an ideology, but in its lack of civil society, China has not changed. The China model is sometimes described in traditional terms, as though modern Chinese politics were an updated version of Confucianism. In fact, however, a society in which the pursuit of money by the country's elite is elevated above all other human endeavors is a very far cry from any kind of Confucianism that may have existed in the past.

Still, it's hard to argue with success. If anything has been put to rest by the Chinese rise to wealth, it is the comforting idea that capitalism, and the growth of a prosperous bourgeoisie, will end up inevitably in liberal democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely that same rich middle class, bought off by promises of ever-greater material gains, that hopes to conserve the current political order. It may be a Faustian bargain -- prosperity in exchange for political obedience, indeed abdication -- but so far it is a bargain that has worked.

The China model is not just attractive to the new elites of coastal China. It has a global appeal. African dictators, or indeed dictators everywhere, who walk the plush red carpets laid out for them in Beijing love it. The model is non-Western, and the Chinese do not preach to others about democracy. They are hardly in a position to do so even if they wanted to. But China is also a source of vast amounts of money, much of which will end up in the pockets of the tyrants themselves. Corruption is not the point, however. The real success is ideological. By proving that authoritarianism can be successful, China is an example to autocrats everywhere, from Moscow to Dubai, from Islamabad to Khartoum.

China's appeal is growing in the Western world as well. Businessmen, media moguls, architects -- they all flock to China. What could be a better place to do business in, or to build stadiums and skyscrapers, or to sell information technology and media networks, than a country without independent trade unions, or indeed any form of organized protest that could hinder business? Meanwhile, concerns for human rights, or civic rights, are denigrated as outmoded or expressions of arrogant Western imperialism.

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