A Democratic China?

One of the largest topics of debate in international relations these days seems to be ‘The Rise of China’.  It’s a theme mentioned practically in every news channel you watch, or rooted somewhere in any newspaper you might pick up.  That China is a rising star in the world is undeniable; its GDP has risen to be the 2nd largest in the world and it’s taking an increasingly important role in world affairs.  Thankfully, China’s leadership appears to have chosen to express this position of power through economic means, including investing in many developing countries around the world, rather than following the US route of attaining military hegemony.  China’s growth needn’t be a threat to the West simply because it’s a shock to the status quo – while worries about the effect corrupt deals could have in places such as in Africa, my only real concern would be if China decided to use its position to advocate Communism and authoritarianism outside its borders.  Instead, China seems committed to the principles of peace and stability and, after economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, has completely abandoned a Communist economic system while currently maintaining a Communist government (which completely defeats the purpose).

The question on many lips is this: will China, having adopted Western neoliberal ideas of the free market and private enterprise, also follow through and liberalise its political system?  The government has proven very successful thus far at warding off domestic unrest, largely I expect because of the country’s incredible economy (we have much to thank China for; its economic success has been praised for keeping the world from complete disaster during the financial meltdowns since 2008).  Since the brutal suppression of protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 there has been no large pro-democracy movements, despite the cases high-profile dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng.  Indeed, China’s unprecedented economic success has caused many in the West to consider whether economic growth and democracy must necessarily go hand in hand, as surely China is proof that an authoritarian country can be successful, right?

Yes and no, is my largely unprofessional opinion.  History has shown time and time again that economic development in the country – greater infrastructure, a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation – results in unrest within authoritarian countries.  An affluent middle class grouped together in urban areas with access to information will soon realise that they have no say in the political process; this is unavoidable.  China may effectively sensor the internet but bits and pieces will trickle through.  Meanwhile the number of Chinese people taking holidays abroad is skyrocketing, and there’s nothing the government can do to stop them realising how much more political freedom people have elsewhere.  Combine these factors with a gradual slowdown of economic growth and I would argue that the government is on a direct collision course with its citizens.  There are claims of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ which, like all claims of national exceptionalism, is merely a vain justification of certain policies.  China has a vastly unique and wonderful culture, yes*, but human nature remains the same.

So working on the assumption that a democratic transition is likely, we must now speculate the course this will take.  Will we see cautious policies to open up the political system, perhaps similar to what’s happening in neighbouring Burma, or will there be an Arab-Spring style uprising?  I’m inclined to predict the first option.  In fact, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson recently said that “Leading Chinese dissidents now believe the stage is set for multi-party democracy in maybe 5, 7, 10 years”, describing these dissidents as “surprisingly optimistic“.  He is of the view that China’s new leadership is aware that political liberalisation is necessary for continued development and that the real question is how this would be achieved.  Don’t confuse this with the idea that its leadership are Liberals – I believe them to be very Conservative – but this is in many ways an issue of pragmatism, not ideology.

Another curious question is, if this remarkable feat is ever achieved, what implications would a democratic China have?  While its possible a nationalistic government could be elected that would make the world a much less peaceful place, which would not be unusual  for a new democracy, chances are any elected government would be more moderate.  I can’t imagine even a democratic China being best buddies with the West – it has too many of its own interests to consider – but there would certainly be the opportunity to improve relations which wouldn’t exist under authoritarianism.  A democratic China would possibly be the best thing that could happen for the cause of spreading democracy worldwide; while I don’t expect it would join the West’s desperate fervour to impose democracy upon various countries, it would at least recognise that such a spread would be desirable.  For this reason, a democratic China would probably use its considerable influence over North Korea to force reform and openness.  Without Chinese support I find it unlikely to think that the Kim regime could survive for long.  There would probably also be much good news for human rights in Tibet, even if full independence might initially be off the agenda.

Also, what would a democratic China look like?  Would it keep elements of its Communist system or adopt a multi-party system as in Japan, India and South Korea?  A close example is the Soviet Union which completely dismantled its Communist style of governance in 1991 and adopted a Western model of governance, though China’s transition would probably not be quite so dramatic and therefore not so extreme.  And what would become of the flag?  Would it return to the flags of 1912-1949 republic?

Much of this is wild conjecture at best, though I think the odds are in favour of there being some political opening occuring.  It would be very nice if this happened as soon as 7 years time, while other commentators have suggested it’s more likely to occur during the 2022-2032 sixth generation of leadership.  It’s impossible to tell, though I suspect something has to change during my lifetime.  I’m excited to watch and see!

*One I would absolutely love to experience to a greater extent, incidentally.

 

Advertisements

Brave New World of the 21st Century

I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World.  So much so, in fact, that I chose to write

my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it.  Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure.  I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed.  What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life.  Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World.  So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.

The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class.  While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon.  Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.

Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics.  There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc.  They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line.  This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today.  Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population.  Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own.  There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth.  If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time.  You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume.  I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.

Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size.  I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level.  (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes.  However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world.  The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability.  So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption?  I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible.  At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive.  The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing.  While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me.  Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.

Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World.  Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination.  Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.

Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged.  There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma.  Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc.  We are far from abolishing unhappiness.

In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined.  Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?