NOTICE: The rise of China now dominates our view of the future. Freed from its Marxist doctrines, its economy developed at a surprising speed. It is now the second largest in the world and many experts tell us that it will overtake the United States in a few years.
Linear projections are of course risky. A few decades ago, Japan’s hopes for the top spot were hailed in books with titles like Japan as number one. It is now number three.
But China’s expectation of reaching the top seems better founded. If so, it seems there is no reason to fear such economic success, which, after all, benefits us all. But we squirm uncomfortably at the thought because this rising economic powerhouse fuels a sour and aggressive nationalism.
Totalitarianism is back and history reminds us that it is not good for us. Totalitarian governments, we know, are prone to the expansion of national power, and China, crushing ethnic groups, tearing up an international treaty, and militarizing the South China Sea, recalls the 1930s with dismay.
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And, as with Germany’s sparkling economic success at the time, China’s daring leads some to question whether messy, argumentative democratic paths are the best.
There are a lot of ambitions in China to be a serious concern, but no reason to lose confidence in ourselves.
The windows of totalitarian governments, which dazzle passers-by, hide very shabby back rooms. For this reason, such systems do not have a long lifespan. At the beginning of the last century, communism and fascism were seen by many as the answer to the shortcomings of democracy, but at the end of the century, only disorderly and argumentative democracies still existed. The analogy with China suggests that its current form of government will not survive this century.
For there are serious weaknesses in the totalitarian system which are not conducive to long life.
The first, more evident in China than its 1930s predecessors, is that it is afraid of its own people. His claims of enthusiastic and unwavering support are belied by his nervous attitude in the face of even minor risks.
In 2008, standing by the side of the road to witness the passage of the Olympic flame required a ticket from the authorities. During the last Party Congress in Beijing, the rear window handles were said to have disappeared from taxis, presumably to prevent malcontents from shouting or throwing subversive literature as they passed Tiananmen Square.
These are trifles, but they reveal an important difference from elected governments. Unlike democracies, totalitarian governments must at all times project a shiny and unmarked surface of success. The slightest scratch on their immaculate painting is a sign of weakness, of vulnerability.
Chinese leaders are well aware of the underlying fragility of their system. This is why this people’s government spends US $ 216 billion each year on internal security, three times more than it spent ten years ago and more than it spends on the Chinese armed forces. This is not the expense of a government confident in its popular support.
Another weakness is even more serious. He reversed all previous totalitarian experiences. The government by decree does not have a repair kit to deal with the accumulated mistakes of life.
Democracies can and sometimes do a series of mistakes, but they can apply a patch or two, maybe change the government, and keep going.
The intrepid leader of an absolutist regime cannot admit his mistakes because, by definition, he cannot make them. If he is capable and fearless, he can deal with short-term problems quickly and if necessary ruthlessly, which is why some see Chinese President Xi Jinpings far more effective than argumentative democracies with loud media.
Over time, however, a dictator’s judgments will sometimes be wrong and possibly disastrous and there is no one to dare argue with him, to tell him to take another path. Xi’s aggressive foreign policy begins to form a Western coalition against him.
Over time, this could prove to be a fatal flaw, but if not, another flaw will bring it down because it doesn’t have to consider the range of alternatives that in a messy democracy allows action to be taken. corrective measures in time.
How these facts work in history tells us that totalitarian governments like China are not built for the long term. They are designed for a sprint rather than a marathon. It helps to keep that in mind but, even so, a lot of damage can be done in a sprint, as the Nazis showed in the 1930s. In another of the eerie echoes of this era, Taiwan looms large as another Czechoslovakia.
Taiwan is generally considered to be part of China, but the deal with Beijing when renewing Western diplomatic relations was that any meeting would be peaceful. It worked well for decades, and Taiwan’s deepening economic relationship with the mainland suggested that a voluntary merger was increasingly likely.
President Xis’ move to tear up the schedule for the reunion with Hong Kong cut off the ground for those in Taiwan who wanted the same. At present, it seems only a tiny minority who wish to join the motherland, or even who no longer see it as the motherland.
The president’s response has been to use force, saying Taiwan must be brought back by 2049. Its military strengthening, with the increase in flights in Taiwan’s airspace, underscores this.
Suddenly war seems possible in the North Pacific, and democratic governments must ask themselves what they would do about it. In 1938, the West thought it best to abandon Czechoslovakia. Are we going to decide that it is safer to do the same with Taiwan?
Gerald Hensley was a Foreign Service Officer who served as Head of the Prime Minister’s Department and Secretary of Defense.
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