Monday, September 30, 2019

China and Hong Kong: What's Really Happening?

It’s such an intriguing intellectual puzzle that no one has really addressed it. Today’s China, a testimony to free enterprise, a repudiation of Communist economic policies, is routinely denounced as a Communist dictatorship.

One suspects that people are confused to see a one party government, a government that rules with an authoritarian hand raise so many people out of poverty in such a short period of time. One emphasizes that in the late 1970s, soon after Mao died, and just as the No. 2 capitalist roader was taking over economic policy, the extreme poverty rate in China was over 80%. Today, its in the low single digits.

How could this happen without free speech, free elections and respect for human rights. We Westerners are puzzled. We are thrilled to see rebellious young people rising up against the regime in Hong Kong, not realizing that they are damaging their city and its economy, perhaps irrevocably. We see a yearning for basic political freedoms. The government of China sees the noxious influence of Western culture, weak and decadent, prone to anarchic displays and to electing imbeciles. 

While we are rooting for the demonstrators, we suspect that they are fighting a losing cause. After all, Gordon Chang, a man who has the distinction of being consistently wrong about all things Chinese, declared that the Hong Kong protests signaled the end of Communist rule. Twenty years ago the same Chang predicted that Chinese Communist rule was ending.

What do you call someone who is consistently wrong? Why, you call him an expert. One sees Chang on television all the time spewing his bad predictions and his worse analysis.

As for democracy, we like to think that other Asian countries, like Singapore and Japan are democracies… because they hold elections. And yet, these countries pay lip service to democracy. They have one-party political rule. And they are regimented. Imagine the authorities in Singapore allowing their cities to become open air toilets. Imagine them allowing fascist protesters to harass people in restaurants and to beat up citizens on the streets. If that is what human rights look like in practice, they want none of it.

The problem with the "China is Communist" meme is quite simply: China’s economic success over the past four decades. If China has risen from historical irrelevance to compete against the United States in the clash of civilizations, if it has succeeded economically… do we really want to credit that to Communism? Many of America’s leading conservative intellectuals insist on labeling China a Communist dictatorship. Do they understand that in so doing they are reviving the reputation of the most destructive economic policy the world has seen?

One party rule, led by a new emperor, is not to our liking. As Ian Buruma explains, it’s a grand bargain, one that the authorities made with the Chinese people. The party opened the economy to free enterprise and allowed people to prosper. The people would sacrifice their wishes to vote in elections or to turn their universities into indoctrination mills. As long as the people of China believe that life is good, and that they have gained the world’s respect, the Hong Kong protesters are playing a losing hand. 

It’s all about authority but it’s also about order and discipline. The Chinese people despise discord. In their history, it turns into civil war or cultural revolutions. Ian Buruma sheds some light on the question of today’s China. His is a sober assessment.

First, he asks why China still clings to the image of Mao Zedong. After all, Mao’s successors were victims of the horrors his regime visited on the nation. 

And yet, Mao’s feat of unifying the country and restoring national pride is still a reason for many people in China to respect his legacy, and for the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) to justify its continued monopoly on power. The fear of violent disorder runs deep and is consistently drummed into Chinese of all ages. Party propagandists insist that China without Communist rule would descend once more into chaos and fall prey to hostile foreign powers.

Doubtless they feel the way they feel. And yet, Mao caused tens of millions of people to starve to death. China under Mao was not respected. It was a charnal house, a horror show, a disgrace. The first thing that Deng Xiaoping and his cronies did was to arrest the leaders of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

More importantly, Buruma notes the different ways that Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev tried to revive their nations after their ill-fated experiment with Communism:

The party has adapted extremely well to capitalism. Seeing what happened to the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, China’s rulers refused to follow his example. After the Chinese who demanded similar reforms were brutally crushed during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the C.C.P. made a tacit deal with the educated urban class from which most of the protesters came. One-party rule would create the orderly conditions for people to become wealthy, in exchange for which they would refrain from political protest.

In this sense, China is not so different from Singapore, where a similar deal has been struck, if in a somewhat less oppressive manner. In fact, Deng Xiaoping, considered to be China’s great modern reformer and the man who cracked down on the dissidents in 1989, was an admirer of the Singaporean way of combining capitalism with autocracy.

For the record, it wasn’t just that the authorities crushed the Tiananmen protests because they were opposed to democratic reforms. They did so because bands of marauding young people reminded them of the Red Guards… and they were not going to make that mistake again.

We emphasize that Gorbachev put liberal democracy ahead of free enterprise. Deng sacrificed liberal democracy in order to make free enterprise work more efficiently.

The new emperors used Confucianism to impose authority. One understands that in today’s America authority is a bad word. At a time when teachers routinely fail to exercise authority in the classroom, when people do not follow rules of good behavior or proper decorum, where we are excessively tolerant of bad behavior, we inveigh against authority. Duh.

I take some exception with Buruma’s view of Confucianism, but here it is:

Confucianism, originally a moral as well as a political philosophy, became an ideology imposed to instill obedience to authority — from fathers in families to clan chiefs all the way up to the emperor.

This may not have been what Confucius, or his follower Mencius, had originally intended. They were more interested in the cultivation of virtue in scholar-officials and the proper observance of ethical rules: Ancient Confucianism is a kind of blueprint for harmonious social order. And the recent protests in Hong Kong, as well as a vibrant democracy in Taiwan, show that many Chinese are actively opposed to authoritarianism — notably in places where traditional Chinese culture has generally been better preserved than on the mainland.

But rulers have used Confucianism, today no less than a thousand years ago, to support social hierarchy and autocratic rule. Official promoters of the creed have put an authoritarian spin on what started as a humanist philosophy.

I take exception on one ground: Confucianism is based on filial piety, and nothing is more conducive to authority and to social hierarchy than the practice of filial piety… that is, of children being required to revere and respect their elders. Confucianism is not humanist philosophy.

In America, as in China, we have Tiger Moms whose authority is imposed on their children strictly. In New York City charter schools, called Success Academies, discipline and respect for authority are never to be questioned. In both cases children thrive. In schools where discipline is not imposed and where authority is not respected, children flounder.

As for Mao, it is too facile, as Buruma does, to consider Mao a Confucian scholar. Especially since the Cultural Revolution was designed to root out Confucianism. When children murder and cannibalize their teachers, when they humiliate the party elites and functionaries, we are not dealing with a Confucian culture. We are seeing its opposite… in action. 

As you know, Mao had to call in the army to put down a Cultural Revolution that got completely out of control… and that was destroying the nation.

Buruma suggests that the end of party rule is nowhere in sight:

But a harsher version of the Singaporean model could succeed for quite a long time. The C.C.P. will continue to justify its rule by standing for order, national greatness and something called “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” while (some of) the people continue to get rich. The exact nature of this type of socialism is not so important, nor is whether people really believe in it. There were many schools of Confucianism, too. The important thing is that this form of socialism compels obedience. And as long as the party remains in power, state control of spiritual and intellectual life will prevent people from coming up with any viable alternative.

In effect, there’s more to it than a rage for public order and social harmony. The Chinese people do not want what we have. They believe that their way is superior and that they will outcompete us in the long run. They see America falling into warring factions and Western Europe falling into terminal decadence… all by following a certain number of discredited ideas. They are prospering while we are destroying ourselves fighting thought crimes. 

The Communist Party of China is less concerned with maintaining its own power than it is with inoculating the nation against the pernicious and noxious influence of Western liberal democracy. They believe that the habits inculcated by Western values undermine economic growth and progress.


Derek Ramsey said...

"Today’s China, a testimony to free enterprise, a repudiation of Communist economic policies, is routinely denounced as a Communist dictatorship."

I can't tell if this post is satire or not. Since it is 90% wrong, and you are usually right about things, I'll assume it is satire and I'm just really dense and don't get the joke.

I've been to China and Hong Kong and witnessed them first-hand. I've adopted three children at the former and have business contacts at the latter. The criticisms of China are well-earned. I wouldn't wish the Chinese system on my enemies.

UbuMaccabee said...

China wins because we lose. We lose because leftism has infected every part of our culture and our institutions. We are in a Civil War between Civilization and barbarism, and barbarism controls most of the levers of power. China is well aware of our internal divisions. It is 100% in China’s current interests to support the left in the west. I cannot think of a scenario where China supports traditional America; every interest of theirs is supported by the left taking power in the US.

n.n said...

Give credit where credit is due. There are features of the Chinese model that are separable and dependent, which can be observed and evaluated with respect to principles and performance.

sestamibi said...

"Socialism With Chinese Characteristics"??

Is that something like roast pork with Chinese vegetables?

Perhaps more like what it was known as in Eastasia: "Obliteration of the Self".