Wednesday this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese army’s retaking Tiananmen Square from anti-regime protestors, an event known to Chinese by the date as “6/4.”
The first thing to be said about this is that if, like me, you welcome summer by reading a good thick middlebrow novel, here’s just the thing. Not only is it the definitive 6-4 novel, it would also have been the definitive 1980s bond-trader novel if Tom Wolfe hadn’t got in first with Bonfire of the Vanities; and it would have been the definitive opera novel if Willa Cather hadn’t ditto with Song of the Lark. Damn these wanna-be-first upstarts!
With that out of the way, let’s ponder China, and what, if anything, this last 25-year sliver of China’s impressively long history has to tell us.
“Must we?” I hear groaned from the back of the room.
I’m not unsympathetic to the groaners. There is certainly a case for not giving a damn about China.
The place is separated from us by a wide ocean. It is demographically waning, in no condition to go off occupying new territories. True, they can nuke us; but we can nuke them back. If MAD worked with the passionate, romantic Russians at their most idealistic, it should work with the practical, commercial Chinese at their most materialistic.
But aren’t the Chinese building up their military with the aim of being the hegemon in East Asia, like us in the Americas?
So what if they are? Do we have any reason to think they’d be a bad hegemon? Or is there something wrong with hegemony in principle? If there is, why do we practice it?
So yes, there’s definitely a case for minding our business and letting the Chinese mind theirs. I favor that case.
There’s also a case for not thinking about China at all. There I have to excuse myself. China’s my country-in-law. I’ve been mixed up with the place in one way or another for most of my adult life. I’m interested, in both senses of the word.
So, do these 25 years have anything to tell us?
I think they do. In the first place, they tell us that despotic government by a self-selecting elite, without public audit but with considerable personal and economic liberty, can be made to work in a big modern nation for at least a generation. We did not know that before.
As I have commented in this space previously, the ChiComs have pulled off a Staatskunstwunder, a miracle of statecraft.
The 1989 events were not mere disturbances raised by a disaffected rabble; they were a crisis of legitimacy for the Party, with the General Secretary and at least one top military commander at odds with their colleagues.
“When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold,” said Job to Eliphaz the Temanite. Many supporters of the ChiComs believe that their Party, hard tried by 1989, has come forth as gold.
ChiCom apologist Eric X. Li, for example, in his side of a Foreign Affairs debate last year:
Beijing will be able to meet the country’s ills with dynamism and resilience, thanks to the CCP’s adaptability, system of meritocracy, and legitimacy with the Chinese people. In the next decade, China will continue to rise, not fade. The country’s leaders will consolidate the one party model and, in the process, challenge the West’s conventional wisdom … In the capital of the Middle Kingdom, the world might witness the birth of a post-democratic future.
Eric Li is far from disinterested: Ted.com describes him as “a well-connected venture capitalist in Shanghai.” He misses some deep systemic problems with the Chinese model, as his opponent in that debate points out.
He is surely right, though, that the West has some deep systemic problems of its own. He even fails to note some things the ChiComs are getting right that we are getting wrong. They may face demographic decline, but they are facing it when technological progress makes ever-swelling populations pointless. And they are attending to population quality while we, in our folly, are importing masses of future “useless mouths.”
No, I don’t think the CCP offers any kind of model for the future, even for China’s future. I do, though, with a grudging nod to Eric Li, think their Staatskunstwunder might prompt us to think more critically about our own problems. If authoritarian rule by technocratic clones with Swiss bank accounts is not the way of the future, neither is universal-suffrage democracy.
Here’s George Walden reviewing Micklethwait & Wooldridge’s The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State in the Wall Street Journal the other day:
This book’s message is simple but severe: If the state promises too much to too many, cynicism grows, and democracy is damaged. Unless the ballooning state is punctured, there is a risk that our wealth will shrivel and our power will decrease while more focused and less democratic regimes grab the baton.
Universal-suffrage democracy may have been a good idea 120 years ago, when most adults did productive work into their sixties, then died. In today’s top-heavy welfare states, it just empowers tax-eaters to loot the national wealth.
Tomorrow’s politics will be the art of providing make-work for as many as possible of the employable minority while pacifying the un-employable majority with a state dole. In that world, universal-suffrage democracy will be untenable.
Already, unconsciously, we are making appropriate adjustments. Our universities, after a few aberrant decades of experimenting with open inquiry and the advance of knowledge, have reverted to their medieval purpose (the purpose that Chinese higher education always had): to train an intellectual elite for the propagation and defense of the state ideology. Then it was Christianity (in China, Confucianism); now it is utopian egalitarianism—“political correctness,” the Narrative. The advance of knowledge can go hang.
Since we are already making cultural adjustments to the inevitable future, can the political adjustments be far behind?