By Orville Schell
BEIJING – China’s government is making massive preparations for a grand National Day parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to celebrate both the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding and the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s program of “reform and opening up.” Walking through the square the other evening, I found myself thinking back to when I first began following China’s amazing odyssey. The iconic, Mona Lisa-like visage of Chairman Mao still gazes out from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but what was happening all around me suggested how much things had changed.
When I first began studying China at Harvard a half-century ago, China’s leaders trumpeted the superiority of their socialist command economy, which controlled every aspect of life. Hostility between the United States and China, however, prevented students like me from actually traveling there.
But in 1975, while Mao still lived, the Cultural Revolution still raged, class politics still held sway, and there were no private cars, shops, advertisements, or private property, I arrived in Beijing. Even we visiting foreigners – all dutifully clad in blue Mao suits and caps – were expected to attend regular political “study sessions” to purify our bourgeois minds with proletarian tracts written by the Gang of Four. That trip set an indelible baseline against which I have since been able to measure all the changes China has undergone.
As Deng Xiaoping began to encourage individual incentives over the next several decades – embodied in such slogans as, “To Get Rich Is Glorious” – I watched with wonder and amazement as China’s private economy began to rise from the ashes of Mao’s revolution. As this process unfolded, it became fashionable for market fundamentalists in the West to bask in a sense of vindication. After all, were the scales not falling away from the eyes of Chinese leaders, and were they not now turning for salvation toward the God of capitalism that they had once so militantly denounced?
This “end-of-history” interlude, when “Communism” was either failing or recycling itself into its opposite, also encouraged many latter-day American political missionaries to proselytize for democracy as well as capitalism – to urge China’s leaders to abandon state controls not only over their economy, but over their political system as well.
Of course, China’s leaders vigorously resisted that evangelism, especially after the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989, often berating the West for “intruding in the internal affairs of China” and clinging even more defiantly to their Leninist, one-party form of governance. As the imbalance between China’s ever more dynamic, modern, and globalized economy and its opaque, single-party system of political rule deepened, many Western specialists predicted that the contradiction would inevitably trip China up. Instead, it was America and the West that went into an economic tailspin.
When, after the eight catastrophic years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Barack Obama entered the White House, it seemed for a moment as if America might be able to arrest its downward slide. But then an unwelcome thing happened. Obama ran right into a perfect storm of the worst aspects of American democracy: red-state provincialism and ignorance, fearful conservatism, Republican Party obstructionism and even some Democratic Party dissidence.
The US Congress became paralyzed by partisan politics. Seemingly lacking a central nervous system, it has become a dysfunctional creature with little capacity to recognize any common national, much less international, interest. Under such circumstances, even a brilliant leader, with an able staff and promising policies, will be unable to pursue his agenda.
As governments across the West have become increasingly bogged down trying to fix a broken economy, China has been formulating a whole series of new, well-considered policies and forging ahead with bold decision-making to tackle one daunting problem after another. Triumphant from the 2008 Olympic Games, its leaders have undertaken the most impressive infrastructure program in history, implemented a highly successful economic stimulus package, and now are moving into the forefront of green technology, renewable energy, and energy efficiency – the activities out of which the new global economy is certain to grow.
In short, China is veritably humming with energy, money, plans, leadership, and forward motion, while the West seems paralyzed.
As I strolled through Tiananmen Square, the paradox that struck me was that the very system of democratic capitalism that the West has so ardently believed in and advocated now seems to be failing us. At the same time, the kind of authoritarianism and state-managed economics that we have long impugned now seems to be serving China well.
It is intellectually and politically unsettling to realize that, if the West cannot quickly straighten out its systems of government, only politically un-reformed states like China will be able to make the decisions that a nation needs to survive in today’s high-speed, high-tech, increasingly globalized world.
Orville Schell is Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.
© Project Syndicate, 2009