»  Taki's Magazine

August 8, 2008

  China's Island of Stability


Finishing up his autobiography in late 1989, the crushing of that year's student movement still fresh in his memory, the Chinese dissident Liu Binyan wrote:

On the surface, the rulers have attained their objective … China seems to have been cowed into silent submission … The peaceful demonstration at Tiananmen Square was crushed, but it lit a flame in the hearts of countless people. The long-suffering Chinese … have finally given up their last illusions about the Chinese Communist Party. All they have now is implacable hatred. … [T]he Chinese people … will not tolerate this state any longer. The handful of octogenarians and the privileged bureaucratic clique whom they represent … are doomed to destruction. … At this moment, the Chinese people are one step closer to the freedom they have dreamt of and fought for during the last hundred years.

Those words make sad reading now. They are all the more striking in their wrong-headedness for having come from a man who knew China's social and political system very intimately, and had experienced China's previous 65 years of history at first hand. If Liu Binyan could get it wrong, who had any chance of getting it right? If that "bureaucratic clique" is "doomed to destruction," the destruction seems an awful long time a-coming.

Nor is the "implacable hatred" of the Chinese for their rulers much in evidence. A poll taken earlier this year, after the Tibet disturbances but before the Sichuan earthquake, showed the Chinese as the most optimistic people in the world, with 86 percent of them "content with the country's direction." The corresponding figure for the U.S.A. was 23 percent. Chinese people, says the poll, are worried about inflation, corruption, and environmental degradation, but not enough seriously to dampen their optimism.

I can claim some slight prescience here. The last time I myself was in China was 2001, eleven years after Liu Binyan recorded his thoughts. I reported my own impressions in National Review:

I am bound to say that I left China in a pessimistic mood. So far as I could see, while the level of discontent in China is in some places, and on some topics, very high, it is nowhere near high enough to threaten the dictatorship. Speaking most generally, in fact, I found the Chinese pretty well contented with their lives. Hardly anyone voices warm admiration of the current national leadership, and one often hears expressions of disgust about some particular incident of corruption or incompetence; but people give the Communists much credit for the great improvements in living standards this past two decades. …

 … the present dictatorship is more firmly established than I thought before I went to China. The urban middle classes, who are supposed to be the driving force behind political reform, do not like the Communists very much, but they do not mind them very much, either. The propaganda of the Communist Party, even at its most mendacious, has been very successful, and overwhelming numbers of Chinese people believe what the Party wants them to believe. Where economics and propaganda fail them, the Communists can still rely on fear. Everyone knows what they are capable of. … I cannot see any reason why the Communists should not go on ruling China and her imperial possessions indefinitely.

The optimism of today's Chinese is not hard to understand. To be sure, China is still a poor country, with a per capita GDP only a ninth that of the U.S. Look back at your own life, though. The times when you felt most upbeat were not the times when you had the most money. They were the times when you had that rising sensation: "I'm on my way up!" That's how the Chinese feel. Life has been getting better for them very fast this past few years, and there doesn't seem any clear reason why this shouldn't continue.

The rising sensation is not merely personal, either. Chinese people take great pride in their country, and their civilization. They have all been taught, by their schools and their popular culture, that their nation endured a century of suffering at the hands of cruel foreigners. That much of the suffering was self-inflicted, and that foreign powers often tried to help China lift herself up — these things are not taught. China's economic prowess, and the respect she gets from foreign nations (transmitted via TV news programs emphasizing state visits by Chinese leaders and grand receptions for foreign notables), generate great satisfaction among ordinary Chinese people.

The U.S.A., by contrast, has been Top Dog among nations for decades now. Life is good here — better, by any metric, than in China — but it has been good for rather a long time, and seems not to have been getting significantly better. We have more gadgets than twenty years ago, and some marginal improvements in health care, but nothing that remotely compares with having a factory job versus being a peasant, or having disposable income versus just keeping up with necessities, or having a car versus having a bicycle. For happiness and optimism, it's the gradient that counts, the first derivative.

There are plausible reasons to think, too, that the U.S.A. is facing some systemic problems that will hold us back while China surges ahead. You may not have reflected on this yourself, but sit down with an educated Chinese person and you will hear all about it. Our work ethic is shot to hell, he will tell you: "All the hard work and innovation is done by immigrants." In our colleges, all the classes in intellectually demanding subjects are packed with foreign students, while America's own snooze through "International Relations," "Media Studies," and "Queer Legal Theory." Our public finances are in the tank: China's public debt is 18 percent of GDP; ours, 61 percent. We are losing our edge in science: "China has already overtaken the UK and Germany in the number of physics papers published and is beginning to nip at the heels of the United States." (From here.)

Frictions and inefficiencies that arise from having an ethnically heterogeneous population, and the welfare burden of having a large, intractably unemployable, disproportionately criminal underclass, are a drag on American progress — an increasing one as we import, via laxity at our borders, "chain migration," and misplaced humanitarianism, ever more uneducated people from populations with feeble, or no, historical record of achievement. In our current atmosphere of cultivated victimology and historical grievance, those frictions also work against any sense of national fellowship and common purpose. Chinese people abroad, after working through some disagreement, will often settle things at last with a smile, a handshake, and the sentence: Women dou shi Zhong-guo ren! ("We're all Chinese!") That's decisive; that settles the matter, whatever it was. Is there an American equivalent? I have never heard it.

On present indications, this state of affairs — China surging upwards, the U.S.A. stagnating or declining — will continue for several years. China has reached what physicists call an "island of stability," where social, political, and economic forces are sufficiently in balance that no great disturbance can be foreseen. This is a pretty good time to be Chinese, if you don't mind the smog.

Yet there are undercurrents pulling away at that stability. Authoritarian politics is never truly stable — the 20th century demonstrated that well enough. China is still in the easy phase of modernization. The much harder part — cleaning up the environment, supplying basic welfare provisions, enforcing a settled rule of law, yielding autonomy to conquered peoples — will need more sophisticated governance. Even China's patriotism and sense of national solidarity rests to some degree on lies, which must sooner or later be exposed.

So here is the contest of the coming years. In the red corner, monoracial and nearly-monocultural China, blessed with a high-IQ population conscious of its own great historical attainments, fizzing with entrepreneurial energy, spurred on by historical grievances, real or imagined. Yet China's system of governance is brutish and inflexible, very little improved in sophistication since the Bronze Age. (Any decent constitutional history of the English-speaking peoples runs to a couple of thousand pages. The author of a constitutional history of China would be hard pressed to fill a dozen.) Rigid and corrupt as the "official" political culture is, the popular political culture is worse, shot through with cynicism, racial resentment, gross ignorance, and fascistic yearnings for leadership, order, and conquest. The metropolitan homeland of the Chinese people occupies only half the territory of the People's Republic; the rest is held by force. China is resource-poor and prone to natural disasters. Her demographic profile is simply terrible, with gross imbalances by age and sex.

And in the blue corner, multicultural America, with her multimodal population, the lower modes festering in pools of squalor, crime, and dependency, America's old spirit of liberty and opportunity slowly suffocating under taxation, regulation, legal predation, and anguished historical guilt. The grand tradition of American tinkering, of technical innovation and empirical inquiry, is being handed off to foreigners as America's own bright youngsters sink into lotus-eating, frivolity, and mystery cults. And yet our tradition of rational, consensual government is still strong. Sit in a room full of senior jurists and hear their earnest, learned talk of precedents and standing, of rights and duties. It is all a very long way from the Chinese Communist Party, whose only law is: "Tremble and obey!" Talk to people at a gun club, a VFW function, a NASCAR meet: their patriotism is alive and bumptious — and far more generous, informed and worldly than anything you will hear at a Chinese graduate students' club. We have made a terrible mess with our addiction to debt, soft living, and wishful thinking about human nature, with our preposterous fantasies of putting the world to rights. We have made terrible messes before, though, and come through them all right at last. Perhaps we shall again.

Which will prevail? Which will win over the other, by arms or — much more likely — competition, example, and persuasion? Has history really ended? Is the liberal order really triumphant? Or is it on its last legs, about to go under to a new, retooled, successful style of illiberalism?

With Liu Binyan's sad example in mind, I shall not venture a speculation. My own life, which has only a couple more decades to run, might just as well be spent in either country — I doubt it would make much difference. I often dream, in fact, of going off with Mrs. D. to a small town in China, away from pestiferous lawyers and accountants, away from the multi-culti rancors and witch-hunts, the exquisite "sensitivities," manufactured grievances, and "diversity" rackets, the snoopers and revenuers. I actually have a place in mind: a pleasant little seaside town, not important in any way yet not impossibly remote, with a dialect I can follow and not much earthquake history. I could supplement my Social Security and annuity by giving English lessons as I please, perhaps write a small novel or two. I could afford a housekeeper and cook, a small car and boat, a decent computer, and enough medical care to at least keep me out of pain till the Grim Reaper comes a-knocking. There are some downsides, I know, yet still the prospect appeals.

My instinct is, however, that history will push China off her island of stability before mid-century; and that the offshore waters will prove cold and deep. The Chinese of today have their optimism; while we, no doubt about it, have our problems. When I think of the lives my children will live, I am glad that they will live them in America, not in China.