In the 1980’s, following the collapse of the eastern Bloc, Francis Fukuyama’s claimed that free market liberal democracy had won out and would be history’s final form of government. Yes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still ruled China. But China was introducing free market economic reforms and this economic liberalisation would inevitably lead to political liberalisation, just like it had everywhere else. Capitalist economic globalism and political liberal democracy were simply two different sides of the same coin.
But, contrary to this story, China has remained politically authoritarian and nationalistic. Instead of free market reforms leading to political liberalisation in China, authoritarianism and nationalism is on the increase in the West.
China is an authoritatiarian surveillance state. Labor MP Tim Watts has aptly described it as “techno-authoritarian”. Term limits on the presidency have been removed allowing Xi to lead China indefinitely. There are 200 million surveillance cameras across the country and a facial recognition data base under state control. Cameras can use facial recognition technology combined with real-time tracking to pick individuals out of a crowd. Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in China’s north-west are severely repressed. An estimated 1.1 million people have been placed in internment camps, including re-education camps where, according to former detainees and other witnesses, inmates are subjected to intense political indoctrination and abuse. As Foreign Policy magazine has put it, in China “one man will sit atop a police state with access to ubiquitous data gathered about citizens by social media and online shopping platforms and a vast human and electronic surveillance apparatus to track their every move”.
But China is increasingly economically dominant. 200 million of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Real wages in China are now 30 times higher than they were 30 years ago. Over the same period real wages in the West have stagnated.
China is an early adopter of new technology. There are cities in China that already operate cashless economies- all purchases are done by mobile phone, eliminating the cash economy and its opportunities for tax evasion. Cashless payments have taken off in China because all sectors of commerce have embraced them. Even roadside vendors accept e-payments. China’s massive ambitions for artificial intelligence are clear: the plan proposes transforming China’s fledgling AI industry into a ‘world leader’ worth RMB 400 billion ($60 billion) by 2025 and a ‘premier innovation centre’ worth RMB 1 trillion by 2030 ($150 billion).
China has an appalling environmental record. Elizabeth Economy has chronicled China’s environmental history in her 2004 book ‘The River Runs Black’. She points to the terrible environment price China has paid for transforming its economy from a poverty stricken nation into an economic powerhouse.
Apart from greenhouse gas emissions, this environmental price includes desertification, water pollution and scarcity, deforestation, air pollution, and susceptibility to flooding (due to deforestation and destruction of wetlands).
Economy maintains that China’s environmental situation is not just the result of “modern policy choices” which facilitated integration into the international economy and multinationals locating pollution intensive industries in China. She points to a centuries’ long drive towards economic development involving plundering of forests and mineral resources, poorly conceived river diversion, water management and intensive farming that has degraded the land. According to Economy “China’s leaders from emperors to Mao Zedong relied upon… few environmental regulations and no codified environmental laws…”
But the Chinese government at least accepts the reality of anthropogenic climate change. China is not led by a climate change deniers like Donald Trump and the US Republican Party. There is no climate change denial movement in China or coverage given to denialism in the state controlled media. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panel technology. Solar energy in China is now cheaper than electricity from its grid. The government is committed to positioning itself as a world leader in provision of renewable energy. More than 60% of the world’s solar panels are made in China.
On the other hand, China remains the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter. And at the recent Madrid climate conference, it pushed back against European proposals for a CO2 border tax. China still demonstrates a huge appetite for new coal-fired power stations. Christine Shearer, an analyst at the NGO Global Energy Monitor, has said: “China’s proposed coal expansion is so far out of alignment with the Paris agreement that it would put the necessary reductions in coal power out of reach, even if every other country were to completely eliminate its coal fleet.”
China has a more serious and systemic approach to technical education, research and development and provision of economic infrastructure than the USA and most other Western economies. It also has a sophisticated system of cadre training and development. There is no such thing as a neutral civil service in China. Cadre training aims to ensure the political quality of cadres and continued dominance of the CCP. But the training is also expected to create and maintain the technocratic capacity required for economic modernisation. China’s system means a national leader such as Xi Jinping comes to office with infinitely more political and administrative experience than a figure such as Donald Trump.
Although denied political liberties many in the West take too much for granted, China now has a burgeoning middle class with a strong work ethic, economic ambition and consumerist proclivities. Between 2000 and 2010, consumption in China multiplied from about $650 billion to nearly $1.4 trillion, and the country’s big spenders have become notorious for ravenously gobbling up pricey Swiss watches and high-end handbags.
Consumerism in China probably operates in much the same way as it does in the West.
Israeli Historian Yuval Harari has described consumerism as the most successful of ideologies. Most Christians fail to emulate Christ. Most Buddhists fail to follow Buddha. Consumerism is the first “religion” in history where the followers actually do what they are asked to do- buy more and more. Once individuals view themselves primarily as consumers their spending spurs domestic economic growth. But perhaps even more importantly, a strong consumerist identity is also a means by which protest and dissent can be diverted into more passive pursuits.
China ranks in the top 20 countries in the world for production of refugees and this has increased recently with the problems in Hong Kong. But overall most of China’s population is either strongly nationalistic and supportive of the government, or if not, is largely politically compliant. Doubtless fear is an element in containing dissent. But conformity is mostly assured through subtler means. Many people simply compare the country to how it was 30-40 years ago and see progress. While deep privileges attach to CCP membership, improved access to education and health is not restricted to CCP members. People can choose a career path. If they have spare economic capacity they can invest. They can own their own home. 120 million Chinese travel abroad every year and, in marked contrast to the old soviet eastern bloc, willingly return their homeland. While per capita incomes in China remain well below those in more developed economies, opportunity has expanded in China over the same period that it has declined in the West.
Although largely adopting a capitalist model of development China is not a neo liberal country. It demonstrates features of both a market and a planned economy. The government still produces 5 year economic plans. Public ownership of sectors of the economy is still significant. China is home to 109 corporations listed on the Fortune Global 500 – but only 15% of those are privately owned. In 2015 the top 12 Chinese companies were all state owned.
State owned enterprises (SOEs) in China are highly over-leveraged and structurally less efficient than their private peers. The private sector contributes 60% of China’s GDP, and is responsible for 70% of innovation, 80% of urban employment and 90% of new jobs. But the Chinese government is still keen on supporting SOEs and says it is committed to making them more efficient. The CCP sees public ownership of certain strategic sectors as essential – defence, energy, telecom, aviation and railway systems. The CCP is not yet prepared to regulate giant, strategically significant corporations, which is why it has chosen to retain the option of direct control over its SOEs.
The Chinese government, unlike governments in the West, has not been driven by the ideological imperatives of neoliberalism. Hence it has not divested itself of important levers of economic policy through wholesale and indiscriminate privatisation, competitive neutrality policies that hamper public enterprise where it continues to exist, general de-regulation and monetary policy determination by central banks. The government in China had no need to implement policies to weaken trade unions, as occurred across Western economies since the 1980’s, because it had no independent union movement to bring to heel.
But, if one defines socialism as requiring a devolution of economic ownership and economic and political power then the Chinese economy is run more along capitalist lines than socialist lines. It is more “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” than it is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. And the relative success of the Chinese model for capitalist development should hardly surprise. When you have an economic system, like capitalism, which concentrates wealth and economic power at the top, it is hardly surprising that it can develop under authoritarian rule.
Although opportunity has increased in China so has economic inequality. And political equality is nowhere on the horizon. In fact political inequality is likely to become even more entrenched.
Western type religious and secular humanitarian ethical objections to the development of human enhancement technologies are unlikely to impede its development for long in a techno-authoritarian state such as China. These technologies raise huge issues for equality.
China has already developed a state-endorsed genetic-engineering project. At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Once developed, will access to human enhancement technologies be democratically shared, or will CCP members get privileged access?
The future of China’s political and economic model appears dystopian. Forget Marx’s ideal of a society of class free semi-autonomous producers that have no need of a state which has therefore withered away. Forget Mill’s ideal where freedom of the individual from the state allows each individual to pursue his or her happiness as long as this does not interfere in other individuals’ right to do the same. The end point for China resembles a kind of technocratic Plato’s Republic. The basic structure is already in place. The CCP is Plato’s guardian or philosopher class- it loves truth and knowledge (Xi thought) and is the exclusive ruler. The masses are the producers who, while enjoying improved living standards, only ever get to see the shadows of reality on the cave wall. And the People’s Liberation Army is the auxiliary class, responsible for defence and keeping peace at home. The protectors of the guardian class.