In a season of political shocks, President Xi Jinping’s assumption of supreme power has still managed to startle many longstanding observers of China. The Economist magazine dramatically declared, “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.” Instead of moving toward democracy, these voices suggest, China is sliding further into authoritarianism.
It’s worth asking, if for no reason than to avoid more such shocks in the near future, why the “West” placed this bet on China at all.
The expectation that China would amicably integrate into a global order defined by the West, and radically transform itself in the process, was always wishful thinking. Writing about Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wondered if China was inheriting “a colossal Trojan horse” that over time would bring down the Beijing regime. In January 2013, Kristof predicted that Xi would initiate far-reaching economic and political reforms, including removing the body of Mao Zedong from its mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
Journalists weren’t alone in investing a quasi-religious faith in China’s redemption by democracy and free markets. Pushing for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, Bill Clinton claimed that the liberalization of China’s political system was “inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin Wall fell.”
Those who got Xi spectacularly wrong can at least claim that not much was known about him before he became China’s leader. But there is less of an excuse for failing to understand the very simple lesson of China’s modern history: All Chinese regimes since the collapse of the Qing monarchy in 1911 have consolidated national sovereignty and hectically pursued wealth and power through all available means.
It has never been a secret that the Chinese Communist party grew out of China’s formative political event in 1919, the May Fourth Movement. The CCP was both nourished by, and stoked, a widespread sentiment that China had been bullied and dishonored by Western powers and had to rebuild its strength.
Mao’s anti-Westernism may have been easy to dismiss as the self-serving tactic of a megalomaniac. But his successor, the reformist Deng Xiaoping, was pretty blunt, too, once warning in posters emblazoned across China, “Our country must develop. If we do not develop then we will be bullied.”
China has now developed, to the point where it’s seen as bullying foreign businesses and governments rather than being bullied by them. In this, China merely confirms the same harsh logic of geopolitics of which it was once the victim.
What should surprise us even less is increasing authoritarianism in China, or that economic growth there hasn’t been accompanied by democracy. As the French thinker Raymond Aron wrote in the 1950s, “No European country ever went through the phase of economic development which India and China are now experiencing, under a regime that was representative and democratic.”
In fact, in the early 20th century, democracy was doomed in such rising countries as Japan and Germany by the great and acute problems of modern development, which were made worse by successive global economic crises. The arrival of uprooted masses into urban areas, uneven growth and the problem of social and economic inequality conspired to boost authoritarians and militarists.
Today, the leaders of major nations such as India and China that feel left behind are trying to catch up with the winners of history. They use the latter’s ideas and technologies and might even adopt parts of their ideology. But they are bound to their own political agendas and the course of their societies will ultimately be determined by inner social and economic contradictions, rather than wishful thinking by foreigners.
History also reveals, alarmingly, that, trapped by their own rhetoric, authoritarian figures and regimes tend to escalate. It is how Germany and Japan ended up declaring war on their close trading partner, the United States.
Let there be no doubt: The world was a dangerous place long before Xi became China’s supreme leader and Donald Trump started to boast of winning trade wars. Its perils weren’t recognized because of the ideological intoxication and historical amnesia induced by the collapse of Soviet and East European regimes — the blind faith that history had no choice but to move inexorably toward a terminus of Western-style capitalism and democracy. Xi’s power grab is simply another reminder that it’s time to put away such childish fancies and to reckon with the world as it is.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist.