The West is struggling with China’s inevitable progression to becoming the largest economic power in the world. According to Western political leaders and thinkers this should not be. Their thinking goes like this – “China is controlled by a Communist Party. Communist Parties and Communist States fail – they do not succeed. The Party is a dictatorship. It denies basic political freedoms to its people. There are no independent political parties. There is no free media. There is no free vote for its citizens to bring about a change in government. Chinese people are oppressed. They are arrested and put into prison if they protest. The people yearn for freedom. They want to overthrow the Communist Party. They want democratic rights to elect a government of their choice”.
The reality is quite different. The people of China enjoy undreamt-of prosperity. Their living standard has increased immeasurably. The people can travel, can take holidays, can buy clothes, furnish their accommodation, drive cars, eat in restaurants and go to the cinema. 140m Chinese citizens travelled abroad in 2019 and all returned home – no reports of political asylum being sought in foreign countries. If what China’s critics say is true, the government would not let any citizens leave China for fear that they would not return. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2018 – which surveys trust levels in several countries – France, UK, US, Spain, Germany, Japan, Russia, S Korea, Canada, Turkey and Singapore – found that in terms of the domestic populations’ trust in their government, China ranked top with the US ranked fifteenth. Separately the Kennedy Harvard School of Government found that Chinese citizens – students and tourists – returned home to China from studies and travel in the US with increased support for the style and governance of China.
The West struggles with these findings. They are not meant to be. China’s Communist Party, they say, is intolerant, revengeful, despotic, cruel, inhuman, tyrannical and brutal. They allege that Mao Tsetung “murdered” 30m Chinese citizens following the failure of the Great Leap Forward in 1958; that many died in the Cultural Revolution and that in 1989 the Army cleared Tiananmen Square of protestors and killed an unspecified number – the West says 10,000 people, China says less than 500 people But critics of China cite these three events to show that China is a dictatorship and people have no freedom. Only Western democracy can liberate 1.4bn Chinese from the control of the Party, they assert.
Observers of China cannot pretend that some bad events have not occurred – the most recent was thirty-two years ago. But such events, which can never be swept under the carpet, are irrelevant to an evaluation of China today. The bad things that China’s critics say about China today are out of date. Remember the question that the UK political journalist, Jeremy Paxman, put to four middle-class female entrepreneurs – You cannot get rid of your government”. And their reply – “Why should we want to get rid of our government?”. And that exchange took place in August 2008 in Beijing during the Olympic Games. Paxman has never been able to understand the reply he received. And the four women have never been able to understand the question he asked. The persistent negative attitude towards China is at odds with the day-to-day lives of the people of China.
Now let’s consider some of the differences between the UK and China. Please bear in mind a fundamental difference between the two countries. In summary, China has been governed by autocracies for almost all of its history. China experimented with the people’s vote, briefly, under Sun Yatsen from 1914 to 1925. It failed and a Civil War between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang followed which continued until 1949 – interspersed by the Patriotic War against Japan. By comparison, the UK, ever since the Magna Carta in 1215, has moved from rule by feudal barons and authoritarian monarchs to rule by Parliament on the basis of one man one vote. The UK thinks this is the best system and, goes further, and thinks it is the best form of government for all other countries. There is, they say, freedom of speech, regular elections and regulation of society by the rule of law. And there are parts of Chinese political life that compare unfavourably with some of the procedures that exist in the West.
For example, if a protestor burns an effigy of Prime Minister Johnson in a political demonstration, at worst he may be arrested and appear in court the next day and given a fine. In China, such activity is considered more serious – an act of protest which would be regarded as anti-revolutionary activity leading to a period of imprisonment. And a person arrested in China does not enjoy the same protection of the courts as exists in the UK and US. In this sense, the individual in China is more at risk because such incidents are regarded politically rather than legally.
But there is a wider issue – the credibility of democracy. Is the function of democracy to construct a system of good government or to deliver well-being to the people?
Two points – first, China in 1949 was the Sick Man of Asia. It was “down and out”. Ravaged by Civil War and losing 14m people in the World War victory over Japan, China was significantly impoverished. There were no roads or bridges or schools or hospitals. Today China has enjoyed a long period of growth and development. 750 million Chinese people have been lifted out of real poverty. Today the annual per capita income is approximately $15,000 and by 2035 it will be $30,000.
But, say China’s critics, that has nothing to do with democracy and freedom. There is no connection, they say, between ‘one man one vote’ and year-by-year increased prosperity for 1.4bn people. Democracy is a democracy, they say, and prosperity is prosperity. Well – No. China is firm in its conviction that China is where it is today because of the leadership of its authoritarian Communist Party. The people are better off because the Party has got it right – that is the challenge of China to the West. China works.
But there is another more up to date issue; The purpose of democracy is not abstract notions of political freedom but the credibility of governance. The purpose of politics is to look after the interests and well being of the People. It is not disputed by health experts around the world that the numbers of deaths in China due to Covid is between 5,000-10,000 people. In the UK the number of deaths is 127,000 and rising and, in the US, it is 600,000 deaths and rising. A country administered by a Marxist Communist Party with a population of 1.4bn people has suffered an overall death figure not exceeding 10,000 people. The US and the UK with a combined population of 348m people have suffered an overall death rate of close to 730,000 people. You can go further and look at the desperate manner in which the US and UK governments are in a frenzy to obtain vaccines for their people, whilst China donates and exports more vaccines to third world countries – disregarded by the US/UK – than China is using to inoculate its own people.
There is more re the USA. Daily mass killings are becoming the norm. Gun ownership is at its highest level ever. The George Floyd trial is highlighting the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and this is aside from the history of slavery and the genocide of Native Indians – all conducted after the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788.
Democracy is about much more than voting in election booths, the right to bear arms and the checks and balances of the Constitution. It is about the well-being of the people, good governance and progress. Looked at in the round, China has much to commend itself. In this article, I have referred to the positives – and negatives. China is evolving. Challenges lie ahead – how to govern a country of 1.4bn people in 2049 is one – but the strong sense of optimism that resonates throughout the country (including Xinjiang) is a reflection of the confidence of the people in the Party. Everything comes back to the People and the Party – that is the key relationship. It is strong and enduring.