There is an old saying in the literary trade that history cannot be written about events that took place less than 30 years ago. For attempting to do so from such a close remove is a bit like studying a painting with one’s nose pressed right up against the canvas; one lacks the perspective to take in the broader picture, can see only a collection of granular details — the individual strokes of the brush on the canvas, as it were. It’s a case of having both too much data, in the form of a thousand disparate events whose position in the bigger picture has yet to be determined, and at the same time not enough. Documents that are still of urgent contemporary relevance are kept hidden from prying eyes; actors who still have vested interests in their actions aren’t likely to give especially revealing or honest interviews. For all these reasons, it is sometimes said that any purported “history” of the very recent past is really journalism with delusions of grandeur.
If so, I became deluded a couple of chapters ago. And I must admit that I’m not overly excited about planting my flag next to the dozens of China hot takes that appear on bookstore shelves every year, from authors convinced that they know exactly what the country’s present and future hold. Still, here we are. Suffice to say that it’s been hard for me to draw a line in the sand and stop, given that China is playing a more central role in the world today than it has in a long, long time.
What we naturally want to know most at the end of a book like this one — one which is doomed to be incomplete no matter where it stops — is what is going to happen next with China. Reasoning from an incomplete data set would make it all too easy to be wrong about that even if my judgment was perfect, which it most assuredly is not. The shelves of our used bookstores and flea markets are filled with the follies of previous journalist historians who believed they were prophets, from The End of History to The United States of Europe. Many or most of the China books of today will doubtless end up gathering dust in a similar fashion someday, laughably misguided curiosities of their era, to be consulted by future historians not for what they said about what was actually going on but for what they said about what some people thought was going on — a valuable thing to know in itself, as it happens.
Nevertheless, I will do the best I can not to join that group. When I look to the more sober and thoughtful China experts of today, I see that many of them are sounding a skeptical note about the inexorability of China’s continuing rise. The formerly fashionable notions of the Chinese Communist Party being always five moves ahead of everybody else, manipulating all the control levers just so in accord with a meticulously plotted master plan, have gotten harder and harder to sustain in the face of evidence like the chaotic, capricious ending of its Zero-COVID strategy. The picture that has been emerging in their stead is of a seriously troubled economy and society, whose rise may already have bumped up against its natural limit, still well short of overtaking the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. That is the view I will take today, anyway, at the risk of looking decidedly foolish in ten, twenty, or thirty years.
The problem of legitimacy is central to any government. It is the answer — or lack thereof — to a simple question from the proverbial person on the street: “What gives you the right to rule over me, to make laws and tell me what to do, potentially to jail or kill me if I offend your sensibilities?” An answer rooted purely in the law of the jungle — “Because I can!” — has not tended to yield overly stable, harmonious, or long-lasting societies. Some other justification is needed. For thousands of years in China and all over the world, that justification was an appeal to God or the gods, who were said to have chosen the country’s rulers; whether it was called The Mandate of Heaven or The Divine Right of Kings, the principle was the same. By the 1700s, however, with the cooler light of Science filling in more and more of the gaps that had once been the province of the ineffable beings, that answer was losing its truthiness. In the West, there emerged at this time the concept of human rights and their handmaiden, representative democracy. Through democracy, you could choose the people who ruled over you, and throw the bums out if they did a bad job of it; you could even run for office and become a ruler yourself, if you could convince enough of your peers to vote you in and keep you in. It was a genius idea.
China, however, did not go this way. Instead it watched its last dynasty to claim to rule by divine right gradually lose its legitimacy and its authority in a changing world, until it finally collapsed at the beginning of the twentieth century and the country reverted to the law of the jungle, ruled by warlords and Chiang Kai-shek (who was, one might argue, just another warlord with a larger territory than the others). Meanwhile other governments in other parts of the world which had not embraced democracy had embraced an ideology as their source of legitimacy. The works of Karl Marx became the Soviet Union’s equivalent of the Bible, complete with their own salvation narrative about a worldwide communist utopia. When Mao Zedong took over all of China in 1949, he too did so in the name of this ideology and this narrative about the necessary, inevitable course of human history.
But any earnest working toward true communism in China died alongside Mao in 1976. Thus the party that still called itself the Communist Party needed another way of justifying itself to the people. It hit upon a more pragmatic gospel of prosperity. “Only I,” it told the people, “have the ability to make you richer and more comfortable, year after year after year.” Since the early 1980s, the Communist Party has countered each and every critique of its human-rights record and its refusal to countenance elections with a utilitarian, collectivist argument: that the majority of the people have it better this year than they did the year before, and that this simple fact outweighs the pain of those who might suffer under the system. In short, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And for over 30 years, the Party’s promise to make the lives of most Chinese people better held true. It was an extraordinary transformation for a society that had been mired in poverty and disorder for the better part of two centuries. The majority of the people were willing to accept the Party’s heavy hand in so many aspects of their lives as long as they kept getting richer. But what happens when the economic miracle has run its course? Communist China, it seems, is about to find out, and as it does so it will be forced to confront the fundamental problems of authoritarian government in a way it never has before.
Those familiar and frustrated with democracy have often been tempted to admire the allegedly more efficient, effective societies authoritarianism can create, what with their governments’ ability to plan well beyond the next election cycle and then see those plans through. But history tells us that this impression of efficiency is largely illusory; it tells us that such nations as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union were actually case studies in inefficiency, incompetency, and corruption. A government that rules without the consent of its people must be constantly on edge, must expend enormous resources on the task merely of maintaining its grip on power; witness China’s censorship regime and all-encompassing surveillance and propaganda programs, the maintenance costs of authoritarianism that accrue no appreciable benefits other than the perpetuation of the status quo. Under both a dictatorship and a democracy, it is a rare person indeed who has the strength of character to voluntarily give up power once it has been acquired. But is it not better for a ruler to know that the only way to hold onto power is to be elected by the people to another term, a feat which can only be achieved by serving the people well? In this way, the desire of the ruler to hold onto power and the needs of the people are united in a common impulse, rather than competing against one another.
These things are important in China today because that country is not in a position to squander any more resources on unproductive goals. For it is facing down a massive demographic problem. China’s handling of this problem — or its failure to handle it — will do far more to determine its future than all the efforts of the Party’s propaganda machine and state police.
When the Party took over all of China in the middle of the last century, it encouraged couples to have as many children as possible so that they could run the farms and factories that would lift the nation into its glorious communist future. As a result, the population grew by between two and three percent every year from 1952 to 1958. Then, after the senseless tragedy of the Great Leap Forward, it did so again from 1963 to 1974. During the peak of the baby boom in the late 1960s, the average Chinese woman was having over six children. When these generations were all in the prime of their working years in the decades just before and after the millennium, there were ten workers in China for every one elderly retiree; in most economies the balance is closer to five to one. A graph of the country’s population by age at that time would look rather like a snake that has just swallowed a deer: a big bulge in the middle, with not only few older but also few younger people to support on either side of it, thanks to the One Child policy that came into effect after Mao shuffled off this mortal coil. This “demographer’s dream,” as it has been described, provided much of the fuel for the Chinese economy’s explosive growth.
But now all of that is changing. The percentage of China’s population of prime working age began a slow decline in 2012. As yet, the demographic transformation is still in its fairly early phases, but it is gathering steam in a hurry. Between 2022 and 2050, the median age of the country as a whole is expected to increase from 39 to 51. Belying its popular reputation as an all-seeing, all-knowing long-term planner, the Communist Party was tardy in waking up to the danger this poses. It didn’t end the One Child policy until 2016, when, reversing course completely, it started encouraging couples to have at least three children, offering them an array of tax incentives and other benefits for doing so. But this program hasn’t been able to overcome a phenomenon that holds true across the regions and cultures of the world: when people get richer, they have fewer children. The country’s birth rate in 2021 was the lowest since 1949.
In some countries facing similar demographic challenges, immigration has been able to make up some of the shortfall in new births, but the Chinese Communist Party’s entrenched xenophobia has made this remedy impossible there. (There are almost 2000 native-born Chinese for every one foreign immigrant in the country today, compared to, for example, six native-born Americans per immigrant.) In 2022, the overall population of China shrank for the first time since the Great Leap Forward. Barring a major disaster of some sort, India’s population will surpass that of China during 2023, making the latter something other than the most populous country on the planet for the first time since reasonably accurate statistics have existed. One facetious-sounding but telling number says it all: by 2025, sales of adult diapers may exceed those of baby diapers in China.
Small wonder, then, that an ever more frantic-seeming Chinese government has taken to refusing outright to grant divorces to couples of child-bearing age, and made vasectomies and abortions ever harder to secure. For the magnitude of the problem is truly staggering. From ten workers per retiree in 2000, China will be down to two workers per retiree in 2050. A relatively generous pension program has long been one of the bedrocks of the Party’s support among the people. It is hard to see how this program can possibly be maintained without bankrupting the country.
Another outcome of the One Child policy of old was a tendency of parents to abort female babies in the hope of having a male one next time, a continuation of the sad tradition of female infanticide from pre-Communist Chinese culture. This has created a serious gender imbalance in today’s China, with about 40 million more men than women of family-raising age. It is likely already producing knock-on effects that go beyond the fewer children that this generation will inevitably produce as a result. Many studies conducted in other parts of the world have shown that a surplus of single men who are unable to find mates tends to lead to elevated rates of substance abuse, of sexual violence, and of generalized societal discontent.
Exacerbating the demographic crisis, China is on the verge of falling hard into the middle-income trap. By 2020, the typical worker on a consumer-tech assembly line in China already earned twice as much as her equivalent in India or Vietnam. Western companies like Apple are slowly beginning to divest from China, driven both by the cost savings that come with moving production to other, less developed countries and by the worrisome geopolitical bellicosity of Xi Jinping, which is making his country seem less and less like the stable, trustworthy, businesslike partner it used to be.
In the ideal case, China would be able to dodge the middle-income trap by pivoting into the so-called knowledge economy, which is less about making things and more about conceiving them. Instead of manufacturing products according to specifications provided by their foreign inventors, China would invent its own products, place its own brand names on them, and share them with the world. And indeed, China has made some significant progress on this front in the past decade. Why shouldn’t it? Its people are no less smart and creative than those to be found elsewhere, and they now have access to first-class domestic educations in engineering and science. The smartphone sitting next to me on my desk as I write these words is one of the popular models from OnePlus, a Chinese company with its headquarters in Guangdong province. The Chinese social-media app TikTok has spread like wildfire among young people all over the world in recent years, such that they now prefer it to American competitors like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. And if I happened to be writing these words in 2025 rather than 2023, I might very well be mentioning some of the several models of Chinese-made electric cars that have big ambitions in the international market. These products and others demonstrate that China can do innovation and branding every bit as well as the West. A blueprint for it to follow in building its future might be Germany, which designs its own products and then, to an unusual extent for an advanced Western economy, makes them as well right there at home. Yet China faces some serious difficulties in completing its transition to such a knowledge economy under its current government, as is demonstrated by the history of its most successful brand of all to date.
Huawei was founded in 1987 in Shenzhen, a city just across the border from Hong Kong. It started as an importer of telecom switches, but within a few years had begun making its own hardware. It grew up in tandem with the expansion of mobile telephony during the 1990s, becoming one of the world’s three primary providers of equipment for cellular towers (the other two being Scandinavia’s Nokia and Ericsson). When the boom in smart mobile devices led to a demand for networks that could transmit more than just voices and text messages, Huawei was there to built out the required infrastructure, from 2G (embed pictures in text messages!) to 3G (browse the Web!) to 4G (watch streaming video!) to the latest 5G networking standard. Meanwhile it became a major consumer-facing brand name as well, making smartphones whose unit if not dollar sales had surpassed those of Apple by the late 2010s. The $15 billion it invests into research and development every year is broadly comparable to that of Western firms that have become famous incubators of innovation, such as Google and Amazon.
Yet Huawei remains a Chinese firm rather than a Western one, a product of the peculiar blend of public and private capital and priorities that marks the Chinese economy as a whole. Its founder Ren Zhengfei was an officer in the People’s Liberation Army before becoming a tech entrepreneur, and worked closely with the Communist Party, of which he has been a member all his life, to build his business; one estimate of the total government subsidies awarded to Huawei runs north of $75 billion. The American intelligence services looked with concern for years on Huawei’s ever-growing role in worldwide communications, but it wasn’t until the protectionist Donald Trump became president that the United States took decisive action. “I call it the spyway,” said Trump, conjuring images of a foreign mole burrowing its way deep into the private consuls of its enemies; one Pentagon official said that Huawei put China “inside the system.” Given the Chinese government’s well-known habit of spying on and censoring its domestic Internet, such concerns were probably better-founded than most of the protectionist arguments mooted by the Trump administration. At any rate, a raft of sanctions and restrictions drove Huawei out of the United States almost completely in 2019, then out of many of that superpower’s allies, ending any talk of the company as a credible rival to the likes of Apple in the Western consumer marketplace at least. Then, in May of 2020, the Americans dropped the biggest hammer of all. Huawei would not only be prevented from doing business in the United States, but American firms would in a very important respect be prevented from doing business with it: they would no longer be allowed to sell Huawei their most advanced microchips, the very ones needed to implement technologies like 5G. Huawei’s share price and market capitalization cratered as a result.
This gets us to China’s chip problem, which is arguably rivaled only by its demographic issues in terms of the roadblocks it currently faces to realizing all of the geopolitical goals of Xi Jinping. Digital chips make the modern world go, being embedded in just about everything we use these days that is more complicated than a shovel or a pencil: computers, cars, telephones, toasters, televisions, heaters, missiles, lamps, windmills, solar panels, radios, tractors, clocks, watches, airplanes, refrigerators, cameras, ovens; the list goes on ad infinitum. We’ve already seen how Taiwan’s economic rise took place on the back of chips; fully 36 percent of the island’s exports in 2017 were in the form of those discrete little silicon wafers, while much of the rest were finished products that incorporated Taiwan’s homegrown chips. Other East Asian economies aren’t that far behind: 15 percent of South Korea’s exports in 2017 were chips, as were 17 percent of Singapore’s, 19 percent of Malaysia’s, and 21 percent of the Philippines’s. China, however, has not shared in this bonanza. It can make only relatively simple chips itself, such that its trade deficit in that area reached $260 billion in 2017 — more than Saudi Arabia’s total oil exports, more than Germany’s total automobile exports, more than the entire global market for new aircraft. Xi Jinping has come to see this as a huge strategic vulnerability — and rightly so, for China’s military is as dependent on the rest of the world’s silicon as any other sector of its economy.
Unfortunately for Xi, breaking into the business of advanced chip-making is difficult to say the least, requiring the most sophisticated production facilities of any stripe that currently exist in the world, along with the knowledge and capital to operate them. And that is when those parts of the world that can make chips haven’t made it a priority to prevent your nation from developing the same capability, as they have in the case of China. The advanced-microprocessor supply chain in particular passes through some astonishingly narrow bottlenecks. The lithography machines required to make these most intricate of all integrated circuits are themselves produced by only one company: ASML, operating out of the Netherlands. The lasers ASML’s machines use are made only by a subsidiary of the same company that is based in San Diego. And American law ensures that none of this technology is going to be willingly exported to China any time in the near future. The West is well aware of what a choke hold its advanced-microchip monopoly gives it over China, and has no intention of releasing it.
At first blush, all of this might seem like yet another reason to fear for Taiwan’s future as a free and democratic land. China urgently needs to learn to make its own chips in order to fulfill Xi’s goal of becoming a completely self-sufficient superpower. Meanwhile Taiwan, sitting alone and vulnerable barely 100 miles (160 kilometers) off its coast, has in the estimation of most experts the most sophisticated chip-making facilities of them all, the gaining of which would let China escape the Western choke hold, the loss of which would cripple the Western world to an extent that few people appreciate today. The logic seems ominously simple to any seasoned student of realpolitik. Add to that the Communist Party’s longstanding obsession with Taiwan, whose ongoing independence is such a festering wound to its pride, and the situation looks even more dire for this unique outpost of Chinese democracy.
A pair of American academics named Michael Beckley and Hal Brands caused a stir not long ago with a book positing that an attack by mainland China on Taiwan was a very real possibility within the next ten years. In addition to the proximate motivations just described, they point to what they see as an historical pattern of lashing out by authoritarian regimes facing the end of a long growth spurt; they cite Germany on the eve of the First World War and Japan on the eve of the Second as examples. I’m somewhat more cautious than they are about claiming there to be a clear-cut historical pattern of such behavior, but I can see cause for concern in the case of China, with its government that may grow frantic to find another way of justifying itself to its citizenry as economic growth tails off and the problems caused by its nightmarish demographic shifts set in. On the face of it, it seems far from inconceivable that Xi Jinping may turn to war as a handy way of ginning up patriotism and suppressing domestic dissent. We saw a sneak preview of what may come to pass on August 2, 2022, when Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the American House of Representatives, made a needlessly provocative visit to Taiwan in an official capacity. The series of furious military “drills” China engaged in all around the island in response, accompanied by equally furious blustering in the national propaganda press, smacked of what took place when Taiwan first went democratic in the mid-1990s, but reflected at the same time the vastly increased might of China’s military from then to now.
Still, on the whole I worry less about an invasion of Taiwan in the immediate future than do Beckley and Brands. Such an act would be a dizzyingly audacious roll of the dice for Xi, who for all of his efforts to instill ideological purity in his people strikes me as a rational, empirical actor at bottom, and not much of a high-stakes gambler. At the extreme, an invasion of Taiwan could escalate into a nuclear apocalypse, given the United States’s oft-reiterated determination to protect the island. Even failing that, it would certainly lead to China spending some indeterminate period of time as a global pariah, much like Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become since its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. All of his verbal bellicosity notwithstanding, I doubt that this is something Xi wants for China, a country that owes its economic rise to its economic engagement with the rest of the world.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, an invasion of Taiwan is not actually the quick fix to China’s chip woes that it may appear to be. First, China would have to avoid destroying the fabrication facilities in its assault on the island, and somehow also prevent Taiwan’s populace from destroying them themselves if and when they realize that they are about to fall into enemy hands. Then, it would have to capture the experts who run the facilities, and convince or coerce them to keep working for the country that has just occupied their own. And even if it could somehow accomplish all of this, there would still come a day sooner rather than later when one of those cutting-edge lithography machines would break down, and China would lack the parts needed to fix it. This is not to say that China couldn’t learn how to build such equipment on its own faster than it otherwise might by studying what it found on Taiwan, but even with those advantages developing the specialized knowledge and techniques required to create an advanced-microchip industry of its own would take years. Seen in this light, an invasion of Taiwan begins to look more like a disastrous blind alley than a viable way forward. “China has a strategic dilemma,” says Ryan Hass, a former American diplomat to the country. “They’re frustrated by the status quo, and they’re probing for ways to change it. But taking big, bold actions would come at an extraordinary cost to them.”
Another critical unanswered question in all of this is that of China’s real military prowess. We know that the nation has invested gigantic sums into its military over the last decade in an explicitly stated bid to become a superpower the equal of the United States, know that the Chinese navy now has more ships than its American counterpart and the Chinese army has more precision-guided tactical missiles. But how well would the Chinese military perform in the breach? China hasn’t fought a war of any type since that brief, abortive invasion of Vietnam in 1979, and hasn’t encountered a great power on the battlefield since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Winning a war requires more than numbers, more even than the latest technological kit; it also demands sound strategic and tactical doctrine in the officer corps, solid training and morale among the rank and file, and the ability of personnel up and down the chain of command to speak the truth to their superiors and underlings alike and to make decisions based on the reality on the ground. Does China’s military have these things? Many assume it does, and they may be right, but we would be foolish to accept what we see in the Wolf Warrior films at face value. We need only look to the most recent of recent history to see why. Prior to 2022, the Russian army was widely regarded as a reasonably modern, well-run outfit; the well-nigh flabbergasting level of incompetence it displayed when it invaded Ukraine that year put the lie to that notion. China is not Russia; for all its current problems, it is richer, more dynamic, less hollowed out by corruption, and still able to feel proud of being an up-and-comer on the global stage rather than kicking against a humiliating decline. Nevertheless, its military has never gone into action for real within the tenure of anyone currently in uniform, and it is hard to believe that it isn’t shot through with the same rigidly orthodox thinking that the Party demands in all other areas of Chinese society. So, again, just how would it perform in the breach? Even Xi Jinping doesn’t know — not really, although he certainly knows much more about it than we in the West do.
If Xi judges lashing out militarily not to be a viable option, what else can he do to maintain the Communist Party’s grip on the country in a worsening economic climate? His alternatives are painfully limited. He can draw the noose of the police state ever tighter around the people, although even he must realize that this becomes untenable at some point — especially if he wants to continue to nurse the dream of China becoming a full-blown knowledge economy, given that the degree of creativity and freedom of thought such an economy demands is incompatible with the notion of totalitarianism taken to the farthest extremes. Xi has probably already done as much noose-tightening as his vision of China can bear.
The other remedies he is attempting are just as typical of authoritarian governments facing headwinds. One has been to conceal his present-day problems by borrowing against the future. From top to bottom, China’s economy today is a house of cards — or rather a house of debt; everything and everyone seems to be leveraged to the max. This has occurred with unnerving speed. As late as 2020, the total debt burden of the United States in relation to its gross national product was still larger than that of China; today China’s is almost half again as large. And because China is still a far less wealthy nation than the United States on a per-capita basis, it is far less able to support even equivalent levels of debt. Its leveraged economy has already started to wobble, producing a cascading series of crises in the real-estate market that the government has so far managed to quell by piling yet more debt atop the edifice. It seems all but inevitable that the whole house of cards will collapse sooner or later.
Both before and after such an event, the Chinese government will probably rely more and more heavily on that ultimate authoritarian gambit of simply lying about the real state of affairs, of telling its people and the world that the things they see as plain as day in front of them are not real. Even according to the official figures, China’s torrid pace of economic growth began gradually to tail off after 2010, down to just 3 percent in 2022. But many Western economists have come to the conclusion that the numbers they are presented with just don’t hold up anymore, that the Chinese government must have started cooking its books around the time Xi Jinping came to power. The actual Chinese economy may very well have contracted in 2022, under the rolling lockdowns of the Zero-COVID policy and a slow decline in exports, as the nations that fueled China’s economic rise look to other countries for manufacturing partners, or look to revive production of hard goods at home once again, as the administration of President Joe Biden, Donald Trump’s successor, is doing in the United States. In a nutshell, it is hard to see where the claimed levels of growth in China could be coming from.
Where will all of this end? That is the $64,000 question, the one no one can answer right now. President Biden is Trump’s opposite in most respects, but he has continued and even strengthened his predecessor’s hard-line policy toward China. It does appear that the old, agreeably self-serving idea that unlimited trade with China will automatically lead to political liberalization there has been put out to pasture at long last. The democratic world’s stance toward China begins more and more to resemble its stance toward the Soviet bloc during the Cold War; it seems that we may be embarking on another lengthy twilight struggle between ideological opposites whose weapons of mass destruction make the prospect of open war unthinkable. If that thought is dismaying to contemplate barely 30 years after the world put the last such struggle behind it, we can at least be buoyed by the fact that what we might someday be calling the First Cold War ended so anticlimactically, and for the most part peacefully. Let us hope the next one, if that is indeed what we are facing today, ends the same way.
Such an outcome will require the West to be resolute but to steer clear of such pointless pokes in the eye as Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, to make clear its philosophical opposition to China in many areas but not be afraid to work with it when necessary — for example, on the existential issue of climate change, which neither recognizes national borders nor draws any fussy distinctions between systems of government. Just a few years ago, it was all too easy to wonder whether the West could muster the necessary resolve to see it through. Thankfully, there are some signs today that the democratic world may be moving beyond its crisis of confidence, having been shaken back to a sense of its core values’ worth by the counterexamples of Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia (whose anti-Western stances are driving them more and more into one another’s arms). President Trump was not reelected in the United States and failed in his attempt to stay in office by subverting democracy itself; the same holds true for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, a rising power whose own geopolitical importance may soon rival that of China. Brexit is now widely considered to have been a colossal mistake by the people of Britain, and, what with the self-evident price Britain has paid for its foolishness, no other nation in the European Union is still seriously considering a similar withdrawal. Likewise, other bedrock guaranteers of the rules-based international order like NATO enjoy more popular support since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than they have in many years. The Economist‘s World Democracy Index, which had been in disturbingly steady decline since 2016, showed a small uptick for freedom in 2022. These are still very early days in democracy’s revival, if that is what we are witnessing, but one doesn’t need to be wearing too thick a pair of rose-colored glasses to spot the positive signs.
In the long run, I believe the best thing that could happen for China and the world would be for that nation as well to realize that the way of democracy is a better one than its current course. To be sure, there is a school of thought which might call that statement just another example of Western cultural imperialism from a Western writer; it might say that China need not be like the West, in this respect or any other, to be happy and complete in itself. I do understand this point of view, and do understand as well that it is human nature to view the values under which one was raised to be the only valid set of same. Still, please indulge me as I cite the example of a novel — ironically, a novel stemming from the nation other than China that is widely perceived to present the greatest threat to the democratic world order today.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mid-nineteenth-century novel Crime and Punishment, an intellectually brilliant but desperately poor student decides to kill a miserable old crone of a pawnbroker and steal her fortune. Doing so, he reasons, is ethically sustainable, as long as he then uses the money to advance worthy causes and make the lives of many people better. For the crone’s petty existence is of no use to anyone; in fact, she is actively making the lives of the people around her worse. The student’s argument is classic utilitarianism, of the sort that was already being promoted by Karl Marx and would eventually be taught in schools over much of the world: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Yet when the student actually commits the terrible act of murder, he finds that his conscience will not be quieted by such philosophical abstractions. Driven to distraction by a sense of guilt and shame that transcends his laboriously worked-out logic, he turns himself in at last, and attains a measure of inner peace in a prison cell. A devout Christian, Dostoevsky attributes the accusation that has been ceaselessly repeating itself in the student’s head and the grace that follows his acceptance of his guilt to God.
But we need not go so far to learn from the novel. The fundamental weakness of utilitarianism in a governmental context is related to that of authoritarianism: its inability to justly settle the question of who gets to decide what constitutes the greatest benefit to the many. The student at first believes that he has this right, because he believes himself to be gifted in ways that other people are not. But how do the rest of us know that he is correct in this belief? What would happen to the world if everyone decided the same thing about himself or herself and behaved the same way? Mass chaos, obviously. By its very nature, utilitarianism, like the authoritarianism that embraces it so heartily, requires an over-class of people who are, to return one last time to George Orwell, more equal than the others, who have decided that they alone know best, and who are unaccountable for their failures.
Only democracy provides accountability, just as it provides the best method humanity has yet discovered for deciding who will get to decide for all of us. In its modern incarnation, it also carries with it a respect for the dignity and sovereignty of the individual, a conviction that no mortal should get to judge the worth of another’s ongoing existence on this planet, nor dictate to anyone else what they should think, feel, and be. I believe that the roots of our modern conception of human rights pass through Christianity, through that religion’s ethos of each individual’s salvation being in the hands of that individual — the essence of free will. But we need not be Christian to see the worth in it. (I am not, having studied the making of the Christian sausage too closely to ever take the Bible at face value.) For during the Western Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the idea of the sovereign individual was moved out of the realm of religion and into that of secular philosophy, to become the foundation of democracy as we practice it today.
But China as a mass culture never passed through either of these revolutions in thought. This is not because the Chinese people were stupider or morally inferior to others; they were busy developing their own noble religions and philosophies, from which we too can learn much. It was just one of those accidents of history. But this accident has meant that democracy has never come to mainland China. Never even come close.
And I think that’s a shame, because no other system of government makes people happier, more empowered, or more prosperous than this one over the long haul; call this the ultimate, albeit self-annihilating, utilitarian argument. Democracy is a precious thing, well worth fighting and dying for, as the heroes in Ukraine are demonstrating every day on the battlefield as I write these words. Not too long ago, some people still claimed that democracy was somehow incompatible with East Asian culture. These days, there are thriving examples of it there — in Japan and South Korea among other nations, and of course in Taiwan, whose citizens show every sign of being willing to fight for it every bit as tenaciously as the Ukrainians if the mainland ever should attack their island. These countries have found that they can import democracy without losing the many other qualities that make their cultures great, that it is an idea every bit as universally relevant as communism was claimed to be back in the day. This, then, is my final wish for China at the end of this long journey which you and I have taken together, from the murkiest past to the ripped-from-the-headlines present.
The Chinese Communist Party has been responsible for many follies and tragedies since 1949. Yet it has also done much good for the country betwixt and between them, transforming it from a poor, fractious backwater that many deemed to be simply ungovernable to the second largest economy in the world. Now, it is time for it to step aside, to allow China a true government of the people. I dream of the day when I wake up to learn that China finally has such a thing. Yes, its demographic challenges would still be daunting in such a scenario, but no worse than those faced by some European countries with similarly aging populations. As a democracy, it could address its problems honestly, without wasting scant resources on repression, and win its way through them one way or another — keeping always in mind that, in the big picture, having fewer human beings on this long-suffering planet of ours is better than the alternative. Perhaps in the future someone else will write a book like this one, and will be able to say that all of the travails of these recent years, and the ones doubtless still to come before democracy reaches China, have merely been the birth pangs of a new golden age for one of humanity’s oldest and most awe-inspiring civilizations, which has now taken its rightful place as the free and happy Middle Kingdom of a peaceful world, with no more need of walls, great or otherwise. It would make for a better ending than this one, wouldn’t it?
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)