The year of the 'China Model'

Ian Buruma
7 Min Read

It will be China’s year in 2008. The Olympic Games – no doubt perfectly organized, without a protester, homeless person, religious dissenter, or any other kind of spoilsport in sight – will probably bolster China’s global prestige. While the American economy gets dragged down further in a swamp of bad property debts, China will continue to boom. Exciting new buildings, designed by the world’s most famous architects, will make Beijing and Shanghai look like models of twenty-first century modernity. More Chinese will be featured in annual lists of the world’s richest people. And Chinese artists will command prices at international art auctions that others can only dream of.

To come back from near destitution and bloody tyranny in one generation is a great feat, and China should be saluted for it. But China’s success story is also the most serious challenge that liberal democracy has faced since fascism in the 1930’s.

This is not because China poses a great military threat – war with the United States, or even Japan, is only a fantasy in the minds of a few ultra-nationalist cranks and paranoiacs. It is in the realm of ideas that China’s political-economic model, regardless of its environmental consequences, is scoring victories and looking like an attractive alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.

And it is a real alternative. Contrary to what some pundits say, Chinese capitalism is not like nineteenth-century European capitalism. True, the European working class, not to mention women, did not have voting rights 200 years ago. But even during the most ruthless phases of Western capitalism, civil society in Europe and the US was made up of a huge network of organizations independent of the state – churches, clubs, parties, societies, and associations that were available to all social classes.

In China, by contrast, while individuals have regained many personal freedoms since the death of Maoism, they are not free to organize anything that is not controlled by the Communist Party. Despite communism’s ideological bankruptcy, China has not changed in this regard.

The China Model is sometimes described in traditional terms, as though modern Chinese politics were an updated version of Confucianism. But a society where the elite’s pursuit of money is elevated above all other human endeavors is a far cry from any kind of Confucianism that may have existed in the past.

Still, it’s hard to argue with success. If anything has been laid to rest by China’s rising wealth, it is the comforting idea that capitalism, and the growth of a prosperous bourgeoisie, will inevitably lead to liberal democracy. On the contrary, it is precisely the middle class, bought off by promises of ever-greater material gains, that hopes to conserve the current political order. It may be a Faustian bargain – prosperity in exchange for political obedience – but so far it has worked.

The China Model is attractive not only to the country’s new coastal elites, but has global appeal. African dictators – indeed, dictators everywhere – who walk the plush red carpets laid out for them in Beijing love it. For the model is non-Western, and the Chinese do not preach to others about democracy. It is also a source of vast amounts of money, much of which will end up in the tyrants’ pockets. By proving that authoritarianism can be successful, China is an example to autocrats everywhere, from Moscow to Dubai, from Islamabad to Khartoum.

China’s appeal is growing in the Western world as well. Businessmen, media moguls, and architects all flock there. Could there be a better place to do business, build stadiums and skyscrapers, or sell information technology and media networks than a country without independent trade unions or any form of organized protest that could lower profits? Meanwhile, concern for human or civic rights is denigrated as outmoded, or an arrogant expression of Western imperialism.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. No economy keeps growing at the same pace forever. Crises occur. What if the bargain struck between the Chinese middle classes and the one-party state were to fall apart, owing to a pause, or even a setback, in the race for material wealth?

This has happened before. The closest thing, in some ways, to the China Model is nineteenth-century Germany, with its industrial strength, its cultivated but politically neutered middle class, and its tendency toward aggressive nationalism. Nationalism became lethal when the economy crashed, and social unrest threatened to upset the political order.

The same thing could happen in China, where national pride constantly teeters on the edge of belligerence towards Japan, Taiwan, and ultimately the West. Aggressive Chinese nationalism could turn lethal, too, if its economy were to falter.

This would not be in anyone’s interest, so we should wish China well in 2008, while sparing a thought for all the dissidents, democrats, and free spirits languishing in labor camps and prisons. We should hope that they will live to see the day when the Chinese, too, will be a free people. It might be a distant dream, but dreaming is what New Year’s is all about.

Ian Burumais Professor of human rights at Bard College. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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