»  National Review Online

March 16th, 2005

  Soft Power, Soft Despotism


Watching the recent proceedings of China's National People's Congress — the country's legislature, if you believe China's constitution, which of course you should not — I got that sinking feeling I always get nowadays when I pay attention to Chinese affairs. Hearing the Communist Party hacks droning on about "safeguarding China's sovereignty and territorial integrity" (read: intimidating Taiwan) and "socialist modernization" (read: get rich by all means, citizen, but never forget who's running this show); watching the drilled "representatives" of the people applauding the wise decisions of the Party in unison* … Sinking feeling. The words that go with the sinking feeling are: This is it. The commies have got it worked out. This system will last a hundred years. I shall never live to see the back of these swine.

If you write about China, a thing you get asked a lot by Americans is: Shall we be at war with them one day? My stock answer is: Only a little. That is, I have no doubt that Chinese servicemen and U.S. servicemen will be shooting at each other some day soon; but I doubt it will come to a full-blown, city-flattening, carrier-sinking, massed-tank-battles kind of war, because I am unable to imagine any casus belli that would persuade Americans of the necessity for that. The Chinese are another matter; but it takes two to tango, and in the current state of our culture, with self-loathing anti-Americanism a required course at our elite universities, I am sure we would back down in any Sino-American conflict that did not have our own territory at stake. (Yes, including a conflict over Taiwan. Bye-bye, Taiwan.) But this is all guesswork. Of course nobody really knows whether there will be a war. Since China is my country-in-law, I naturally hope there will not be one, so perhaps my opinion is colored by wishful thinking.

Another frequent question, one much easier to answer, is: What does China want? The ordinary people of China of course want what ordinary people everywhere want: peace and prosperity. If that were all we had to consider, though, history would present a much more pleasant spectacle. What does the Chinese leadership want?

That, as I said, is easy. What they want is regional hegemony. They want to be in East Asia — perhaps in all of Eurasia — what the U.S.A. has been in the Americas this past couple of hundred years. In their dreams, Russia will be their Canada: huge, underpopulated, cold, and not very consequential. India will be their Brazil.**  Laos (say) will be their Guatemala (say). There are some holes in the analogy. The U.S.A. never had to contend with an offshore nation a tenth as populous yet ten times wealthier than itself, as China has to keep Japan in mind. Nor do the Indians look like slipping quietly into their assigned role as providers of coffee, nuts, and salacious dances to the new superpower. Still, it is plain from their visible diplomatic strategy that the Chinese think they can pull it off.

If they can, does it matter? It's a shame that China does not seem content with minding her own business, like post-WW2 Japan. On the other hand, the Chinese seem to have no ambitions to world conquest. If they end up as hegemon in Asia, while we remain hegemon in the Americas, how is that any skin off our noses? Resource competition? A bet on the world running out of some resource or other has historically been a bad bet — ask Paul Ehrlich. Our own Larry Kudlow, who knows a great deal more about resource and commodity markets than you or I ever will, pooh-poohs the idea of a world oil shortage.

There may even be a cultural upside to Chinese hegemony in Asia. Rising nations seem to pass through well-defined stages. Right now the Chinese are in the stage of bumptious nationalism, as the British were 200 years ago, or the United States 100 years later. Their economy is free-wheeling and open, not strapped down with the iron bonds of taxation, regulation, and litigation, as ours increasingly is. Their patriotism is naïve, passionate, and uncritical. There are even signs of cultural vitality — Chinese movies play to huge audiences all over the world. If you think of contemporary Chinese culture in terms of the Xinjiang-Uighur Nationality Folk Dance Troop or the People's Liberation Army Choir, you are way out of date. Modern China has not yet produced a Dickens, a Faraday, a John Philip Sousa, a Whitman, or an Edison, but these are early days.

We fret about China's growing military power, as we certainly should; but China's economic and cultural power, most especially in the region the Chinese aspire to dominate, are moving ahead much faster. (Joshua Kurlantzick has a fine piece on this in Prospect magazine.) Right now your kids wear Chinese clothes and play with Chinese toys. It is not at all inconceivable that their kids will listen to Chinese pop and prefer Chinese movies. The inhabitants of southeast Asia are already doing so.

And back of all that will be the old dragon, China herself, ruled by — whom? Her own people, through elected representatives, operating under constitutional law, scrutinized by an independent judiciary? Or the next, and next-after-next, crop of Communist Party apparatchiks, selected by each other, applauding themselves at National People's Congresses as an auditorium full of carefully-picked stooges applauds back, responding with blunt force to any challenge, real or imagined, to their infallible supremacy?

Most likely the latter. My Chinese friends and relatives have been telling me for years that with rising prosperity and the demands of a confident middle class, China will morph into a rational, constitutional state any day now. Is there the faintest sign that this is happening? From all that I can see, the ChiComs really have got it worked out, and their despotism is stronger than ever. They learned all the right lessons from 1989, and there will be no massed popular demonstration in the streets of Beijing — not this year, nor the next, nor the next. An unelected and fundamentally lawless dictatorship rules China, and the Chinese people, by and large, are fine with it.

Why should they not be, if they have movies to watch, food in their bellies, gadgets to play with? Which they have, a-plenty. If the phase of history we are entering is to be one of amoral, ahistorical hedonism, why should we suppose that constitutional government can manage that kind of world better than the soft despotism of modern China? After all, the most agreeable and hedonistic society anyone has ever been able to imagine, the one described in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, was not the least bit democratic. As in Huxley's utopia, bioengineering and pharmacology — both hot growth areas in Chinese science, with no Judeo-Christian ethical reservations or eagle-eyed tort lawyers to slow down research — can take care of the social problems. It is hard to push away the thought that what we are seeing over there is the future.

No, we shan't be going to war. Other matters aside, demography's all against it — neither of us has enough young men to spare.***  There will be adjustments, skirmishings, alarums and excursions, advances and retreats, then things will settle down into a new order. Francis Fukuyama was sort-of right: The old style of human history is at an end. A newer, quieter, very likely happier style is under way. And in China, at least, for all our President's fine phrases, democracy will not likely have much to do with it.

* All right, not total unison. Minority factions in the CCP leadership use the NPC to make points to the dominant faction. There is, for example, an anti-corruption faction: so the Party's report on measures against corruption was approved with 2,424 representatives for it, 365 against and 109 abstentions. The vote for military action against Taiwan? 2,896 votes for, zero against, two abstentions. There is no faction in favor of leaving Taiwan alone.

** Guess the following: Brazil's population as a proportion of the U.S. population; India's as a proportion of China's. Answers: 61, 77.

*** Some readers howled at this, pointing out the well-known excess of males over females in Chinese society. To which I replied thus on The Corner (NRO's running blog):

Several readers have noted that my comment in today's column about neither the U.S.A. nor China having enough of a young-guy surplus to get into serious war-fighting excludes the fact that China has a male surplus, owing to widespread female infanticide. On which I note the following: