The United States has taken a largely self-inflicted beating so far this century. Partisan politics, corporate crooks, military scandals, outdated infrastructure, economic woes, and two foreign wars paid for on credit have shaken Abraham Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth.” Many experts wonder if the post-9/11 U.S. is in decline and losing its hard-earned place as the world’s leading nation to a resurgent China, which is the world’s most populous country and its second-largest and fastest-growing major economy. Some boldly claim that the current rise to global prominence of the Middle Kingdom is because its political model is superior to that of the United States. They are wrong.
China’s government, ruled by one political party since 1949, has consistently lied to shield itself from its citizens. Examples abound, from the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward famine, in which over 30 million Chinese died, to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which over 240,000 Chinese died, to the 1989 Beijing massacre, in which at least several hundred unarmed, peaceful Chinese were killed by the Chinese army on live television seen globally. The government hid from its citizens and the international community the full extent of the first two tragedies—probably the deadliest ever of their kind—in the immediate aftermath. It later acknowledged them but claimed they were caused by Mother Nature and not by misguided or bad government policy. Because it happened with the whole world watching, the government had no choice but to acknowledge the third tragedy in the immediate aftermath. The official story, however, was at odds with much of the evidence at the time. Nearly a quarter-century later, “May 35th” remains the most unspeakable topic in China.
These historical examples, as well as current controversies over imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei, and blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng, among many other nonviolent activists, show a government afraid not only of its past but of its own law-abiding citizens.
A political model perpetuated by big lies and embodied by a government fearful of its people is ultimately doomed to inglorious failure. Most governments throughout history have fit this model. Despite the lengthy lifespans of some, including China’s own imperial dynasties, nearly all have crumbled, many in the last century. From 1989 to 1991, middle-aged Eastern European governments, with political models similar to China’s, suddenly and dramatically fell. Since 2011, many Middle Eastern governments have followed suit. Keenly aware of this trend, a spooked sexagenarian Chinese government is doing all it can to silence public and candid political discussion within (and even outside) China. It disappears rights lawyers and peasant petitioners, blocks internationally popular American social media websites, and censors Internet search engine queries on taboo or sensitive topics.
Unlike fallen Eastern European and Middle Eastern governments, the Chinese government has presided over impressive economic accomplishments since 1978. Two- to three-hundred million Chinese—mostly educated coastal urbanites—have entered the middle class and no longer live in dollar-a-day poverty as they did during the first thirty years of one-party rule. Modern megalopolises have sprung up in former backwaters. But these accomplishments are due more to the industriousness and business acumen of the Chinese—not to mention foreign investment and technology transfers—and less to government innovation. The Chinese are paying a terrible price for breakneck economic growth, however, in terms of quality-of-life issues. Environmental degradation and social unrest have worsened in recent years, exacerbated by grossly flawed government policies started decades ago.
If China’s political system does not become more transparent and inclusive, then its many severe problems will only worsen. The government’s overly paternalistic attitude toward its citizens prevents it from making such changes on a deep level, since doing so might subject it to the kind of scrutiny and accountability that could end its power monopoly. A breaking point could result if potentially huge numbers of middle-class Chinese finally get fed up over toxic air, food, water, and corruption, take to the streets, and mobilize nationally to demand the government’s ouster. Myriad global repercussions will follow due to the mutually dependent economic links between China and the rest of the world.
Despite present problems, the future bodes well for the American experiment. It has overcome major problems on multiple fronts and will likely do so again as long as the United States stays an open society, for this openness breeds good solutions. The U.S. political model is imperfect, but has on the whole worked well for over two centuries. Its aims and achievements have inspired people around the world (including the Chinese), because they speak to what is best and possible in humankind. People are more than economic beings. They want justice and dignity. They want to live in the truth and free from fear. They want to govern from below and not be ruled from on high. Until China’s political model reforms to practice these realities, then it will never rival that of the United States.