It has become commonplace for analysts to suggest that China offers an alternative economic model to the democratic capitalism espoused by the United States. The Western model is based on the idea that political freedom and economic liberalization go hand-in-hand. The so-called Chinese model is based on the idea that economic development can take place without political liberalization. If an authoritarian political system can successfully tolerate free market economics, then the entrenched elites of many developing countries (and some developed ones looking for a boost) could see this as a way to maintain power while enriching themselves and their populations.
Some observers even assert that China offers an alternative political model to that of the West, filling the void left by international communism with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s defection to the “dark side.” China will soon be the world’s second largest economy. As such, some believe that Beijing will be able to leverage its newfound wealth and its market position to shape the international system. Both sets of commentators see China as rising to the position of co-equal superpower with the United States over the next several decades and serving as a pillar in an emerging multi-polar world.
Without question China is an economic juggernaut. Although there are reasons to doubt its decades long claims of double digit economic growth rates, China’s economic performance is extremely impressive. Chinese capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than all the developmental aid provided to all the countries of the world since the end of World War Two. Equally remarkable has been Beijing’s ability to weather the recent global recession.
But China’s success will never serve as a model for the world. China’s economic achievements are the product of a confluence of conditions — a massively underutilized labor pool, a Western world able and willing to invest hundreds of billions in that country, the creation of a global communications and transportation network and a political system in Beijing that was willing and able to support a Dickensian economic order — that will be all but impossible to reproduce. Moreover, the current Chinese model may yet fail in the face of an aging population, environmental degradation, rising energy and commodity prices, and growing popular unrest.
But more significantly, China cannot be a true political or ideological competitor to the United States. Unlike the United States, it has no vision to offer the world. It lacks a value system attractive to others. Unlike a philosophy of political liberty, human rights and respect for others, getting rich is not a sufficient basis for the creation of a community of shared interests. Moreover, the Chinese approach to getting rich is based on a beggar thy neighbor approach that alienates potential allies. The Chinese economic model is simply rampant mercantilism: buy up all the resources, undercut the prices charged by your rivals and acquire or appropriate all the intellectual property you can.
China is today what it has been for millennia, the Middle Kingdom. All of its policies — whether on international trade, security, the environment or human rights — are highly self-referential. Certainly, every country pursues its self-interest. But not to the extent that self-interestedness is practiced by Beijing. It is the United States and its allies that have encouraged and even at times pressured the world to become more politically liberal and economically open on the theory that if others are free and rich this is good for America. The greater good has no place in the Chinese foreign policy or economic construct.
The result is that China is a close ally and friend of many of the most repressive, isolated and dysfunctional regimes in the world. Think North Korea, Iran and Sudan. It has provided many of the world’s most dangerous countries with the technology and know-how to develop some of the most dangerous weapons imaginable. Conversely, Beijing has repeatedly found itself at odds with the democratic countries of the Asia-Pacific region. This is not the basis for creating an alternative center of global politics.
China already is a major economic player on the world stage. If it chooses to, it can also become a significant military power. But there is no way it can be a political model for others or the center of a coalition. Or, at least, not so long as the country continues to be governed by the sclerotic Communist Party.
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