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Xi’s Republic of China
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Xi’s Republic of China

China’s experiment with market-based economics didn’t negate the problems of one-party rule. It merely delayed them.

General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he leaves after speaking at a press event with members of the new Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China on October 23, 2022, in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

I wrote my Los Angeles Times column on China this week but, perhaps ironically, my hunger for Chinese fare has come back.

I don’t want to repeat myself, though, so let’s come at this from a different angle. 

I’ve written a bunch about how I think people tend to love democracy for the wrong reasons. They think democracy is glorious for what it produces through the magical expression of the popular will. I think democracy is glorious for the bad things it prevents.

I guess I’ve got to define some terms. I don’t use “democracy” as poetic shorthand for all the good stuff of liberal democratic capitalism, the rule of law, etc. I mean “democracy” as in fair elections, majority rule, and all that stuff. 

Let me define another term. Republicanism—spelled with a small “r” except when it inconveniently begins a sentence—is about counter-balancing the passions of the people with the long-term interests and ideals of the country as a whole. This sort of small-r republicanism refers both to individual leaders who understand their larger responsibilities beyond simply taking orders from voters and to the rules and institutions that prioritize things other than mere popular will. The Supreme Court, for example, is very republican but not very democratic, and that’s the way I like it.

Okay, back to my point. One of the things that a lot of cheerleaders for republicanism often forget is that republicanism needs democracy. The people who think saying “America is not a democracy, it’s a republic” is some sort of mic-drop argument-settler often forget this. Republican government needs democracy or it will eventually become corrupted.

There’s an old line of thinking that says the best form of government is a “good czar” but the worst form of government is the “bad czar.” The problem is always that once you set up a government designed for good czars to rule with a free hand, there’s no reliable mechanism for preventing bad czars from taking over, in part because even the best czars usually want their kid to be the next czar.  

Voltaire disagreed. He supposedly said that “the best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination.” Even if you think benevolent tyranny isn’t an oxymoron, that’s a really hard system to put into practice over the long haul. Most tyrants probably think they’re benevolent, but all tyrants don’t like to be assassinated, so they take steps to prevent being murdered. I’m no historian, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.  

Democracy can produce tyrants. Heck, that’s the classical brief against democracy and one that the Founders took very seriously. That’s why they put all sorts of republican backstops into the Constitution. But again, without democracy, those republican safeguards can become tyrannical.

In other words, democracy is a hedge against bad stuff more than it is a guarantor of good stuff. I know this sticks in a lot of craws, but voters can—and often do—get stuff wrong all the time. Simply because a bad idea can capture the support of 50.1 percent of the people doesn’t suddenly make it a good idea. The primary benefit of elections is that when the majority comes to realize they screwed up, they can do something to rectify their mistake, by electing politicians with an incentive to point out the mistake.

Most of the problems facing American cities can, to one degree or another, be attributed to one-party rule. Lots of conservatives like to claim all of these problems stem from Democratic Party rule, and there’s some truth to that, of course. But the larger truth is that one-party rule is always going to become a problem eventually.

Of course, elections aren’t the only tool for accountability. A free press is essential, not least because voters can’t recognize they screwed-up unless they’re informed that they screwed up. People in power are not reliable sources of information about their own screw-ups.

Honest courts are essential, too. Without the rule of law as a backstop against malfeasance, misfeasance, and even nonfeasance (it’s a word!), those in power will simply claim their actions are lawful because they are the law.

Finally, there’s another tool of accountability that doesn’t get enough respect—except from Kevin Williamson and a few others: honest bureaucrats. I know “bureaucrat” is almost an insult these days, so if you want to say “civil servant” or some such that’s fine. But honest government workers and experts are indispensable to honest—i.e. accountable—government. If they lie about the numbers, if they take bribes to allocate resources for personal or political gain, then elections don’t really matter.

All of these things are interdependent. A free press can’t really do its job if the bureaucrats lie about the facts of governance. How can you report on the crime rate, if the statistics are made up? How can you make an informed decision about a government policy if the failure of that policy is not made known? How can you hold a party accountable if that party makes it impossible to successfully vote for an alternative party? If politicians can commit crimes to hold onto power … well you get it. 

China’s syndrome.

So with all that in mind, let’s talk about China. Once Deng Xiaoping declared “to get rich is glorious” and embraced markets, China started getting rich (or at least richer, they still have hundreds of millions of poor people). For a lot of folks who love the idea of technocrats running the economy this was hailed as proof that technocrats can run the economy. And, to be fair, they had some good arguments. Not great arguments, mind you. After all, embracing markets explicitly means letting go of some political control of the economy. China tried directing everything from the Politburo and tens of millions died as a result. But when they agreed to let people pursue prosperity, even if it required bribing officials to do it, hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty.

But what often gets left out of that story was that the Chinese Communist Party had to also let the technocrats do their jobs in a relatively straightforward way. Sure, the press releases fluffed up the numbers, but internally the bureaucrats had to be relatively honest, reporting to officials what was actually happening. The press was by no means free to criticize the CCP, but reporting basic information essential to the workings of the economy—profits, losses, wages, shortages etc.—were available. The wants and desires of consumers were legible to entrepreneurs and policymakers alike. Prices—the single most important conveyor of information—were allowed to be set by the market, not the state. Not entirely. Not perfectly. But enough to make prosperity possible. 

That era is over. If you haven’t listened to The Economist’s limited-run podcast on Xi Jinping, I highly recommend it. What comes through more than anything else is that Xi is a Party animal. He’s a true Leninist. By this I don’t mean that he subscribes to all of the dialectical materialism of Marxism or any of that stuff (though I think he’s sympathetic). What I mean is he’s a Party Man. He believes, passionately, that the party—not the “state” and certainly not the people—should guide everything. Absent the party’s iron-willed control of the country, China will spiral out of control. And for the party to maintain that control, it needs an iron-willed man of iron ironness at the helm. That’s basically all that Leninism really means. It’s the Mr. Hyde version of small r-republicanism. 

Xi has had enough with the go-go, freewheeling ways of markets. He looked at the fall of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale, concluding that too much freedom leads to the dissolution of the state. As a result, he has curbed not just the freedom of billions of normal Chinese people, but the freedom of technocrats, journalists, courts, and the party itself. He sincerely believes that if the Soviet Communist Party hadn’t been so weak, the Soviet Union would have survived. And that survival would have been worth slaughtering however many people that were required. 

I’ll spare you all the examples of this, but the Chinese government’s decision to simply stop reporting bad data on youth unemployment and other inconvenient statistics gives you a good sense of what I’m getting at. Virtually every institution of power has seen the relatively honest replaced with the entirely loyal (to Xi), from regional officials to the military leadership.

If the Chinese Communist Party were a country, it would be the 16th largest country in the world, with roughly 100 million members. Every member must take a test, daily, on their phone demonstrating their fluency with Communist Party dogma and Xi Jinping Thought. The app is called Xuexi Qiangguo, and it’s tied to your personal identity number and has access to all of your personal data, including location and financial. Your score on the daily quizzes and reading assignments most definitely goes on your permanent record. 

There are a lot of points I could make here. For starters, China is turning toward militaristic nationalism, and that spells all sorts of problems for American and global security. And while that’s a worthy topic, I want to make a different point. 

Again, China never actually embraced anything like liberal democratic capitalism, but it did have a good run as a somewhat benevolent tyranny (though don’t tell that to the Uyghurs, Tibetans, or other non-Han Chinese). But even as it lifted all of those people out of poverty—or to be more accurate, let markets lift them out of poverty—it never escaped the basic problems with one-party rule, it merely delayed them. 

China’s economy is faltering because of those accumulated problems. For all the wonders created by China’s experiment with markets, there was still a hell of a lot of state-directed spending and the corruption that comes with it. I don’t even mean the bribery and theft—though there was an incredible amount of that. I mean that when the state directs resources purely or even primarily for political reasons, the costs inevitably exceed the ability of honest governance to cover. This is true in America, because it is true everywhere, which is why Social Security is such a mess and why we still have ethanol subsidies despite the fact that ethanol is bad for cars, consumers, the environment, and the climate. 

Xi is making all of those problems worse because he believes that the market was a tiger the party could no longer afford to ride without being devoured by it. As I wrote in my column, Xi agrees with those perfidious neoliberals who believe that economic freedom leads to political freedom. He just thinks that’s an argument for snuffing out economic freedom. 

And this should be the takeaway for all of those people who spent the last few decades fawning over China’s “third way”—a term, I should note, that has a rich fascist pedigree. Lovers of technocracy, like Thomas Friedman, celebrated Chinese authoritarianism because they fell in love with the myth of the good czar. 

I’m not saying that good czars don’t exist. You can make a defensible case that Lee Kwan Yew, Kemal Attaturk, Frederick the Great, or Augusto Pinochet were good czars. Those are fun arguments. But at the end of the day, if a benevolent tyrant doesn’t work assiduously—and successfully!—to eradicate the czarist system and replace it with a system that can hold those in power accountable, all they have done is delay the inevitability of a bad czar coming to power.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.