Today's date:
Spring 2005

Communist Rule Is Good for China

KISHORE MAHBUBANI, a long-time Singapore ambassador to the United Nations, now heads the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. This excerpt is taken from Mahbubani's new book, Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World (Public Affairs, 2005).

Singapore - One of the most dangerous dimensions of American policy toward China is the strongly held belief among key American strategic thinkers that China would benefit enormously if it could be transformed into a democracy, the sooner, the better. A natural corollary of this belief is anything that the United States can do either to plant the seeds of democracy or to allow the emergence of pro-democratic forces would therefore only benefit China. It is almost impossible to shake this conviction from American minds because it plays to the belief that America has become the most successful society in the story of man because it has the most democratic society in the world. This may be true for America. Even though America is probably the youngest nation among all the great powers, American thinkers believe that their openness is a universal panacea. If they could rid China of its "oppressive" Communist Party rule, China would grow and flourish after the forces of freedom had taken over.

It is not surprising then that the US and China reached almost exactly opposite conclusions on the real effect of the collapse of the Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union. Americans cheered the disappearance of the Communist Party. They cheered the arrival of democratic elections. Part of this was because the Soviet nuclear threat had terrorized American minds subconsciously for decades. Several American friends of mine told me that they slept much better when the Soviet nuclear missiles were no longer controlled by the Communist Party (even though ironically the Soviet Communist Party had been rational and predictable in its behavior for decades). It was also assumed that freedom would inevitably improve the living conditions of the Russians. Few Americans noticed the implosion of the Russian economy, the rapid impoverishment of millions and the remarkable deterioration in key indicators of social and economic well-being, including life expectancy and infant mortality. The Russian people did.

While Americans observed the explosion of freedom in Russia after Communist Party rule ended, the Chinese leaders and people witnessed both the destruction of Soviet power, the quick collapse of the Soviet state and the anarchy that was experienced by the poorer classes. The wealth of the Russian state was transferred not to the people but to a few oligarchs. Corruption rose. Hence, when the Chinese looked at Russia in the 1990s, it reminded them of some of the painful decades they experienced in the early 20th century, when both corruption and anarchy were endemic. The Chinese leaders shuddered at the prospect of this happening in China. Indeed the greatest danger that Chinese political thinkers have warned against has always been Luan (chaos). After watching what happened in Russia, the Chinese leadership (and probably a wide range of elites) reached the conclusion that Chinese Communist Party rule would be needed for a decade or more.

It is virtually impossible to convince any American that the continuation of Chinese Communist Party rule-of the kind seen since Deng Xiaoping launched the modernization of China-would be good for China, good for America and good for the world. Good Communist Party rule is dismissed by Americans as an oxymoron. After witnessing the painful experience of the Balkans following the export of democracy and the removal of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia, some Americans might reluctantly concede that in some circumstances Communist Party rule may indeed be a lesser evil. But good it could never be.

A rigid adherence to ideology can create its own blindness. In the last decade or more, while Americans have preserved in their minds an unchanging vision of the Chinese Communist Party, they have failed to take note of its remarkable transformation. On paper it looks like the same political animal. In reality, the party is now completely different. Never before has China assembled such a broad sophisticated elite to manage the affairs of its state. Many have been trained overseas. When Americans try to envision Communist Party officials, they visualize old party hacks like Brezhnev and Gromyko. But if they were to travel to China and meet the Communist Party leaders running key cities, for example, they will meet young Chinese mayors, many of whom have Harvard or Stanford MBAs: Mayor Han Zheng of Shanghai (49 years old); Mayor Li Hongzhong of Shenzhen (46 years old) and Vice-Mayor Lu Hao of Beijing (35 years old).

After more than a hundred years of anarchy and misrule, China has finally amassed the best government class it has seen in generations. There are no aging commissars clinging on to party rule. Instead, there is a set of leaders committed to moving China forward. The success of their policies is evident. It is hard enough to deliver rapid economic growth in small- or medium-sized societies. To watch the most populous society in the world experiencing the most rapid economic growth is like seeing the fattest boy in class winning the 100-meter hurdle race. Despite all the enormous baggage it carries socially, culturally, politically, the Chinese economy has outpaced almost every other economy in the past two decades. This does not happen naturally. It requires incredibly deft economic management, of a kind delivered by China's new sophisticated elite.

China is no paradise. It has enormous flaws. Large pools of poverty remain. Corruption is widespread, especially at local levels. There is often brutal and arbitrary rule in provinces where the checks from the center are less frequent. Any American reporter looking for flaws in the Chinese social and political fabric will find many, and that is why there is no shortage of negative stories on China in the American media. In the world's largest society, it may even be natural to find the largest number of flaws. But if instead of taking a static view of China, we compare China's overall position today to where it has been in the past two centuries, there can be no doubt that the Chinese people are far better off today.