China is fighting for its life—and its soul

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Mark this date on your calendar: November 19, 2023. This date would sound the timer for the disestablishment of the People’s Republic of China if the Chinese Communist Party has the same life span as its late Russian cousin.

Russia was a Communist dictatorship beginning with the Bolshevik coup in November of 1917 until December of 1991, when the Supreme Soviet reversed the Bolshevik revolution and voted to dissolve the Soviet Union. The USSR was just over 74 years old when it met its end.

In a few weeks, the world will witness Beijing’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of China’s very own October Revolution. There will be parades and speeches. But, beneath the surface, something is terribly wrong with the entire system.

 

Signs of the Soviet collapse were evident years before the fact, and even as events unfolded many observers grasped that something momentous was happening.  The Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, foreshadowing the USSR’s fate by two years.  Still, when the end came observers were surprised by its speed and extent.  In the post-Soviet period, experts did some soul-searching, asking why they hadn’t seen the signs more clearly.

Today, China has entered a period of general crisis. It was brought about not merely by slow economic growth and its attendant problems, but by a total upheaval touching every aspect of life in the Middle Kingdom: intellectual and religious, economic and political.

In China today, the material aspects of culture (especially the sciences and technology) are highly advanced. But Chinese civilization is badly lagging in other, more vital areas. The Hong Kong protests show a serious deficiency in democratic representation and respect for human rights. And the state is no less repressive in its dealings with Tibet, the Uyghur ethnic minority, and the underground Catholic Church.

That’s not to mention the new, Orwellian surveillance techniques being used against ordinary citizens on the mainland. No matter how closely he follows the letter of the law, no matter how completely he swallows the Party line, there isn’t a soul in China safe from the gaping maw of the communist Leviathan.

When any society enters into a general crisis, the intellectual and even spiritual aspects of culture take on greater importance than the material. The Hong Kong protestors aren’t banging on pots demanding bread: they’re sucking down tear gas demanding freedom. The protest is not about the lack of material well-being; it is about political ideals and a new cultural outlook.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute hit upon this in a recent Washington Post op-ed.  The younger residents “know that unless they can make Hong Kong a full democracy, Beijing’s political demands will slowly erode their freedom.  They see that they ultimately will become like the mainland Chinese, materially well off but politically and socially unfree.”

The way forward will be a synthesis of challenge and response, but the fundamental transformation of Chinese life, especially regarding religious liberty, will be up to the Chinese people themselves. It’s something no one can do for them. Note that, in the final years of the Soviet Union, the US made the conscious decision to allow events there to unfold by their own momentum. At that time, President George H.W. Bush did not want to complicate the shaky position of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader. The security of the USSR’s nuclear weapons arsenal, with the state crumbling around it, cautioned prudence.

Prudence is a diplomatic virtue and a wise guide for American engagement with China. But the US can’t be a mere passive observer. Under President Trump, the US has pushed back hard on China’s predatory trade practices. The President is a disruptor if nothing else, and when it comes to trade with China, he has disrupted an entrenched Western attitude that has been overly indulgent of China’s corrupt and unfair commercial practices.

During the long stretch of the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama years, there was a widely accepted notion in Western circles that China should be allowed to develop fast, which would give rise to a large middle class, which in turn would ultimately pressure China’s rulers for democratic reform. We now know that proposition is false. We’ve seen China grow rapidly; we’ve seen the emergence of its middle class. But we have not seen the promised democratic reform.

This theory was predicated on the false belief that the material aspects of culture shape and determine its non-material aspects. Western elites tend to think that, by hooking up pariah states to the spigot of consumer capitalism, they’ll gradually open up and find ways to integrate themselves into a liberal world order. At its core, this idea is basically a materialist public policy born of a larger Western materialist worldview.

The entrenched party elites in Beijing refute this thesis. But so, too, do the youth of Hong Kong. They stand as witness to a different idea. They’re saying it’s the spirit that gives society life. Without it, material progress counts for nothing.

James Soriano

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James Soriano is a retired Foreign Service Officer who spent three decades in the State Department, most of them in the Middle East. He has published on counter-insurgency, most recently a September 2016 essay for the National Defense University.

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