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Global Viewpoint

China vs. America: Which government model will triumph?

If the 20th century was about the competition between democracy and totalitarianism, the 21st century pits the excesses of consumer democracy against capable governance with too little democratic accountability.

By Nathan Gardels / January 27, 2010


Overloaded with debt and facing a yawning deficit, Athens is seeking to borrow 25 billion euros from Beijing. What could be more symbolic of the new power of the East vis-à-vis the West?

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As the symbol of ancient democracy is looking for cash, the symbol of modern democracy, the United States, is already deeply in debt to the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, in part it was the savings glut of Chinese reserves that helped inflate the mortgage bubble to the point of bursting. While Communist leader Nikita Khruschev blustered at the height of the cold war that the Soviet Union would bury the US economically, it was up to Beijing to extend it enough credit to hang itself.

And that is not all. Google, the very symbol of the information revolution, is locked in a standoff with China’s Communist rulers and their murky party hackers. And the trial run of China’s new “Harmony Express,” the world’s fastest train, took place at virtually the same time as the recent trial of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. While the Harmony Express streaked from Guangzhou to Wuhan in less than three hours, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

That a harshly ruled but prospering China is no longer emerging but has emerged is all the buzz at this year’s conclave in Davos, Switzerland. Hopefully, the high-powered buzz will yield a little more introspection in the West – and not just over bank regulation – instead of yet another round of excoriating the East.

Perhaps it is time to take another look at democracy as we know it, not just because of the economic success of authoritarian China, the very emblem of non-Western modernity, but because the West itself has changed.

In much of the West, especially in the US, we no longer live in an industrial democracy, no less the agriculture-based landed aristocracy in which most political systems and their constitutions were originally conceived. We live in a consumer democracy.

In a consumer democracy, where the feedback signals from politics, the media, and the market all steer society toward immediate self gratification, there is scarce political capacity for the kind of long-term thinking, planning, and continuity of governance which has so far been responsible for China’s rise. When scarce political capacity and consumer democracy are joined with robust technological prowess, both the societal and generational impacts are amplified and extended well beyond the present moment and local environment. (Think climate change, a perfect example of how seeming retail sanity of, say, driving a carbon-belching SUV, can add up to wholesale madness.)