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.

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?

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.)

This new reality requires the enhanced capacity of governance and the design of better institutional filters – more checks and balances – not only against rule by the short-term tyranny of the “one man, one vote” sovereign will, but against the nearest election term of the permanent campaign, the impending retail purchase, the quarterly report, and the imperative to “monetize attention” in the new media age by supplanting democratic deliberation with partisan programming and reality TV.

No system of governance can endure without the consent of the governed.

But as every political sage from Confucius to Plato to Madison understood, neither can it endure when overruled by popular “appetites” (Plato’s word).

As is often the case, the extreme reveals the essence. Everyone can see that the experience of direct democracy in California, where the popular initiative reigns, has proven ruinous. California’s crisis reveals the delusions of a Diet-Coke civilization that wants sweetness without calories, consumption without savings, and modern infrastructure and good schools without taxes. California’s dysfunction is only a louder echo of American politics as a whole.

It is worthwhile in this context to aerate our assumptions in the West by examining the best practices of China, where the rulers retain a greater political capacity for governance. While the entrepreneurial energies of the population have been unleashed through a free market, the strong hand of the neo-Confucian state tempers all those liberated interests in the name of social harmony and long-term goals.

As Google and Liu Xiaobo are well aware, China’s system is, of course, marred in the opposite way of the West by the absence of personal liberty and free expression as well as the feeble rule of law and weak accountability of the authorities. All too easily the strong hand can become the harsh fist of repression or the open palm of corruption.

As these two systems, which author and historian Niall Ferguson already calls “Chimerica,” interact with each other across the Pacific Basin – the new center of global gravity – their frictions and fusions will yield the opportunity to create something new: a philosophy of governance that balances the individual and the common interest, immediacy, and the long term; a system that mitigates unmediated popular appetites without killing the dynamism of personal pursuit.

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.

Nathan Gardels is the editor in chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is also a senior fellow at the Nicolas Berggruen Institute.


© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network. Distributed by the Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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