The China model: why is the West imitating Beijing?Niall Ferguson
‘There’s an osmosis in war, call it what you will, but the victors always tend to assume the… the, eh, trappings of the loser,’ says one of the officers in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. ‘We might easily go fascist after we win.’
Americans have long been haunted by the notion of the osmosis of war. Throughout the First Cold War, a recurrent theme of liberal and conservative commentary was that there was a kind of convergence taking place, causing the United States to resemble — at least in some respects — its Soviet antagonist. That all nuclear superpowers would end up as slave states had been George Orwell’s grim prophecy in the article that coined the term ‘Cold War’, as well as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a similar concern that prompted Dwight Eisenhower to warn, as he left the presidency, of the power of the ‘military-industrial complex’.
In The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that planning was inexorably replacing the market in the United States, just as it had in the Soviet Union, because of the demands of ‘modern large-scale production’. The more radical left went much further, insisting that the United States was in fact the aggressor in the Cold War — which was of course exactly the central leitmotif of Soviet propaganda.
Needless to say, all this turned out to be very wrong indeed. The differences between the American and the Soviet economic system only grew over time, not just in terms of organisation but also performance. Nor did Orwell’s nightmare materialise: the US and its allies did not degenerate into Oceania, a totalitarian state indistinguishable from Eurasia and Eastasia.
You might therefore have expected that, as the Second Cold War gathers momentum, American leaders would be doing their utmost to distinguish their system — based on the free market, free speech, the rule of law, universal suffrage and the separation of powers — from that of the People’s Republic of China — based on the Communist party’s unlimited and unchallengeable power over every aspect of life. True, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has talked the talk — for example, at March’s bad-tempered Anchorage meeting with his opposite number Yang Jiechi — expressing the Biden administration’s ‘significant concerns’ about ‘China’s actions in Xinjiang, with regard to Hong Kong, Tibet, increasingly Taiwan, as well as actions that it’s taken in cyberspace’. Yet when it comes to walking the walk, this administration at times seems to be following in China’s footsteps.
In late March, for example, Joe Biden proposed to Boris Johnson a western version of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. ‘I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative, pulling from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help,’ Biden told reporters after the call. Conventionally, ‘OBOR’ (also known as the Belt and Road Initiative) is described as a vast infrastructure investment programme, though a vast propaganda and dodgy loan programme might be more accurate.
No one has had quite the temerity to suggest that Biden’s domestic spending programme is also somewhat Chinese in conception as well as in scale. It began with the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill (the American Rescue Plan). Then came the $2.2 trillion infrastructure bill (the American Jobs Plan). And just last week we were presented with the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Plan, plan, plan — if only J.K. Galbraith were still here to see his theory vindicated.
The combined price tag for all these plans comes to just under $6 trillion, equivalent to more than a quarter of US economic output (though the spending on both the Jobs and Families plans is spread over multiple years). Republicans are not well positioned to criticise, having inadvertently legitimised both universal basic income and Modern Monetary Theory with the emergency measures they passed last year. It has been left to former Democratic officials, notably Larry Summers and Steve Rattner, to express disquiet at the scale of the fiscal expansion, which not only risks overheating an already recovering economy, but also permanently increases the role of federal government in the economy.
And let us not forget those who urge the Federal Reserve to hurry up and devise its own version of China’s central bank digital currency, seemingly unaware that the primary goals of the e-yuan are to tighten the CCP’s surveillance of financial transactions and to reduce the power of the electronic payment platforms built by the Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent. Despite Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell’s obvious lack of enthusiasm, he is under growing pressure to follow the Chinese lead. Already the Bank of England is forging ahead with its own Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) Taskforce. Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, envisages an e-euro in around four years’ time.
It is one thing to compete with China. I firmly believe we need to do that in every domain, from artificial intelligence to Covid vaccines. But the minute we start copying China, we are on the path to perdition.
Consider the way many western countries mistakenly concluded last year that strict Chinese-style lockdowns were the right way to cope with Covid, not realising that no free society could possibly tolerate restrictions as draconian as the ones imposed all over China from late January last year, which relied on the vast network of Communist party members in every neighbourhood to police citizens’ behaviour. Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College epidemiologist, who was influential in the UK’s decision to lock down, has been quite open about his inspiration. ‘If China had not done it, the year would have been very different,’ he admitted in an interview in December. ‘“It’s a communist one-party state,” we said. “We couldn’t get away with it in Europe,” we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’
I would argue against my near-namesake that, in the panic that gripped us in March last year, we rushed to imitate the wrong China. We should have adopted much earlier the quite different model of the Republic of China (Taiwan), which combined large-scale testing, contact-tracing and isolating of the infected to contain the spread of the virus.
There are reasonable arguments to be made in favour of vaccination certificates, as well as historical precedents for such documents. But there is an obvious risk that such certificates could turn into digital national identity cards — a system that China began to use in 2018.
The fact that we are now in the Second Cold War has been getting steadily harder to deny ever since the Chernobyl-like beginning of the pandemic, which saw officials in Wuhan and Beijing behaving much as their Soviet counterparts did in 1986: procrastinating and obfuscating. The differences are that this has been a far worse disaster than Chernobyl, and Chinese officials have brazenly stuck to their tall story that the virus originated elsewhere.
Public sentiment has shifted decidedly against Beijing, and not only in the United States, as surveys by the Pew Research Center in the autumn make clear. While many western intellectuals still resist the Cold War analogy, insisting that some hybrid system of ‘coopetition’ between strategic frenemies is possible, a growing number now accept John Garnaut’s argument that Xi Jinping is in fact the Marxist-Leninist heir of Stalin and Mao. No less a proponent of Sino-American amity than Henry Kissinger acknowledged as early as November 2019 that ‘we are in the foothills of a cold war’.
When I first began talking publicly about the Second Cold War at conferences, I was surprised that no Chinese delegates contradicted me. I once asked one of them — the Chinese head of a major international institution — why that was. ‘Because I agree with you!’ he replied with a smile. As a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, I have seen for myself the ideological turning of the tide under Xi. Academics who study taboo subjects such as the Cultural Revolution find themselves subject to investigations — or worse.
Those in the West who hope to revive engagement with Beijing underestimate the influence of Wang Huning, a member since 2017 of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the most powerful body in China, and Xi’s most influential adviser. In August 1988, Wang spent six months in the United States as a visiting scholar, travelling to more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. His account of that trip, America Against America (published in 1991), is a critique — in places scathing — of American democracy, capitalism and culture. Racial di-vision features prominently in the third chapter.
In a revealing essay published last year, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shi-gong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the corollary of American decline. ‘The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,’ Jiang wrote, ‘which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.’ The globalisation of our time, according to Jiang, is the ‘“single world empire” 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States’. But that Anglo-American empire is ‘unravelling’ internally, because of ‘three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy… ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism’. Moreover, the western empire is under external attack from ‘Russian resistance and Chinese competition’. This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire, but ‘a struggle to become the heart of the world empire’.
If you doubt that China is seeking to take over empire 1.0, the Anglo-American liberal version, and turn it into empire 2.0, based on an explicitly illiberal model, then you are not paying attention to all the ways this strategy is being executed. China has successfully become the workshop of the world, as the West used to be. It has its version of Wilhelmine Germany’s Weltpolitik, in the form of OBOR. China uses the prize of access to its market to exert pressure on US companies to toe Beijing’s line. It conducts ‘influence operations’ throughout the West, including in the United States. And, of course, it is relentlessly increasing its military capabilities in every domain from sea power to space and cyberspace.
The key difference between the West and China is that Xi Jinping and his advisers are quite self-conscious in their rejection of imitation of the West as a strategy. Hence the Ministry of Education’s order, which came into effect last month, for schools to replace books that ‘obsequiously embrace all things foreign’ with the likes of The Chinese Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation, a collection of Xi’s speeches, and A Brief History of the Communist Party of China (which, at 530 pages, is only brief compared with the complete works of Marx).
Like the ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ that has so perturbed western governments in the past year, this represents a reversion to an idea of ‘self-strengthening’ that has deep roots in Chinese history, long pre-dating the founding of the People’s Republic. The corollary is the growing conviction within the Chinese political elite that the West is decadent and doomed to decline.
Might they be right? In a moment of despondency this week, the conservative writer and editor Sohrab Ahmari tweeted: ‘I’m at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century. Late-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower. Chinese civilisation, especially if it recovers more of its Confucian roots, will possess a great deal of natural virtue.’ He deleted the tweet, but it is telling that the thought even crossed his mind. Ahmari is the author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. He is not the only conservative thinker to feel the pull of cultural despair as American institutions increasingly succumb to the plague of ‘wokeism’ — an illiberal ideology that originated on elite campuses but is now prevalent everywhere from Californian public schools to the Central Intelligence Agency.
I am not so gloomy, because I believe that woke ideas are profoundly unpopular with the electorate as a whole and that the Democrats’ adoption of slogans such as ‘anti-racism’ and ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ will ultimately backfire when it becomes clear to more people what they mean in practice. Nevertheless, I begin to understand better how convergence theories gain traction at times of superpower conflict.
There is a kind of low-level totalitarianism detectable in many institutions today — from elite universities to newspapers, publishers and technology companies — which reveals that practices such as informing, denunciation and defamation can all flourish even in the absence of a one-party dictatorship. And it turns out you don’t need a Communist party in charge to have censorship of the internet: just leave it to the big tech companies, which now have the power to cancel the President of the United States if they so choose.
There is indeed an osmosis of war, as Mailer noted. But there seems also to be an osmosis of peace. And if China ends up winning the Second Cold War, historians — if any real ones are left — may well conclude that its victory began when Americans decided to imitate not just OBOR and CBDC but the Cultural Revolution itself.
Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, is out now.