One of the more fascinating stories that I came across in the last few days concerned a students’ magazine in China. This was produced in one of those joint American-Chinese universities (I’ve forgotten which one) that have been set up in the last 30 years. The magazine had a story about Chinese dissidents — campaigners for more human rights in China and so forth. But before the magazine could actually go on sale in the wider Chinese world, some mysterious ‘authority’ intervened and the magazines are now piled up in the student editor’s bedroom! The point made, however, was that discussion about these matters was all very well within the university, so long as it didn’t go outside it.
This fits in with the relatively few insights we have about what goes on within high politics in China. The two that have impressed me more than most are two books. One is China’s New Confucianism by Daniel A. Bell, who is a long-time American lecturer in political philosophy at Tsinghua University (one of the two ‘Oxbridge’ or ‘Harvard-Yale’ universities in China). The other is China’s New Rulers by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley based on secret files smuggled out of China concerning the detailed administrative reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the early ’80s. The substance of both is that beneath the formal administrative committees of China, and right up to the nine-person Poliburo, veritable cauldrons of ideas, even the most heretical, are tolerated and are allowed to be ventilated upwards and sideways, but not downwards and outwards — and certainly not published to the wider public.
This, of course, is in complete contrast to politics in Western advanced countries. Here, by means of sheer economic force in a series of epic battles over a period of about 200 years, and fought successively by one class after another, we have now arrived at what we call democracy where every single adult, educated in current problems or not, has the vote. What this means is that, in order to be re-elected, political parties have to offer suitable bribes to different classes of the electorate and, when in power, carry them out, even though it means that governments have to go deeply into debt. To be realistic, the debts of most advanced country governments from America through to Greece are now already so great that they’ll never be repayable. Unless a string of highly desirable, uniquely new, consumer goods comes along and re-launches economic growth in a magical way then, sooner or later, the debts will have to written off (even though many individuals and businesses will suffer) and new currencies brought into being.
But leaving that fascinating topic on one side, which of the two — Chinese ‘totalitarianism’ or Western ‘democracy’ — will bear up better as the looming economic depression spreads around the world? Which side will be able to keep social unrest down to containable levels? Thank goodness, the usual orthodox outlet for such stress, warfare, is now ruled out because even governments and politicians can now be obliterated by nuclear bombs, or cybernetics or drones. (Even in Medieval warfare, when kings ‘led’ their troops into battle, they were usually well protected by a well-armed retinue and rarely killed. They were too valuable as hostages for high ransom payments.)
Well, I’ve little doubt in my own mind which of the two sorts of governments will fare better in the immediate years ahead (repeat immediate). The Chinese have had at least 2,200 years of experience at their form of governance already whereas our full-blown democratic experiments are barely a century old. But in 20 or 30 years’ time when China has caught up with the Western way of life, it will be highly likely that its totalitarianism will have to give way to some form of democracy because our increasingly complex society will require responsibilities to be shared by all specializations (that is, adults with a job).
But in both cases, the West and China, are going to have to vastly improve their education systems. China’s authoritarian rote-learning is not conducive to creativity. The West’s polarization between elite schools and state schools means that most potential talent is blunted long before adulthood. Governments on both sides are well aware of their respective deficiencies. Beyond the immediate years ahead, future society and governance will depend on which side actually succeeds in repairing their school systems. I wouldn’t put a bet on this.