Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cold War 2.0?

Is a tempting alternative to western democracy gaining currency in the developing world? So I wondered when I read the warning in yesterday's Times by Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, of growing media suppression across Africa:
As Africa’s economies grow, an insidious attack on press freedom is under way. Independent African journalists covering the continent’s development are now frequently persecuted for critical reporting on the misuse of public finances, corruption and the activities of foreign investors. ...
Keita attributes the trend in large part to
the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist.
In January, Beijing issued a white paper calling for accelerated expansion of China’s news media abroad and the deployment of a press corps of 100,000 around the world, particularly in priority regions like Africa. In the last few months alone, China established its first TV news hub in Kenya and a print publication in South Africa. The state-run Xinhua news agency already operates more than 20 bureaus in Africa. More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, called “truthful” coverage of development fueled by China’s activities. 

China and African governments tend to agree that the press should focus on collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather than report on divisive issues or so-called negative news.
So once again there is a superpower, wielding far more economic clout than the Soviet Union ever mustered, not only seeking influence and access to resources and markets, as has long been understood and accepted, but promulgating an alternative mode of government and economic development.

I have mused before that by their own lights, China's leaders remain communists -- presumably convinced, following Deng, that capitalist incentives, set loose under authoritarian state planning, are the best route to the greatest good for the greatest number. If that is true, the Cold War may just be in cold storage, and we are in the midst of continued ideological competition.

The prospects for a soft landing for American soft power (and hard power) would seem to depend in large part on the development of democracy in China, a prospect that feels long delayed -- though it may not be, in a properly scaled view.

Francis Fukuyama has suggested that in the short term, China's leaders have figured out "how to cater to the interests of Chinese elites and the emerging middle classes," though Fukuyama still betts that, in the long term, "any top-down system of accountability faces unsolvable problems of monitoring and responding to what is happening on the ground" and that democracy will emerge out of some future crisis. Gideon Rachman is more agnostic, but notes drily that "it is now entirely conceivable that when China becomes the world's largest economy -- let us say in 2027 -- it will still be a one-party state run by the Communist Party."

I would add that you can't predict future ideological innovation.  If, as Fukuyama suggests, the current mode of Chinese top-down economic management will not be sustainable in the long term, who knows what strange beast, foul or fair, slouches toward Beijing to be born? 

It's always worth keeping in mind, too, that most of the Chinese leadership probably does not see itself or Chinese society evolving our way. I am reminded of Bill Clinton's haunting takeaway from a meeting with Chinese president Jiang Zemin  (as told to Taylor Branch and recorded in The Clinton Tapes):
Jiang declared that Chinese rulers believed in discipline for their people, not from them, and he bluntly diminished American self-government as a small and dubious blip on the Chinese calendar, not a monument of world history (p. 109; more on Clinton and Jiang here).

The long view, then, requires looking backward as well as forward.  Fukuyama tells us that China's chief contribution to human development is the strong state, more or less absent the rule of law as we know it in the west -- that is, the law exercising authority over the personal will of the rulers.  Disicpline for their people, not from them.  Will 1.2 billion Chinese eventually overturn that rooted sense of the natural order of things?

One final corrective lens for someone who gets all his info on this front second hand: James Fallows' frequent reminders that China contains almost unfathomable multitudes (e.g., the demographic equivalent of the entire Western hemisphere, plus Nigeria, plus Japan), that top-down control in many ways has a quite limited reach, that the government and society is facing the enormous challenge of moving hundreds of millions of people into cities that don't exist yet, that China is not a unified expansionist juggernaut.

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