America and China: A tale of two systems

The United States’ commemoration of the 245th anniversary of its independence this year coincides with China’s celebration of the centenary of the founding of its Communist Party. This fascinating conjunction of events succinctly conveys the rivalry between two contrasting systems of society. It is a rivalry that is no longer usefully summed up as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, or between capitalism and socialism.

Both countries are swept up in the tide of global capitalism as competitors in the same world market. Both are engaged in expanding their influence and defending their interests abroad. But while the United States continues to promote American-style democracy as a model for other nations, China has long ceased exporting revolution and Chinese socialism to the developing world.

Whatever influence China seeks to gain in the world, it is doing so today by employing the same capitalist tools the US has masterfully deployed since the end of World War II. These are: investments, loans, trade agreements, technology transfers, and various forms of bilateral assistance. With a population of 1.4 billion, China has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse in the span of just one generation, offering the rest of the world access to both its domestic market and its huge army of skilled workers. But its biggest weapon has been its capacity to flood the world with its cheap products.

None of these would have been possible without the Chinese Communist Party’s effective control of Chinese society. It is China’s principal source of strength, as well as its Achilles heel—its vulnerability.

Through its committees operating at various levels and in different domains of society, the Communist Party keeps an eye on everything, making sure the vision of the Party leadership is followed every step of the way. Party branches exist not just in government units or offices, but also in both state-owned and private enterprises. As embedded organizations, they are responsible to the Party alone.

Such power in the hands of Party functionaries and leaders, however, is fertile ground for corruption. The worm of corruption has a way of eating its way into the core of even the most disciplined organization, creating factions and pitting leader against leader. The Communist Party of China faced this problem not too long ago, resulting in the arrest, prosecution, and jailing of top leaders, like former Politburo member Bo Xilai and his family, who were never heard from again. Some big business tycoons who had become too vocal simply disappeared from public view.

Xi Jinping, who took over in November 2012 as general secretary of the Party, waged a quiet but willful campaign to eliminate leaders of the Party who had enriched themselves and built personal empires. He has also become president of the People’s Republic of China, subject to no term limit, and chair of the Central Military Commission. He is today known as China’s Paramount Leader, comparable in power only to Chairman Mao during the latter’s heyday. Under these circumstances, it would be extremely risky for anyone in China to criticize Xi or the Party, or to spread information that shows the Party in a negative light.

Because it sees things only from its narrow perspective, the Party tiptoes around information that may reflect badly on its image. This is exactly what happened in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, when Dr. Li Wenliang, who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, innocently shared a report about mysterious cases of a respiratory disease with some of his former classmates in medical school. The report found its way into other online chat groups, advising people to take precautions. Four days later, Doctor Li was picked up by the Public Security Bureau and “admonished for making false comments on the Internet about unconfirmed SARS outbreak.” He caught the virus himself a few days later and unfortunately became one of the first casualties of COVID-19.

In a reasonably open society, it would be hard to keep information coming from other domains of society from spilling out—especially not in the time of social media. But the local Party bureau ordered the Wuhan doctors to keep the information about the outbreak to themselves until the Party could ascertain what it was, by which time it was too late to warn the public and the rest of the world about SARS-CoV-2. It took about three weeks before China would acknowledge the spread of a dangerous virus. During this time, Chinese holidaymakers were traveling to different parts of the world and unknowingly spreading the infection.

Information, reliable and timely, is also particularly crucial to economic success. For as long as the Party sought to make decisions that properly belong to business organizations, there was no way China could sustainably grow its economy. It was only when it decided to give private enterprises some autonomy and allow them to extensively participate in the global economic system that the country’s productivity began to grow exponentially.

The West had thought that the opening of China’s economy would pave the way for the democratization of its political system. Today, this remains a distant hope. China’s eradication of mass poverty, its sustained growth, and its successful elevation to middle class status of a sizable segment of its population, appear to validate the vision of a strong nation led by a strong single-party State. Alas, it is democratic America that seems to be languishing economically, its institutions unable to fully arrest the drift toward populist authoritarianism.