Xi whiz

Xi whiz, by Niall Ferguson.

An emperor who is a dotard. A population in the grip of opium addiction. An economy held back by bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure. A culture fixated on past greatness but in fact hopelessly decadent. This was how Westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries regarded China. It is how the Chinese (not to mention most Europeans) now regard the United States. …

Ever since President Xi Jinping’s triumphant appearance as the defender of free trade and champion of globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos back in January, there has been a striking trend: Those commentators most averse to Donald Trump also tend to be those most gushing in their praise of his Chinese counterpart. …

Xi whiz! But wait a second. We’re supposed to be impressed that, to quote The Economist, Xi Jinping’s “grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao”? Last time I checked, Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his fellow citizens in a succession of Mao-made catastrophes: the 1949 revolution itself, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. If Mao is Xi’s role model, China is more likely to become a gigantic North Korea than the post-American colossus. …

But what is Xi’s thought exactly? The relevant amendment to the constitution runs to nearly 3,000 words, but in essence it combines the familiar (“socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a euphemism for capitalism since 1982), with new themes introduced by Xi in the last five years: “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” green development, anti-corruption, and the Party’s primacy over the military. There is not much here that is Maoist. Replace the word “Chinese” with “Swedish” and it wouldn’t look out of place in a Scandinavian social democratic manifesto. …

Liberty matters, but the new left seem ignorant about this today:

Two centuries ago, Westerners were right that China was suffering from stagnation and decline. Chinese observers can be forgiven for thinking the same about America today. Yet it is far from clear that China in 2017 has anything like the vitality and potential of Britain or the United States in 1817. Apart from anything else, what made the English-speaking world so dynamic in those days was the unparalleled economic and political liberty that had been established there.

Beginning in the late 1970s, China overcame centuries of stagnation precisely because Mao’s successors understood that they had to decentralize the People’s Republic, giving economic if not political power to the people themselves. If Western commentators are right, Xi Jinping wants to go in the opposite direction.