Chinese Cultural Revolution poster
The growing rivalry between America and China has prompted any number of contrasts: America is a democracy whilst China is an autocracy; America is collaborative whilst China is hierarchical; America thinks short-term whilst China thinks long-term.
One that’s often missed is their attitude towards the people and the establishment. America underrates its establishment and overrates its people. China does the opposite. This quirk stems from the national myths that buttress their political legitimacy.
America underrates its establishment and overrates its people. China does the opposite.
Americans often deride their political establishment. Former President George W. Bush was frequently disparaged as an idiot, his mistakes exaggerated, his gaffes collated into collections of “Bushisms.” Politicians are commonly seen as grifters and hacks, Congress as dysfunctional and filled with the venal and ignorant. A 2012 Gallup poll found “member of Congress” to be the second most distrusted profession on a list of 22 (just one step up from “car salespeople”), and Washington itself is viewed as depraved and corrupt. Today, Trump supporters smear the establishment – the very people in the White House, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies who work to mitigate the president’s follies – as a sinister and unaccountable “deep state.”
By contrast, you have the People. The People, we are told repeatedly by politicians and pundits, by those on the right and those on the left, are all-wise and all-benevolent, and, like the proverbial customer, always right. The People, in their charming simplicity, always know what is good and what is true and what needs to be done, if only they weren’t constantly being misled and let down by the despicable establishment.
After Donald Trump was elected president, American society (or at least the portion of it that opposed him) cast about for someone to blame for saddling the country (and the world), with him. It blamed Russian interference. It blamed the mainstream media for giving him too much coverage. It blamed social media for enabling the spread of fake news. Most of all, it blamed the establishment. It blamed the other Republican contenders for their shortcomings as presidential candidates. It blamed Hillary Clinton for her shortcomings as a candidate. Characteristically, it blamed everyone except the most obvious culprit – the People themselves.
For it was the People (or enough of them as to make no difference) who voted for him. It was they who took this obnoxious man-child and raised him high, who gave him such outsized power. When former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, one of the ultimate establishment Republicans, initially declined to endorse Trump’s candidacy, his net favorability rating amongst Republican primary voters dropped by half in less than a month. He learned his lesson, changed his mind, and thought twice before denying Trump anything again (the same dynamic now keeps other establishment Republicans from breaking with the president). The establishment fielded over a dozen other Republican candidates who, whatever their flaws, would at least have taken the job seriously and treated the office with a semblance of dignity. The People chose Trump. The establishment fielded Hillary Clinton who, for all her flaws, was a formidable contender and a capable leader. The People chose Trump. In America, the establishment is habitually underestimated, the people habitually overestimated.
In China, it’s the other way round. China makes much of its political “meritocracy,” its system that purportedly filters officials through the levels of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through a series of increasingly challenging portfolios, until the best of them are inducted into the hallowed ranks of the politburo, and, finally, the politburo standing committee, the shadowy cabal that runs the country, from which the general secretary of the Party (and the president of China) will be chosen. The Chinese state apparatus portrays its establishment as benevolent and wise, responsible for the economic miracle that lifted 800 million people out of poverty. President Xi Jinping is vaunted as a great genius and visionary, with his Chinese Dream and his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, such that “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined into China’s constitution.
As for the Chinese people, they’re extolled and celebrated by the state when it suits its purposes, but, for the most part, they’re treated as perpetual children, too stupid to choose their own leaders, too irresponsible to enjoy fundamental rights, who, were it not for the Party’s heavy hand and constant surveillance, would quickly descend into orgies of anarchy and bloodshed.
From my experiences, I’ve found this not to be true. The Chinese people I’ve known from living in China have generally been quite intelligent, and surprisingly politically aware for people in such a censored environment where they’re daily barraged with CCP propaganda. Many have a great curiosity about the outside world, a healthy skepticism of state media, and want the same freedoms people enjoy in democratic countries.
By contrast, the senior Chinese officials I’ve worked with or seen up close have generally been surprisingly stupid, incapable of communicating coherently even in Chinese, inept in their duties and shallow in their thinking, whose only apparent skill was toadying to their superiors and uncritically reciting the Party line. Whilst China’s mandarins tout their academic credentials, an article by Tom Hancock and Nicolle Liu of the Financial Times found widespread plagiarism in the university theses of high-ranking Chinese officials, including the doctoral dissertation of Chen Quanguo, a member of the politburo. It’s common for Chinese officials to pay agencies to write their dissertations for them, according to an academic at a Chinese university interviewed in that story. In his Foreign Policy article, “No One Knows Anything About China,” James Palmer described how, in contrast to the illusion of the Chinese government as a well-oiled machine, it’s actually a dysfunctional system where officials in every province and at every level deliberately conceal and distort information to make themselves look good, such that even the central authorities don’t know what’s really going on in the country. Indeed, some think the system actually favors inferior people and views those who seem too talented as a threat. “Normal logic is that based on a meritocracy, whoever is better in terms of performance should be picked,” said Bo Zhiyue, Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre and Professor of Political Science at Victoria University in Wellington. “But in Chinese politics, they have a logic of reverse selection. If A is better than B, then A should be eliminated.” A study in American Political Science Review found that patronage networks mattered more to a Chinese official’s advancement than performance, including meeting economic growth targets. China’s vaunted political “meritocracy,” therefore, is a myth – advancement within the system seems to have more to do with political maneuvering (which, to be fair, goes on in democracies too), doctoring figures, toeing the party line, sucking up to superiors, and patronage networks than with actual ability.
It’s unclear to what extent advancement within the Chinese system is due to actual ability.
The results of this are visible. Witness the ham-handed way Chinese diplomacy is conducted, such that other countries fear and distrust China more than even a United States under Donald Trump (it’s hard to alienate others more than a country led by someone who habitually tweets insults at his allies, but somehow Beijing has managed it). Witness how ridiculously bad Chinese propaganda is, no matter how much practice Beijing gets at it. Witness the misreading and mismanagement of the situation in Hong Kong. Witness how Xi Jinping is taking the policies that made China successful in the past few decades – the presidential two-term limit that enabled the peaceful transition of power, the adoption of market capitalism, and the toleration of limited dissent – and reversing them, by scrapping term limits, deemphasizing the role of the private sector in favor of inefficient state-owned enterprises, and cracking down even on constructive criticism.
As for the claim that the CCP lifted 800 million people out of poverty, it’s more likely the Chinese people lifted themselves out of poverty through their hard work and initiative. Note, for example, how every Asian country where people who are ethnically and culturally Chinese comprise a large enough percentage of the population, (from Taiwan to Singapore to Malaysia) has seen similar prosperity (Malaysia less so in part because there Chinese comprise just a quarter of the population and are held back by affirmative action policies favoring the Malay majority). Likewise with Hong Kong, which was ruled as a British colony separate from China for the hundred years before 1997. Consider how even in the Asian countries where the Chinese are a tiny minority, like Indonesia and the Philippines where they make up 1% of the population, they control a disproportionate share of the private economy (60% in the Philippines). China’s economic miracle has probably more to do with the fact that it’s blessed with like a billion of these people than to any brilliance on the part of its leaders. The industriousness of the Chinese people would bring great prosperity to any country – that is, unless they’re held back by idiotic policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms merely unleashed their potential; beyond that, the Party takes way more credit than it’s due.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that America and China have ended up trafficking in opposite myths, given their opposing political systems. Just as the justification for a democracy is trust in the people and distrust of the establishment, the justification for an autocracy is the reverse. And just as an American politician who blames the electorate and scolds it for its bad choices risks never being elected again, a Chinese person who does the same to the Party risks never being seen again.
Just as the justification for a democracy is trust in the people and distrust of the establishment, the justification for an autocracy is the reverse.
The solution, of course, is not for America to write off its people, any more than China should adopt Athenian direct democracy (not that that’s likely). Rather, it’s for America to remember that it was founded not as a direct democracy, where the people vote on every major policy, and which the founding fathers feared would descend into mobocracy, but as a republic, where the people’s will is filtered through elected representatives and guided by the establishment. The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, should remember the spirit behind its own name and stop devaluing its greatest asset.
National myths are the stories countries tell themselves. They’re sometimes useful: to unite, to inspire, to console. One of the greatest dangers, though, is for a country to come to believe its own myths too much.