In a rambling column otherwise focused on the November elections, Thomas Friedman revisited one of his favorite themes: his odd and unsettling affinity for autocracy. Lamenting how America’s democracy “can’t do anything big, hard or important,” Friedman reiterated that “there is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy. At least a one-party autocracy can order things to get done.”
Friedman usually makes these sorts of observations in relation to the People’s Republic of China and its orderly, ends-justify-the-means political system.
In 2005, for example, he complained about Washington being “hopelessly gridlocked” and warned (wished?) that “only a total blow-out crisis in our system will generate enough authority for a democratic government to do the right things.” He even offered a faux confession for “cast[ing] an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved…I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people…Dear Lord, please accept my expression of remorse for harboring such feelings.”
In 2009 he conceded that “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
During a 2010 appearance on Meet the Press, he praised Beijing’s hybrid capitalist-statist-nationalist-communist dictatorship by asking, “What if we could just be China for one day? I mean, just, just, just one day…where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions…on everything from the economy to environment.” He caught himself before drifting too far into his daydream of a PRC-style, command-and-control America, reassuring his fellow panelists, “I don’t want to be China for a second… But right now we have a system that can only produce suboptimal solutions.” What Friedman longs for is America’s government “to work with the same authority, focus and stick-to-itiveness.”
For example, he gushingly reports, “Shanghai’s deputy mayor told me that as his city became more polluted, the government simply moved thousands of small manufacturers out of Shanghai to clean up the air.”
But wait. There’s more in the land of slave-labor camps, forced abortions, poisoned baby formula and toxic air. The PRC, Friedman breathlessly reports, has “tested the fastest bullet train in the world—217 miles per hour—from Wuhan to Guangzhou [and] has nearly finished the construction of a high-speed rail route from Beijing to Shanghai.” Plus, Friedman is “stunned” by “the sheer volume of wind, solar, mass transit, nuclear and more efficient coal-burning projects that have sprouted in China in just the last year.”
During the 2008 Olympics, he offered a paean to the PRC that sounded sadly similar to the commentaries of Western academics, journalists and other elites who used to travel to Moscow and report back about the virtues of Soviet central planning.
“The energy coming out of this country is unrivaled,” Friedman declared as the Beijing Games came to a close. “China did not build the magnificent $43-billion infrastructure for these games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closing ceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was the culmination of seven years of national investment, planning, concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work,” he cheered.
He went on to lament “how China and America have spent the last seven years.” While China prepared for the Olympics, “we’ve been preparing for al Qaeda. They’ve been building better stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we’ve been building better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.”
According to Friedman, “The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train…Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world?”
Where to begin?
Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, when Friedman was the pied piper of globalization, he understood that American military might served an essential global purpose and was anything but a drain. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” he observed. “And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe…is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Indeed, America has countless more global responsibilities than the PRC—fighting ISIS, al Qaeda, and their kindred movements; keeping the sea lanes open; preserving a liberal international order—and is expected to act more responsibly when carrying out those responsibilities than Beijing, which has no qualms about cutting deals with Sudan or Zimbabwe, or propping up the most brutish, brutal and backward regime on earth (North Korea).
As to all the glitzy glamour and martial order that made Friedman swoon during the 2008 Olympics, Minxin Pei reminds us that China is not all it appears. Pei notes that “Beijing’s brand of authoritarian politics is spawning a dangerous mix of crony capitalism, rampant corruption and widening inequality.” Pointing to “an incestuous relationship between the state and major industries,” Pei details an eye-opening swirl of troubles:
- The party appoints 81 percent of the CEOs who run China’s state-owned industries.
- Since 1979, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have registered better economic performances than China.
- In six major industrial sectors, Indian firms “delivered rates of return on investment that were 80 to 200 percent higher than their Chinese counterparts.”
- In this land of socialist equality, income disparity has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, “making China one of the most unequal societies in Asia.” In fact, less than one percent of households control more than 60 percent of China’s wealth.
- Government spending has fallen from 36 percent of all healthcare expenditures to less than 15 percent.
None of this should come as a surprise. The PRC doesn’t care about its subjects—only about maintaining and expanding its power. Recall that Beijing used the Olympics as a pretext for forcibly evicting 1.5 million people from their homes to complete those mass-construction projects that made Friedman’s jaw drop.
It’s also worth noting that, although China has an ocean of cheap labor, a swelling treasury, and government that “can order things to get done,” it doesn’t have a stable middle-class, a social safety net, a government that breeds confidence in its trading partners, or a political system that embraces the rule of law and responds to the will of the people. That’s not exactly a formula for long-term success.
How does China’s ends-justify-the-means regime affect the rest of us?
First, and perhaps most worryingly, Beijing is leveraging its external economic power and internal political control to build a military force that can directly challenge the United States. Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls for “enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into battle, and training troops for battle.” His mushrooming military budget suggests this isn’t mere bluster. Between 2011 and 2015, Beijing increased military spending 55.7 percent—and 167 percent between 2005 and 2014
Unchecked by internal dissent or the constraints of conscience, Beijing wants to be the dominant force in its neighborhood and is developing naval, air, and space assets to attain that objective. And the U.S. military is standing in the PRC’s way. Hence Beijing’s constant barrage of cyberattacks; illegal claims on international airspace and seaspace; island-construction efforts; unparalleled naval buildup; and menacing missile deployments.
This is just a glimpse of what the PRC’s “concentrated state power” can achieve.
Second, China’s central government regularly bullies or murders its weakest subjects: opening fire on peasants protesting land confiscations in Dongzhou, forcibly evicting thousands around Beijing, bulldozing churches in Zhejiang and Shaanxi, battering nuns who get in the way, raiding house churches, cordoning off entire villages to arrest pastors, smothering Tibet. (But Friedman is quick to remind us that Beijing’s benevolent masters give their people “sleek airports” and “magnetic levitation trains.”)
Third, China’s state-controlled economy churns out products that endanger innocent lives. The cases are numerous, ranging from contaminated drugs to toxic toothpaste to poisonous baby formula. But the best-known cases involve lead-tainted toys.
Some 20 million toys manufactured in China were recalled in 2007, after it was discovered that they contained unacceptable levels of lead. Just how high is “unacceptable”? The Consumer Product Safety Commission sets the acceptable level of lead at 600 parts per million (ppm), but scientists found lead levels between 2,700 ppm and 39,000 ppm in Chinese-made items.
Toys are not the only dangerous import from China. The Associated Press reports that at least 81 deaths and 785 “severe allergic reactions” were traced to contaminated heparin “made from ingredients imported from China.” It appears that the “reasonably enlightened group of people” that run China—Friedman’s words—allowed a Chinese plant to cut corners in order to save money on the drug, using what The Baltimore Sun calls a “chemical modified to look like heparin’s main ingredient.”
And the list goes on: Some 300,000 Chinese babies were poisoned by formula tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics production. Here in the States, 450,000 tires made in China were recalled because their treads were separating at highway speeds.
Beijing cannot claim innocence or feign ignorance for these crimes. After all, as Friedman points out, this is a government with the power and wherewithal to “authorize the right solutions.”
Finally, China’s autocratic regime—the one Friedman wants to emulate “just for a day”—depends on the laogai slave-labor system to churn out all those cheap and dangerous exports. An estimated 4-6 million people are rotting away in the laogai prison camps, serving out varying years of penance to the state Mao erected. This is the natural endpoint of what Freidman longingly calls “concentrated state power,” without all those irritating checks and balances that protect individual freedom.
Speaking of checks and balances, a decade ago Friedman actually argued that “it’s Madison, not Mao, who’s winning the day” in China. That’s Madison as in James Madison, author of our constitution. Madison’s system of checks and balances was designed not to empower the state, but to protect the individual from the state, to check the whims of those in power, to ensure that the government’s means and ends are justified.
It may be slow and “suboptimal,” but it’s superior to Beijing’s way.
Photo Credit: By Ken Douglas, via Flickr.