China and US: Clive Crook's First Response

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Clive Crook, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Brian recently visited China on a trip for journalists sponsored by the Committee Of 100. He and his fellow travelers will be posting reflections on the blog over the next week. Here Clive Crook of the Atlantic responds to Brian's first post.

Thanks, Brian. You raise some very interesting questions.

I think I see the basic duality you mention a bit differently. To me, it’s not about the advantages of technocratic-meritocratic leadership (which you can have with or without democracy). It’s about two kinds of freedom--political and economic.

In the West I think we see these as essentially two aspects of the same thing, with liberty writ large both an end in itself and ultimately indivisible. That’s why we find authoritarian capitalism confusing as well as offensive: It strikes us almost as a contradiction in terms. China’s leaders might say that authoritarian capitalism--which they didn’t invent by the way; it’s something of an East Asian tradition--welcomes economic freedom as a way to accelerate growth but fears political freedom as a threat to that imperative. Put to one side whether they’d be right to think that. The point is, in this view freedom is (a) divisible and (b) not much valued as an end in itself. That’s so foreign to us.

Of course, a sympathetic critic could say it’s an understandable conception of priorities in what was very recently a dirt poor country. What use is any kind of freedom if you’re struggling to feed yourself?

As I say, that’s what China’s leaders might believe. But who knows what they actually believe? You say they seem to see themselves as technocrats. Do they? I’ve really no idea how they see themselves. One of the things that struck me most about our trip was the opacity of the Communist Party’s strategy and tactics to the movers and shakers of China’s business and intellectual elite. Everybody’s guessing about what the new leaders might do and might think, but it’s all just speculation. It’s not just that the Party doesn’t have to defend its views: it doesn’t feel under any obligation even to state its views. I was surprised that so few of the people we met seemed to regard this as absurd or unacceptable. That’s just the way it is, seems to be their view.

Like you I was struck too by what you might call China’s measured or restrained repression. This isn’t a totalitarian system, as one of the people we saw put it--and he said it with a laugh, as though it was foolish even to ponder the question. There’s lively debate and discussion within fairly wide bounds. Yet democracy activists do get sent to jail and, as you say, there’s no real civil society. You have to wonder whether this, like so much else in China, is sustainable. In the Soviet Union, once you had glasnost and the terror came to an end, all the limits dissolved and you got the very instability that the Chinese leadership--presumably concerned above all with its own power and privileges--most fears. You’d think that middle ground of wide yet limited freedom of expression, with the Party’s role never questioned, would be impossible to maintain. Yet it didn’t look to me under much pressure. It didn’t seem in imminent danger. I suppose there was less anger--or even any sign of suppressed anger--than I’d expected.

On your point about “rules” and international relations, I see the US and Chinese governments as much more alike on this than either would care to admit. Both are extremely jealous of national sovereignty--far more so than most European governments, for instance, which have spent the past decade or two surrendering their rights of self-government within the European Union. Both are wary about binding themselves in agreements with other countries--partly, perhaps, because they’d take their obligations under those agreements very seriously. The European approach is to sign the treaty and work out what it means later. (I’m exaggerating, but not much.) China’s narrowly legalistic approach to its commitments under the WTO--it will do what the letter of the rules requires, and no more--strikes me as very American. The United States’ positions on the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court, to name just two, are further examples of the same syndrome. This mindset is something the two countries have in common. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.