July first in 2022, was the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and photos showed Chinese citizens looking at President Xi with smiles and what looks like true pride. China had Chairman Mao as its leader for many years and Mao tried to create a true Communist state by turning over the Chinese social hierarchy like a farmer with a pitchfork turns the earth to enrich the soil. It was a disaster. Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ which ousted top officials and gave farmers and other ‘lower caste’ Chinese people authority to make change, was a failure because it left untrained people with grudges to bear in charge of manufacturing, food production, and distribution. Simple village people who had never worked in governing positions were making laws, enforcing laws and meting out justice. After a time, China broke down and did not function to feed its people or govern its people. Mao took the title of President, but he made a good case for doubting that Communism could create a functioning society. Communism in the USSR was also having similar problems producing enough food and generating a prosperous economy.
America, after World War II, set about making the world safe for democracy. Instead of missionaries selling religion, America was peddling democracy, and along with democracy, capitalism. Sometimes American motives were resented by European nations and by Russian nations and eventually in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Established leaders could not help but find Americans intrusive. With army and air bases all over the world America was perceived, once the grief and tragedy of the war had worn off, as an occupier, attempting to make itself the boss the world. Many nations had never been democracies. They had been monarchies and then authoritarian states. They may or may not have had connections to the Roman and Greek ideas of republican government, but centuries had intervened. These connections, if they still existed, were mostly academic.
However, capitalism had proven to be a great driver of the American economy. As communism failed to provide a sustainable society, America was enjoying general prosperity that was widely spread throughout the population. Democracy might not be winning around the world, but capitalism was. We were generous. We taught nations who showed an interest how to make capitalism work for them. We sent in corporate experts and government experts to get businesses up and running. We exported some of our businesses to interested nations, and sometimes to nations that were not quite so interested.
Spreading capitalism worked better than our wildest dreams, except not so much for America. We found that we had created rivals not friends. We found our own workers were losing their jobs to nations on other continents. For America, sharing economic tactics has not been quite as beneficial. Labor was much cheaper in emerging economies. Our corporations saw opportunities in emerging markets. The Great Factory Migration left America reeling. It has also thrown our republican democracy into a long period of introspection and recriminations, jealousy and fear, hate and division, forcing us to deal with issues prosperity covered over, such as our inability to rid ourselves of our racism.
But on the 100th anniversary of communism, China is looking as if they might be taking America’s place on the world stage. Go and see the photos in the article referenced at the beginning of this essay. They show the greatest asset that China possesses, its people, its enormous population. It is looking like Communism, when it combines authoritarianism with capitalism, is a great big winner. So much easier to lead a nation when no one can dissent, when everything does not have to be discussed and argued ad infinitum. With authoritarianism becoming, seemingly, the world’s most popular form of government, and with America torn apart by political strife, democracy is not exactly selling itself to nations the way that capitalism has.
We have been dabbling in our own experiments in autocracy. If we cannot make our democracy function, we could lose our freedoms, freedoms which are looking like an enormous flaw when it comes to running a state. It could find us no longer merely flirting with authoritarianism but succumbing to it. Picture an American President in front of an audience of American citizens, arrayed in perfectly straight lines staring with adulation at our Leader. Even Trump’s rallies hardly happened in straight lines. It is not only a stretch of the imagination to picture Americans as puppets controlled by ‘Big Brother;’ it is against everything we have been taught to fear and loathe. However, as we celebrate our own 245th anniversary, it is not as big a stretch as it once was.
China feels our loathing of communism and of unfair business practices and it makes China more angry and more competitive. It may be making them more militarily aggressive. If we go back to those pictures of celebrating Chinese people and picture them again as legions of soldiers, an air force, a navy it is enough to make us tremble. So many people. Is it enough to unite us? If we get too weak as a nation, America will be a great temptation to countries that are flexing their muscles now that they have stable and even growing economies.
Watch some of the documentaries about the Great Wall of China and some of the excavated ancient cities and you will meet archeologists, anthropologists and other academics on Disney+ at National Geographics, who equal or surpass experts around the world. Authoritarianism under Xi is not causing the kinds of disruptions we saw under Mao. Xi runs an orderly, productive China. Xi does not run a free China though. He uses fear to keep people in line but for the most part he uses progress and national pride. Right now, it would be senseless to get some bug in our brain that says we must free the people of China. Right now, we need to get our own house in order.
Whether or not we can work out our problems with white supremacy and racism and get on with the business of fighting climate change remains to be seen. It seems, though, that we do not have the luxury of time. We need to hurry. Oceans are rising, heat waves are more extreme, fires are more frequent, droughts are deeper and last longer. Most contemporary arguments come back to the exigencies of a warming world; a world drenched in extra carbon dioxide. These changes are affecting every nation. If we ever needed a ‘new world order’, a body of cooperating countries on every continent, it is now. If Americans keep listening to racist old reactionaries, keepers of the Confederacy, old men hanging on to power in order to hang on to wealth; men like Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and Tom Cotton, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, we will not be in the forefront of the global movement to find ways to live on earth without destroying the planet that is our home. We may not even be able to remain a sovereign nation.
Xi cannot live forever. An authoritarian government’s quality depends almost solely on one person. As we saw in the case of Mao, bad leadership, no matter how well-intentioned can lead to disaster. Who will lead China next? Will China’s fortunes continue to rise if their new leader is less able than President Xi? Democracy, a republic was supposed to avoid the instability of being ruled by one dynasty after another. Our democracy is meant to withstand debate and to be a forum for hashing out philosophical differences. It is also supposed to support creativity and academic rigor to find solutions to social problems. We cannot be divided for long, given the challenges we face, without losing what we all should value most, and that might not be freedom as it is being defined right now. The most important thing might be that we find a way to live up to our American creed and unite to live up to our American potential.