Written by Niv Horesh.

“…democracy existed for about 200 years in the ancient world and has existed for about 200 years in the modern world, and other than that there has been no democracy in the whole of human history. Oligarchies have always existed.” Professor Irad Malkin, 2014.

Following the fall of the Berlin war, Francis Fukuyama famously and quite sanguinely pronounced the triumph of American ideology as the “End of History”. It was perhaps one of the classic cases of a social scientist lending oneself to what Butterfield famously dubbed as ‘Whig’ historiographical teleology, presenting the past as a linear progression towards liberal democracy around the world.

Fukuyama’s 1990s sanguinary is now assailed on several fronts, not least by Vladimir Putin’s second-term attempts at reincarnating Russian global influence in defiance of Washington, and the spectre of ISIS sweeping to power in much of Iraq and declaring its intent to establish a transnational caliphate on the back of two controversial American military interventions. There are by now some signs that Xi Jinping might opt toward the end of his tenure to more closely align with Putin by way of tempering America’s global hegemony.

And here is the crux of the matter: in the long term, the biggest challenge to American hegemony is scarcely military – most analysts agree instead that America’s military power cannot be surpassed any time before 2050. Rather, East Asia’s success in general, and China’s economic rise in particular, are seen by more and more analysts as incrementally undermining America’s global leadership, even if it will take many more decades for Chinese per capita income to reach developed-world levels. This perception is spread in no small measure because Xi Jinping has – in the face of patent military inferiority ­– conducted himself much more boldly on the world stage than Hu Jintao, stepping up China’s assertive handling of the territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku /Diaoyutai Islets and with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea atolls. Concomitantly, under Xi, China has begun conjuring up an alternative vision for global leadership.

This emergent Chinese leadership narrative is of course still riddled with internal contradiction. Even rhetorically, it skirts between a ‘great awakening’ (weida fuxing) and ‘dreams’ (meng) of the Chinese people – an obvious oxymoron. On substance, neither are political economists certain whether the Chinese experience of the last three decades of economic reform should be interpreted an antidote or fillip to Western neoliberalism.

Yet, commentator Joshua Ramo has famously lumped various threads of that narrative under the rubric ‘Beijing Consensus’. Subsequently, that narrative took on new dimensions, both in China and abroad, countervailing along the way the IMF and World Bank as the organs behind globalising Anglo-American neoliberal discourse (‘Washington Consensus’). Why, then, has that Beijing’s narrative attracted so much attention if the Chinese experience is in reality so hard to define? Mainly, it would appear, because Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, are becoming increasingly insecure about their own values, the sustainability of their weltanschauung and the salubrity of their own societies.

Evidence to that effect can be found not only in New York Times columnist David Brooks’ litanies about the loss of American dynamism and the muddling of the Obama administration. More importantly, a growing body of academic literature has built up over the last few years to underscore how grossly unequally-distributed income has become in the West. Many economists, not just on the far left, now indict the Reagan-Thatcher project of neoliberalism for reversing the great post-war baby-boom march toward equal opportunity. Inequality seers like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty or Luigi Zingales may not necessarily agree about the salubrity of the Chinese economy per se, but they certainly share a platform when it comes to inveighing against the godfathers of financial deregulation, which they see as underlying America’s post-2008 recession.

To be sure, there has always been critical interest in American academe in the failings of the ‘system’, and in democratic ‘optimisation’ of economic outcomes. Buchanan and Tullock’s pioneering 1962 work on public choice is a case in point; they sought a free-market-friendly, mathematical formula that would curb the ability of vested-interest groups to bypass the will of the silent majority through, for example, ‘pork-barrelling’ swing voters or ‘lobbying’ career politicians. However, in the 1960s, even studies such as Buchanan and Tullock’s were informed by the ‘genius’ of America’s founding fathers and its 1787 Constitution, whereas today the Constitution itself, if not the Union’s whole political architecture, is seen by many commentators of different partisan persuasions, as anachronistic and unfit for purpose in that it paralyses decision making in Washington.

In search of new answers, Westerners’ own insecurity in the second decade of the 21st century has resurrected interest in once-marginalised, ‘heterodox’ economic theories, ranging from Olson, through Minski, Ladejinsky, Rostow, Lipton, and Polanyi to Galbraith. All heterodox thinkers shared in their time deep-seated suspicion of the ability of free markets, or representative democracy for that matter, to pre-empt resource misallocation. In other words, they rejected neoclassical economic theory.

As I have argued elsewhere, this disillusionment with neoclassical diktat has also led to renewed interest amongst conventionally-trained economists in the lessons economic history and new institutional economics might offer, thus revitalising the two latter disciplines. Recent historically-informed work by economists is now almost de rigeur, going well beyond left-leaning circles. Taking issue with the root causes of the 2008 global financial crisis, such work – ranging from Reinhart and Rogoff’s right-leaning This Time is Different to Acemoglu and Robinson’s more centrist Why Nations Fail – hankers back in its temporal scope several centuries earlier.

At the same time, more recent work by contrarian economic historians and economists, which was somewhat neglected in 1980s when neoliberalism was at its height, is now finding new readers amongst conventionally trained economists – from Bairoch, through Johnston to  Amsden. Outside academe too, authors like Joe Studwell – drawing on that once-neglected, aforementioned body of work – converge on the view that the East Asian experience belies neoliberalism and exposes the developed world, small-government biases of that ideology.

Equally importantly, freshly published, path-breaking and quantitatively compelling work in economic history – though not necessarily cited by Studwell – is further validating his insights: both Bob Allen and Michael Lind have shown for example, that unfree-market and big-government designs typified not only the East Asian path to industrialisation, but that in fact, such grand design could also be attributed to America’s rise in the early 19th century. Boldly put, Allen, Lind and others argue that wealthier countries start preaching to poorer countries about the need for free trade (read: reduce tariffs designed to protect nascent industries) and the need to reduce government size (read: allow foreigners to buy up vital sectors of the economy) only after they themselves had completed industrialisation on the back of very protectionist measures. Such work puts paid to the notion that agrarian Jeffersonian ideals can be seriously pursued in a 21st century context, even if much of the GOP is still enamoured of them. Instead, when it comes to real policy, even Reagan can be labelled a big-government Hamiltonian.

Partly for these reasons, the Human Rights discourse in the USA is critiqued by scholars like Daniel Bell and Randy Peerenboom as a value-laden, ahistorical sugar-coating of what is in essence crude Western economic interest. Much like ‘free markets’ in neoclassical parlance, human rights are conceived of as bringing about immediate betterment of the human condition irrespective of time and place, whereas in the Chinese narrative, ‘individual’ rights and ‘markets’ are both viewed as contingent on ‘collective will’ and on evolutionary social reform. Bell and Peerenboom quite powerfully argue that with more social inequality, ‘one man, one vote’ can easily turn into a ‘one dollar, one vote’ system even in the West. There is strong evidence to suggest democratisation in low-income countries is not a one way street: India, for example, is often bafflingly ranked as worse than China when it comes to metrics like ‘political terror’ or corruption.

Yet, as Stiglitz alluded to recently, the wealthier ‘collectivist’ China becomes, the harder it is to shrug off its affinity with the ‘individualistic’ USA. Although, on the right, some Western critics still cling to the democracy vs. tyranny binary, and on the left, critics often posit American neo-imperialism vs. China’s ‘peaceful rise’ – both contending powers suffer by now from flagrantly unequal wealth distribution; they are both big polluters, big military spenders, capital-punishment enthusiasts; they both incarcerate big segments of their population, and both face staggering (though not identical) indebtedness ailments.

Much of the self-doubt in America, as well as the newfound interest in institutional economics, has to do with the fact that the ‘one man, one vote’ system is proving incapable of  stalling that reversal of the post-war social contract in the West, which had in its time nipped in the bud the spread of Communism. Ironically, once the spectre of Communism had diminished, inequality exploded.

Marty Whyte’s work is very important in this context because it shows – based on independently-gathered polling data – that the absence of ‘one man, one vote’ in China is not yet costing the CCP much popular support. Peerenbom, in particular, does much to dispel the fairly common Western notion that the peoples of the developing world would prefer a greater degree of democracy and social equality to rising living standards.  The argument, to be sure, might hold well beyond China. It specifically brings to mind Latin America: whilst that part of the world democratised relatively recently, in some cases following decades of oppressive dictatorship, most Latin Americans still seem to prize economic performance over universal suffrage. Moreover, a few democratically-elected Latin American governments have arguably taken social inequality well beyond the norm under their dictatorial predecessors.

Closer to home, US-based academics Pei Minxin and Huang Yasheng often invoke India by way of inspiration for the developing world that is an alternative to the ‘China Model’; one that is more democratic and therefore one that would prove more economically compelling in the long run. After all, India is the biggest and one of the longest-running democracies in Asia. However, as Drèzeand Sen’s important research would indicate, the fact that the Gini coefficient for supposedly Communist China may now be higher than the one for India, may conceal the tough everyday realities that the overwhelmingly rural populations of either country face. For Drèzeand Sen, perhaps more instructive is the fact that Chinese economic reforms of the last three decades did not whittle away at arable land access. In India, by way of contrast, arable land distribution remains badly skewed despite Nehru’s socialist legacy.

Contrary to Chinese social scientists in the 1980s, the academic authors of China’s emergent narrative of leadership are typically well-travelled and acutely aware of the kind of transnational comparative data that foreign scholars like Drèzeand Sen tend to invoke. Though these Chinese authors’ vision for the future is far from uniform, they all reject not merely the ‘Washington Consensus’, but also the sanctity of the ‘one man, one vote’ principle as ill-suited for China, if not for the developing world as a whole. The most strident example perhaps is that of economist and visionary Hu Angang. In a recent analysis, Hu has gone so far as damning the entire American discourse on China as deriving from a “psyche of arrogance” (zigao zida zheng), which he unfavourably compared with what he saw as Chinese cultural preference for ‘modesty’. In the same breath, Hu diagnosed American society as suffering from irreversible “decline” (zhujian shuiluo de guocheng).

Hu’s analysis is notable not just because of his triumphalist tenor and overt anti-Americanism, which other China visionaries eschew. Rather, what is remarkable about the analysis from a scholarly point of view is his reading of Mao Zedong’s era (1949-1976) into the ‘China Model’ discourse. Until not long ago that discourse had been largely confined to the economic-reform era (1979-present) if not explicitly directed against the guiding principles of Maoism. On this point, Hu therefore dangerously overturns studies by other economists who contribute to China’s emerging leadership narrative, e.g. Justin Lin, Li Daokui, Zhou Tianyong or Ding Xueliang.

In essence, Hu asserts that net economic growth under Mao was significantly positive on balance; moreover, that the rate of growth back then did not on average fall much behind the growth rate after 1979. Other Chinese economists may occasionally argue for Chinese cultural or historical exceptionalism in other contexts, but their observations about the Mao era are much cooler, to say the least. In particular, Zhou and Ding also point to the exceptionally high price that economic growth in China across both eras exacted in terms of environmental degradation and suppression of independent trade unions.

Yet, precisely because Western economists like Chris Bramall, as well as the aforementioned Drèzeand Sen, buck the Western trend in valorising the durability of Mao’s land reforms, his universalisation of healthcare and his effective promotion of literacy and women’s rights, the relevance of Maoism to China’s current achievements cannot be dismissed offhand. Moreover, among the Western New Left, one can still commonly find admiration for Mao, decades after the catastrophic upshot of his utopianism and megalomania had been uncovered. Alarmingly, the new trend among scholars like Hu Angang or Wang Hui in China to ‘aestheticise’ the Mao era neatly chimes with recent work by foreign public intellectuals like Žižek or Dirlik.

Here, one can identify a growing divergence in the scholarly literature. If present-day China as portrayed by, for example, Stiglitz is not that removed from the kind of China Hu invokes, then in the realm of history, Mao’s legacy certainly remains evermore polarising. Notably, scholarly echoes of Hu’s favourable standpoint on Mao can perhaps also be found in a detailed study of land reform in Wuxi in the early 1950s published by James Kung as recently as 2008. Kung found that the Chinese Communist Party had successfully ‘‘preserved the rich peasant economy’’ there, whilst redistributing land to the poor in a way that increased overall productivity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom in the West about Mao’s economic legacy is still the one penned by Naughton. Before 1978, China according to Naughton, had been a badly inefficient command economy, much like the USSR was; only that China was far more malnourished and poorer as a direct result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and Cultural Revolution (1967-1971). Moreover, barriers to rural migration that Mao had put in place in the mid-1950s meant that China turned much less urbanised than the USSR. Chinese peasants in turn were badly discriminated against in terms of resource allocation as compared with urbanite compatriots. China’s relatively small industrial base was still more diffuse and decentralised as compared with that of the USSR. In sum, China languished behind other Communist-bloc countries; it remained an overwhelmingly agrarian polity, yet could barely feed itself.

As already mentioned, the scholarly Mao cleavage has grown substantially over the last two years. If ever there was some agreement between Western and Chinese scholars on Mao’s economic policy credentials – beyond his many well-accepted faults – it would invariably concern his land reform of the 1950s. But the conclusions scholars like James Kung drew not so long ago have now come to be feistily challenged by Frank Dikötter’s 2013 opus, The Tragedy of Liberation.

Taking advantage of discrete documents that have recently (and somewhat selectively) been compiled at Chinese provincial archives, Dikötter powerfully argues that Mao’s land reforms in the 1950s had in fact bordered on genocide. He marshals various data to argue that, far from judiciously “preserving the rich peasant economy” as Kung might suggest, the CCP issued random death quotas that saw up to 2 million middle-income landowners executed, and devastated the productive fabric of rural society.

The deep-seated anti-Communist – at times sensationalist – bent of much of Dikötter’s work to date does not wholly diminish the cogency of some his arguments. For better or worse, he sets a high evidentiary benchmark for anyone attempting to parcel the Mao era up with China’s 21st century exuberance in too facile a manner. In that sense, ‘China Model’ visionaries like Hu still have a lot to answer for, even if their prognosis of American decline is accepted in some Western quarters.

Arguably, the emergent Chinese scholarly narrative of leadership would have rung more compelling outside China if – in the absence of democratic ideals and individual-freedom advocacy – it entailed at the very least more profound, open evaluation of the Mao era. National rejuvenation may be an effective platform upon which to secure domestic support but it is simply not sufficient for inaugurating global claims.

One might forgive Xi Jinping the politician – whose own father had been tormented by Mao – when mawkishly invoking the Great Helmsman by way of affirming the historical legitimacy of CCP rule. Politicians will be politicians in the end. Nevertheless, for China to muster soft power anywhere near that of the USA, one might expect a greater degree of candour, inquiry and introspection in Chinese academe.

Dikötter’s portrayal of Mao suggests the Great Helmsman repeatedly instructed millions to be killed through meticulously-orchestrated political terror campaigns and through engineered famine; a war-monger who rushed headlong to confrontation with the USA over Korea. That portrayal may appeal to some Western journalists and politicians but may be too emotive to become academic conventional wisdom, at least for now. It is a portrayal that is supported by county-level, fragmentary archival sources for the most part. Therefore, the only way to prove or disprove The Tragedy of Liberation will be through access to the Central Party Archives.

That the CCP under Xi Jinping is making it harder rather than easier for local (let alone foreign) scholars to access any archival material – not just Central but even such that pertains to the pre-Liberation era – might suggest the CCP has got something big to hide. And so long as this is the case, China will find it difficult to win more hearts and minds beyond the developing world.

Soft power matters here because, as argued above, both militarily and in terms of per capita income, China will not catch up with the US any time soon. Pending such evidence-based introspection, and in full view of Hu Angang’s triumphalism, one might easily reach the conclusion that the ‘China Model’ challenge to neoliberalism is only partially historically-grounded, at least for the moment.

Niv Horesh is Director of the CPI. Image Credit: CC by Robert James Hughes/Flickr.