James Kirkup’s piece in The Times today is a classic example of normative thinking that presumes that our way in the West is best. The reality is rather different.
When I lived in Hong Kong, and frequently visited China, in the 1980s the comforting platitude was that China would not take over Hong Kong but that Hong Kong would take over China. The logic, such as it was, was that the Western way, economically and politically, was so vastly superior to that of the People’s Republic that it could not but prevail. Economically China has indeed adopted a Hong Kong type model – economic freedom but without democracy. (It’s worth recalling that colonial Hong Kong was never an elective democracy).
As we have seen after Tiananmen Square in 1989 there have been no moves towards a liberal democracy in China at all. Economically, however, the Chinese have abandoned the failed socialism of the first post revolution forty years and replaced it with pragmatic market-driven capitalism. They have shown that the dearly held conventional wisdom that to be economically successful you needed to be democratic was a myth.
In truth Asia overall is not very politically democratic or free. It varies from the insanity of North Korea to the superficial democracy of Singapore. But countries like Thailand (especially), Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, The Philippines, Taiwan are hardly beacons of democratic freedoms. Even Japan’s genuine democracy places political debate and activism well below economic and cultural issues.
In the West we look at systems elsewhere through the filter of our own experience and norms. The people of China have, overall, vastly benefited from the nation’s extraordinary economic progress. Where under the directed economy of Mao peasants often starved since the 1980s the rice bowls have been full. They settle happily for that.