The overriding question that should be on everyone’s mind in this new, second decade of the 21st century is: What is going to happen in China?
We generally look to the past in order to help make the most sober judgments possible about the future direction of a country. But China, forging its own model of growth, appears to confound the lessons of the past.
The Communist Party of China was founded in July 1921 explicitly on the model of its Soviet counterpart that had seized power less than four years before. Following the 1949 revolution in China, Mao Zedong fashioned his regime after that of Joseph Stalin, introducing forced collectivization in the countryside, where mass famine was induced and used as a tool of control. Meanwhile, the “leap forward” toward industrialization was based on virtual slave labor.
Hence it may well be the case that the USSR in the periods prior to and following World War II may give us a useful clue as to what will occur in China in the coming years.
What of the Western model? Will China emulate its development? It is obvious that the United States and its European allies believe free-market capitalism is the answer to China’s ills; that the gross inequities in income there can only be ameliorated if the government revalues the currency and eases control over the economy.
This seems a highly unlikely scenario. China’s leaders, as they have made clear on numerous occasions, are convinced that a loosening of controls would derail the economy and lead to riots and potential chaos. Certainly, the absence of assaults on the widespread government- industrial insider trading that fuels the engines of those controls would strongly suggest they are not about to relent.
No, the American model of live-and- let-die capitalism may not even survive on its home ground, let alone take root in a country with a fledgling democratic culture such as China’s.
Where can China look to predict and avoid the pitfalls that may lie ahead for it?
It is a dangerous game to wish China ill. Nothing would be better for the world than to see a successful, vibrant and democratic China emerge from its history of exploitation by European and Japanese empires and its decades of terror imposed by the Stalinist policies of Mao Zedong.
In actuality, the policymakers of China’s coming decade would do well to study the history of Japan — particularly of Japan in the first two decades of the Showa Era (1926-1989) — if they wish to avoid the kind of reckless and maniacal nationalism that led this country down the path of self-destruction.
The similarities between the China of 2011 and Japan of the early Showa Era are striking. Japan considered itself maligned by the West, held back in its development and resented as the big new neighbor on the block. Japanese people naturally took pride in their achievements, emerging out of poverty and social underdevelopment as a force in the region to be reckoned with — and all that happened in the span of a generation or two, as it has in present-day China.
The key issue for Japan in the 1930s was access to the raw materials and resources that it required to sustain growth. The government interpreted Western infringements on such access as acts of aggression. Chinese foreign policy is increasingly keyed to the stable and long-term accessing of the primary resources it needs to fuel its prodigious rate of growth; and, as with prewar Japan, it is quick to react to so much as a hint of Western interference in its attempts to maintain the lifeblood of its economy — namely, its sources of energy.
This is not to say, in any way, that China will emulate Japan by invading other countries or establishing colonies. This is out of the question; and any suggestion that China is intent on such a course only feeds a prideful defensiveness on the part of the Chinese people.
Nonetheless, Chinese moves in recent years to establish territorial zones in and around disputed islands, and its policies of accommodation with dubious regimes such as those in Sudan and Myanmar, for instance, can be seen in light of the country’s hunger for resources. (China does not go nearly as far as the U.S., however, in launching pre-emptive foreign wars in order to control access to resources.)
But the most crucial and potentially nefarious aspect of comparison between contemporary China and Japan in the 1930s centers on their respective populaces and media. The comparison is eerie.
As the foreign policy of Japan became increasingly aggressive in the 1930s in support of military adventures in Asia, the attacks on dissenting intellectuals became more blatant and vicious. The government began to detain activists, break up their public and private meetings and destroy their organs of communication. The antifascist journal Sekai Bunka (World Culture) was shut down in November 1937 and its editors, who were teachers at Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University), were arrested. The government imposed severe penalties on anyone they deemed to have revealed “state secrets” — which included any item of information deemed to cast a dim light on official policy.
Meanwhile, spying on civilians, particularly on dissidents in all walks of life, was rampant. Censorship was so brazen that the censors did not even bother to hide the traces of their work, which remained in the body of the censored articles for all to see.
Intimidation is the crux of oppression. In order to intimidate and terrify a populace, you need to be seen to intimidate and terrify them.
If the above, which relates to prewar Japan, sounds familiar, then it should stand as a warning to Chinese authorities that the censoring of dissent, the intimidation of supporters of intellectual freedom and human rights, and the marginalization of any and all opposition, are harbingers of disaster.
A robust economy can only continue to thrive if it is supported by a robust public debate. Quashing that debate merely has the effect of laying a polished veneer on top of rotten wood: The decaying structure will eventually collapse under its own weight.
The ultimate danger lies with the people themselves. Once dissent was crushed in Japan, its people were led to display an unashamed frenzy for chauvinist policy. Even moderate leaders in the government were silenced by the arrogance of a belligerent mass of people indoctrinated by cowering intellectuals and sycophantic journalists. In other words, the government itself fell victim to the unrestrainable masses, who sent their young men off to war with the pride of the nation bundled in their little kit bags.
In the decade to come, the political leaders of China may find that the masses whose support they manipulate and rely on might ally themselves with the more aggressive elements in the military and force their hand into rash action.
Release dissidents, beginning with Noble Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo; ease controls over all forms of the media, including the Internet; and allow a hundred flowers of debate to bloom and remain in bloom . . . or else China will, like Japan once did, end up with a populace uneducated in the forum of democratic thought.
History has shown that forum to be a nation’s most dangerous and unpredictable place — a place where, paradoxically, leaders who once were in charge find themselves at the mercy of a monster of their own creation.