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The Year of the “China Model”

It will be China’s year in 2008. The Olympic Games – no doubt perfectly organized, without a protester, homeless person, religious dissenter, or any other kind of spoilsport in sight – will probably bolster China’s global prestige. While the American economy gets dragged down further in a swamp of bad property debts, China will continue to boom. Exciting new buildings, designed by the world’s most famous architects, will make Beijing and Shanghai look like models of twenty-first century modernity. More Chinese will be featured in annual lists of the world’s richest people. And Chinese artists will command prices at international art auctions that others can only dream of.

To come back from near destitution and bloody tyranny in one generation is a great feat, and China should be saluted for it. But China’s success story is also the most serious challenge that liberal democracy has faced since fascism in the 1930’s.

This is not because China poses a great military threat – war with the United States, or even Japan, is only a fantasy in the minds of a few ultra-nationalist cranks and paranoiacs. It is in the realm of ideas that China’s political-economic model, regardless of its environmental consequences, is scoring victories and looking like an attractive alternative to liberal democratic capitalism.

And it is a real alternative. Contrary to what some pundits say, Chinese capitalism is not like nineteenth-century European capitalism. True, the European working class, not to mention women, did not have voting rights 200 years ago. But even during the most ruthless phases of Western capitalism, civil society in Europe and the US was made up of a huge network of organizations independent of the state – churches, clubs, parties, societies, and associations that were available to all social classes.