The Prophet Tom Friedman was wrong when he proclaimed that making China free market and allowing her to systematically undercut most major U.S. industries would make her a moderate and democratic country. Now the New York Times columnist and bestselling author proclaims that China is better run than the United States. Wrong again.
There are lots of reasons for such baleful ignorance and repeated incompetence: But one looms above all others. American elites, especially pundits and policymakers, are totally ignorant of modern Chinese history -- a hellish experience that the Chinese people themselves remember all too well.
For as I document in my new book “Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship between the United States, China and India,” Chinese history over the past 170 years has been characterized by wild pendulum shifts every 20 to 40 years between extreme openness, friendliness and engagement with the outside world, and murderous xenophobic binges of hatred that cause the slaughter of millions of pro-Western Chinese -- especially Christians and well-trained professionals.
The Taiping rebellion -- a heretical, pseudo-Christian mass movement of the 1850s -- resulted in the worst civil war in human history. Between 20 million to 40 million lives were lost before it was finally suppressed -- between 30 to 60 times the death toll of the U.S. Civil War at the same time.
The Taiping was followed by an era of political powerlessness, misery and humiliation -- but also of openness to Western investment and technology under the Dowager Empress Cixi. This was disrupted by the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, when thousands of Chinese Christians were killed.
The fading Quin (Manchu) Empire finally dissolved in 1911. During the 1920s and 1930s, American readers were sold the fairy tale that China had been transformed overnight into a hopeful democracy led by kindly, wise Chiang Kai-shek (today known in China as Jiang Jieshi). Chiang pretended to be a Methodist. Readers of Time and Life magazines thought he was akin to Mahatma Gandhi. In fact he was a murderous fascist tyrant who slaughtered hundreds of thousands and impoverished hundreds of millions.
Chiang’s cruelty, corruption and sheer incompetence drove millions of desperate peasants to support Mao Zedong's communists, who proved to be far worse.
Mao completed his conquest of Mainland China in December 1949. His victory traumatized the American public. Overnight the virtuous, Christian, and democratic, America-loving China they had been falsely led to believe in, had vanished. Instead, a big, ferocious, totalitarian communist tyranny appeared in its place.
For the next quarter century, as Mao killed scores of millions of his own people through purges, famines and wars. But in 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon flew to Beijing and created a strategic relationship with China. Mao died in 1976 and within three years, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaopeng stunned the world by bringing free enterprise capitalism to China with his Four Freedoms. He embraced Western investment. .
Deng’s kindly, avuncular mask slipped in 1989 when he ordered the massacre of thousands of university students demanding democracy.. But over the next 20 years, the American liberal elite remained unabashed in their optimism that all the United States had to do was run up endless balance of payments deficits with China and all would be well. The more China prospered, the argument went, the more democratic and liberal she would become. It hasn’t happened yet.
Today, China is heading for another pendulum swing towards economic crisis and anti-Western nationalism. The Shanghai banking sector is filled with corruption, lack of transparency and bad loans. The gap between the booming coastal provinces and the still poor interior remains huge. Communism as an ideology has been displaced by surging nationalism.
A major economic crisis or a war with the United States over Taiwan could trigger the next wild pendulum swing. Either event could topple the current, relatively moderate leadership and produce new leaders who will energetically implement xenophobic and domestically bloody policies.
That happened with the suppression of the Taiping in the 1860s. It happened when the Dowager Empress Cixi quietly encouraged the Boxer Revolt in 1900 and it happened when Mao took power in 1949 and when he unleashed the Great Cultural Revolution in 1965.
All the slick economic and political models of the Inside the Beltway think tanks and the posturing pundits of Harvard, Yale and Chicago present political and economic models ignorant of the complexity and great suffering of modern Chinese history. The American people and their leaders need to learn that history if they hope to cope with China’s coming surprises. As George Santayana famously said, Those who ignore the past are fated to repeat it.
Martin Sieff is former chief foreign correspondent of The Washington Times. He is the author of “Shifting Superpowers; The New and Emerging Relationship between the United States, China and India” (Cato, January 2010) and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008).
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