Is prosperity more important than democracy

China: Prosperity also works without democracy

70 years ago, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China from the Imperial Palace on Tiananmen Square. This was preceded by decades of civil war and the war against Japan with tens of millions of dead. It followed: decades of communist totalitarianism with tens of millions of deaths. But today China is an industrial superpower, a military superpower, and a contender for world political leadership.

And: It is a gigantic laboratory in which the question is decided: Do you need intellectual freedom and democracy for economic and technological progress? Is an "authoritarian market economy" superior to a democratic one?

I went to China for the first time in 1982. It was the time of Deng Xiaoping's first tentative attempts at free-market reform. We were proudly shown the first private farmers market with a few shriveled carrots. But Mao's last "reform", the "great leap forward" (violent industrialization), had ended with around 40 million starvation deaths. Beijing was a city of cyclists who rode through the streets in rows of ten. On the flat land, the farmers threw the grain on the road so that the trucks could "thresh" it. Villages consisted of mud huts. There were a few barracks in the "special economic zone" of Shenzhen. Today it is a city of 18 million people. In Guilin we were deliberately shown the unusable machines that the planned economy central administration had sent. Never mind, said the official escort, we are a 5000 year old culture, we will catch up with the west. In the "peaceful ascent", as the official slogan read.

The greatest challenge of our time

Since then, China's prosperity has multiplied and hundreds of millions have been lifted out of dire poverty. In the first years after the communist takeover, three million were shot as "bourgeois elements". There are billionaires today, and more importantly, a broad middle class. The Chinese, who used to be completely isolated, travel the world as mass tourists. And of course they return home.

Economic freedom, however, did nothing to change the iron control exercised by the Communist Party. It has become even more cramped by the modern means of surveillance. In 2020, the system of "social credit points" is to be finally introduced in all of Beijing. Seamless monitoring systems with face recognition make it possible to evaluate the behavior of the individual. If you don't match, you won't get a job, no credit, but difficulties. This is deeply disturbing, but apparently not for most Chinese. Because they are doing well, better than ever. And many around the world are drawing the conclusion that you don't need freedom of thought to be economically successful. The Chinese model could replace the western one.

It won't happen that way. But China's rise is the greatest challenge of our time. (Hans Rauscher, October 2, 2019)