The Asian Century 3 15 July 2019.

What do you want, freedom or prosperity?  “It’s an honest question.”[1]  For much of its history, the “West” has been able to achieve an acceptable mix of both.  Other places have not been so lucky.  Some countries climbed into the ranks of the Freedom + Prosperity group by first prioritizing prosperity over freedom.

China’s initial reforms under Deng Xiaoping both encountered obstructive resistance from “conservatives” within the Communist Party and inspired extravagant hopes among educated young people.[2]  Conciliating the conservatives would mean enraging the students; while satisfying the students would enrage the conservatives.  The problem divided even the Communist Party leadership at the center of power.  The party’s General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, favored a policy of political liberalization.

In Spring 1989, the controversy reached a crisis when massive student demonstrations broke out in Beijing.  Tiananmen Square became the focus of the demonstrations, and of international attention.  Forced to choose, the Party leadership opted for control.  Troops violently cleared the square, and Zhao Ziyang went into house arrest.

As was the case in the European Revolutions of 1848, repression gave way to a new course by enlightened conservatives.  Deng Xiaoping used the crisis—and the fear of a recurrence—to force the conservatives to accept a dramatic acceleration of economic change.[3]  China would exploit its low labor costs and massive population to launch a dramatic acceleration of economic development.  The strategy would be export-based growth through engagement with the world economy.  The benefits of this policy would not be equally shared.  Wealth would flow to the elites and middle classes who supported it.  For the rest of the Chinese there would be low wages and a scanty social safety net.  However, the gamble Deng took reflected a belief that key people would prefer prosperity to freedom if they had to choose.

The effects in the rest of the world have been dramatic as well.  Chinese competition has wreaked havoc with many Western producers and their employees.  And China’s economic success makes it a credible model for people who find the contemporary liberal political and economic arrangements deeply dissatisfying.  Much the same was true in the Thirties, when the Great Depression in the capitalist West made Stalinist Russia look to some observers like a more reasonable alternative.

Despite the bitter divisions that are all too evident in Western democracies, it seems most likely that the countries that will imitates China’s economic and political model will be found in the developing world.  Freedom + Prosperity has become so deeply engrained in the West that incremental reforms are likely to resolve—or diminish to a tolerable level—those divisions.  In other places, where Freedom + Prosperity is new or non-existent, outcomes may differ.

Or perhaps not.  Prediction is a tricky business.  History is more reliable.


[2] Of course, many/most young people weren’t very educated.  They did not necessarily share the values of the urban educated elite.  However, urban educated elites are easy to meet and talk to if you are a Western diplomat, journalist, or traveler.  Same thing happened at Tahrir Square.  I haven’t seen much hand-wringing among journalists about how they got it wrong.

[3] Johan Lagerkvist, Tiananmen Redux: The Hard Truth about the Expanded Neoliberal World Order (2017).

1 thought on “The Asian Century 3 15 July 2019.

  1. Pingback: The Asian Century 6 18 July 2019. | waroftheworldblog

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