Change Management 3/3

China has changed dramatically in the last forty years. Business writer and thought leader Bob Yovovich tells us that China urbanized in half the time it took the US and with ten times the number of relocations. Such rapid change must have induced complex interlocking social shifts and costs - customs broken, institutions abandoned, social ties destroyed. Now, wither China? Wither CCP?

Three questions in three posts. This is post #3.

Thesis #3  Will Mr. Democracy eventually overpower Mr. Science in Chinese culture? A democratic future must come with modernization

Below -

     Evidence for the coming of Mr. Democracy

      Antithesis #3   No evidence for democracy anytime soon

            What holds Chinese back?

            We few … we unhappy few …

            But maybe really ... self-harm

            Trusting in leadership by the best

            Democracy and capitalism united

            Hear as the people hear

            What do we want?

            The artistry of power

            Locally …



Science is about a search for truth. It is logical and precise. But science - as reflected in logic and precision - can only take society so far. Democracies and freedoms are much more complex than science, but people need that complexity to live meaningful lives.

Democracies and freedoms come in many flavors. As much as CCP tries to keep China pure – free of western influence – that is really a losing proposition. Young Chinese returning from school abroad bring back ideas as well as technical skills. One cannot really separate ideas about science from ideas about freedom. The arc of history points toward freedom.

China is certainly capitalistic in some ways; so is the US. Both are socialist and corporatist in some ways as well. For decades American political scientists and politicians have put faith in the argument that once China has capitalism some form of democracy cannot be far behind. American China policy from the time of Clinton has been predicated on a path of opening up-GDP growth-capitalism-democracy.


Evidence for the coming of Mr. Democracy

Modernization theory has been a staple of foreign policy and international relations theory for more  than fifty years. There are variations, but generally the concept is that because capitalism and democracy are intimately related, and both of them, along with science, are fundamentally searches for truth, then a country that values science and economic development will naturally evolve to having democratic features. Ipso facto.

The US was a model for Chinese democracy for a long time. The first quarter of the 20th century is when Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy became models, directly from lived experience of Chinese in the US.

No modern country can be autarkic or completely isolationist. North Korea is perhaps the closest approximation. And among the many flavors of democracy are democratic models in the Confucian societies of Japan and South Korea and Taiwan. Clearly Confucian precepts and east Asian heritage are no barrier to democracy. But perhaps the most appealing to both Chinese citizens and CCP is the government in Singapore. Singapore is sort of democratic – there is a very limited sort of voting – but government is squeaky clean along with the streets and freedom to walk around freely is everywhere. Crime is punished. Singapore rejects liberal democratic values, limits free speech and public participation in government without significant voting rights. The US is not an attractive model for China. But  Singapore … perhaps.

Tu Weiming, a premier new Confucian scholar, says Confucian principles of benevolence and tolerance are best achieved in a democratic system. These ancient Chinese ideas are ideas about individual freedom. CCP will be overthrown, as has every dynasty for more than two thousand years. 


Antithesis #3   No evidence for democracy anytime soon

One doesn’t get to write or say what one thinks in the civilization-state that is CCP, but mostly no one thinks about it. Businesses work for the state. CCP is the new dynasty, and they are looking out for the welfare of all CCP. Might be good to remember one of those Christian fundamentalist bumper stickers one sees – slightly modified. CCP reminds everyone that they are leading the people. “Xi said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

I wrote a bit about this four years ago Must China have Democracy or Die?  The arguments against the modernization view are detailed and convincing. Suffice it to say that China does not have now, has never, and is unlikely any decade soon to have the prerequisites for democracy. Robert Dahl laid out seven or eight requirements in his 1972 Polyarchy.

Dahl's requirements for a democracy -

  1. Have preferences weighted equally in conduct of government
  2. Freedom of expression
  3. Right to vote
  4. Eligibility for public office
  5. Right of political leaders to compete for support and votes
  6. Alternative sources of information
  7. Free and fair elections
  8. Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference

We have learned that a functioning democracy has some form of civil society as a prerequisite. Civil society can propose alternatives to government policy, organize people in opposition to policy, sponsor think tanks and colloquia and free speech and free thinking. This cannot be tolerated by any communist regime. To allow for free speech and thinking is to promote disintegration of the Party.

Some other reasons for democracy not to evolve, from culture and demographics.  


What holds Chinese back?

We saw thousands of people in the streets in Beijing and Shanghai in fall of 2022 protesting the zero-covid restrictions. This frightened Xi, and the bans on movement were removed. People then went back to work, back to school, back to shopping. Even though we saw the signs on the bridge in Beijing …  


 Source: Helen Davidson in Taipei and Verna Yu. Guardian at

"Go on strike at school and work, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping! We want to eat, we want freedom, we want to vote!"


… there has been no follow-on. No residual of protests related to Xi, CCP, or the occupation of Chinese people by CCP.


Tanner Greer at The Scholar's Stage lists reasons for Chinese elites, including college educated young Chinese, to keep their heads down and mouths closed - fear of the state; pragmatism from a sense that nothing they say can change the situation; as well as resentment against western voices for invalidating some of the positive aspects of the country. At the same time, the propaganda authorities have weaponized the public sphere to wring out dissent. A critical comment posted to Weibo or WeChat might prompt the platform to delete one’s account. If that doesn’t happen, then the internet mob will pounce. And of course, a negative comment from a Chinese overseas can result in retribution against one’s family in China.


Possibly even stronger than CCP are ancient Chinese ideas about governing. The Chinese state has a very different relationship with the population than does any western state. For more than two thousand years, the Chinese state has had much greater natural authority, legitimacy and respect. The Chinese state is the guardian of the people. James Fredericks reminds us that the dominant idea in China is that of the harmonious society, not the autonomy of the individual. Daniel Bell compares harmony and freedom, meritocracy and democracy and hierarchy and equality in the US and China in his 2017 Comparing Political Values in China and the West. Meritocracy and hierarchy are valued in China. Chinese want leaders to be the best. Voting quite clearly does not give us the best leaders. In the US we do honor hierarchies in permanent government administration (the “Deep State” of educated and experienced public servants) but we don’t think about that too much. Harmony in China is as much a cultural meme as “freedom” is in the US. You can call this part of Confucian values if you wish. In any case, modern Chinese do carry stronger concepts of deference to authority and confidence that the government will act in the best interests of all.  

CCP is authoritarian and can be unbelievably cruel. But to most Chinese, it is simply the government. Sometimes overly paranoid, sometimes intrusive and stupid. But mostly, people get their driver’s licenses renewed, they go to the mall and buy the same products they could buy in New York, they complain about the traffic jams and weather and they read the newspapers about the local official arrested for corruption. They go to the movies and buy books and choose to start businesses and go on vacations. This is not different from the experience of many Americans.

No question that political and moral freedoms are unavailable. CCP has its vision of the future. Mr. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” is not like the American Dream, which is a celebration of the individual and the family. The CCP Dream is a dream of a powerful CCP and a powerful Chinese state. Still, some Chinese chafe under the iron fist of CCP. They write and protest and seek change. In the west, we hear of their arrests and disappearances and think revolutionary change is in the air.


We few … we unhappy few …

So who are the CCP who need fear persecution, arrest, and disappearance? They are mostly (not entirely) people with an ability to influence others or challenge CCP – journalists, writers, attorneys, artists. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says there are just under 50,000 journalists, reporters and news analysts in the US and just over 7,200 criminal justice lawyers.

I have no idea how to scale the number of journalists and rights lawyers in China, except to assume that the number of journalists who could or would write stories that would offend CCP couldn’t be more than 50,000. There are attorneys who take civil rights cases in CCP for a while before they end up in jail themselves, but the number cannot be significantly different from zero.

Let’s take 50,000 as the number of potentially offensive writers and speakers and artists in CCP. That is a vanishingly small share of the population – 50,000/1,400,000,000 = 3.57 x 10-5. Double the number if you wish. Triple it. That, I submit, is small enough to ignore in China, even if we in the west give those detained and arrested and disappeared a lot of attention. This is the point at which lots of Chinese start to ask, “why do these people want to cause trouble?”

There have been experiments with elections in China. There was an election for provincial representatives in 1909 as part of the move toward constitutional monarchy. In 1912, the new Republic of China held a national election for representatives in the new National Assembly, but the outcome was made irrelevant when Yuan Shikai tried to make himself the new emperor.

Starting in 1988 and continuing under Hu Jintao there were experiments with village elections for Party chief and village president, but the candidates were still pre-selected by CCP.

There is support for a concept called democracy among many Chinese, although they have a tough time describing just what that means. It seems to have something to do with voting, but it is by no means clear how candidates should be proposed or what powers an elected official should have. Other than casting ballots, the concepts of rule of law, equal treatment under law, providing evidence in court, cross examination, freedoms of speech and assembly, alternative voices to government – these are all quite … foreign, even for some western educated Chinese.

There is voting within CCP for leaders and voting for membership in the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. There is no campaigning for elections. There is more uncertainty in an election for high school student body president in the US.

The political system in China is described by CCP as democratic centralism. The meaning of this is a bit of word salad. From the General Program of the  CCP Constitution, the Party must resolve in upholding democratic centralism. Democratic centralism combines centralism built on the basis of democracy with democracy under centralized guidance. It is both the Party’s fundamental organizational principle and the application of the mass line in everyday Party activities.

Confusing? Following language doesn’t clarify -

The Party must fully encourage intraparty democracy, respect the principal position of its members, safeguard their democratic rights, and give play to the initiative and creativity of Party organizations at every level and all Party members. Correct centralism must be practiced; all Party members must keep firmly in mind the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, uphold the leadership core, and keep in alignment, and firmly uphold the authority and centralized, unified leadership of the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, so as to ensure the solidarity, unity, and concerted action of the whole Party and guarantee the prompt and effective implementation of the Party’s decisions.

So … you are permitted to vote, as long as you vote for whatever Xi wants.

The current fad in CCP is promotion of “whole-process people's democracy” which is the attempt to paint democratic lipstick on the CCP pig. Xi Jinping has determined that whole process democracy is composed of pairings of four elements-

1) “process democracy” and “achievement democracy”                                                                                                                

2) “procedural democracy” and “substantive democracy”                                                                                                                           3) “direct democracy” and “indirect democracy”

and                                                                                                                                      4) “people’s democracy” and the “will of the state.”


Xi says the combination of these results in “real and effective socialist democracy” as required in the Chinese Constitution.   

Charitably, the Constitution language comes down to, “we in CCP are going to experiment with this voting thing until we understand it, and when we do, in a hundred years or so, we will provide the people with a proper version.” In the Chinese Constitution the form of government is referred to as a “People's Democratic Dictatorship.” The preamble to the Chinese Constitution puts CCP as the prime mover, making CCP the visible hand behind the state.


But maybe really - self-harm

As I write this in April of 2023, CCP has invaded another western consulting company in China, seeking information on auditors, management consultants, and law firms that could influence views on China. The headlines so far are about invasions of Bain, Micron Technology, and Mintz Group. Mintz is a due-diligence firm. These raids are not isolated, but part of CCP plans to control information. There can’t be a worse way to influence western businesses. To the extent such raids are really about controlling ability to think write and speak as one wishes, this is clearly harming the Chinese ability to gain cooperation on innovation and secure foreign investment in China. One can think of the raids as a war on thinking. The Wall Street Journal has more detail - China Ratchets Up Pressure on Foreign Companies.

So … probably fair to say democracy is not coming anytime soon, foreign investment is clearly at risk, and innovation will take on a made-in-China caste, unless stolen, of course.

CCP, J’accuse!


Trusting in leadership by the best

The argument made above is that technicians – engineers and finance people particularly – are bound by their  training to seek rigorous or well-crafted mechanisms for solving social problems, and that these solutions are always or usually going to be second-best politically. This is Isaiah Berlin’s argument in Political Judgment as well – that good political judgment is at least an art, not a science, it is not learned in school and there is no textbook. Political judgment most certainly cannot come out of the sort of language in the CCP Constitution. In Berlin’s article there is a bit of a magical quality to good political judgment –

And we are rightly apt to put more trust in the equally bold empiricists, Henry IV of France, Peter the Great, Frederick of Prussia, Napoleon, Cavour, Lincoln, Lloyd George, Masaryk, Franklin Roosevelt … because we see that they understand their material. Is this not what is meant by political genius? Or genius in other provinces of human activity? This is not a contrast between conservatism and radicalism, or between caution and audacity, but between types of gift.

Ok to bold empiricists. But empiricists have trials … and tribulations. They test, and are tested. In fact, experience-based testing is what CCP officials get as they are promoted through the ranks.

This is not to agree with William F. Buckley about better trusting the wisdom coming from the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book, rather than trusting two thousand tenured faculty at Harvard. Buckley’s view comes closer to what we actually do in the US with regard to selecting leaders – no political vetting, no experience needed, no technical training to guide thinking, no necessary knowledge of history or psychology or human affairs. Money is needed. Nothing else. Buckley’s view is really that of the mariners on Plato’s ship of fools. It is the “my ignorance is just as good as your expertise” view. In other words, no explicit models at all of how the world works. Just feeling.

I don’t think either of Buckley’s proposed leader groups would work well. Berlin is not arguing for politicians coming into a job tabula rasa but to trust people with practical experience. Neither the phone book people nor the Harvard faculty are necessarily – perhaps ever - endowed with what Aristotle called practical wisdom.

Young Chinese are aware of other perspectives on governing and values. That topic alone is worth much discussion. In the days of the May 4th movement the clarion call was for "Dr. Science and Mr. Democracy" when the old ways of Chinese culture were to be jettisoned in favor of western ideas. Then later came “look west for science, China for culture” when political and moral freedoms began to seep in with the science and engineering.

Many of them have spent time in the US. Now, not so many of them are desirous to stay in the US.

Numbers games are too often false flags. But let’s try one – for some years (not so many anymore) there were about 300,000 Chinese students in the US, most of them in college or graduate school. Just for ease, let’s say there were about 100,000 graduates returning to China each year. In ten years, that would be a million students. Within China there are about four million graduates of four-year schools each year now, and another four million graduates of certificate and diploma schools. In ten years, that would be eighty million. Of course ideas are a common resource, a public good if you will. But along with some understanding of free speech, Chinese are now returning from the US with a large dose of exposure to violence, gun murders, racism and poorly functioning institutions. It used to be that Chinese students would try to stay in the US. Some still do. But more and more they return home for better job prospects and a safer life. By no means do all returning Chinese students carry a rosy picture of life in the US. For many of them, the US looks rather barbaric when compared with their life in China. American soft power in terms of lived experience is a bust.


Democracy and capitalism united

Martin Wolf in his new book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism  argues that capitalism works best when it works with democracy – but also that democracy works best with a capitalist system. The two are inextricably linked in terms of promoting equality – one an equality of persons and the other equality of a volume of money. Either fails if the other becomes too powerful. One can see the Acemoglu and Robinson “extractive v inclusive” dichotomy from Why Nations Fail. Obviously capitalism can become oligarchic and extractive. Rather than serving customers, employees, or even stockholders, it serves senior management. Democracy too can become extractive, when too much power devolves to one group or one party in a plural society. Excessive regulation is the obvious example. Remember that in 2023 the legislature in Florida is seeking to ban Chinese from buying property in the state. And homelessness and “housing failure” is at least a regulatory failure as much as a failure of health or education or social service policies.

Wolf summarizes – The enemy today is not without. Even China is not that potent. The enemy is within. Democracy will survive only if it gives opportunity, security and dignity to the great majority of its people…. If elites are only in it for themselves, a dark age of autocracy will return.

We apply the word freedom to things we find desirable in both capitalism and democracy, but they require freedoms of very different kinds. The distinction is often not noticed. I think the word freedom is the link that many people have in mind when we discuss innovation and GDP and democracy. The freedoms of speech and association in democracy provide for human dignity, but these are distinct from economic freedoms. Chinese people have as much economic freedom as Americans do, but no one would call Chinese people “free.” The distinction we should make in capitalism is that the path of success for a society is in competitive markets, not free markets.

The important point for us here is that capitalism and democracy can work together, but need not. There are plenty of countries that make efforts at democracy, but fail to encourage much of a capitalism with generally competitive markets. And we have China, with lots of competitive sectors of the economy but no moral freedoms, and no particular desire to alter the mix. The extractive elites in China – mostly CCP – will work hard to keep their relative position as occupiers. If Martin Wolf is right, a dark age of autocracy may still emerge in both the US and China. We may be seeing the beginnings right now.


Hear as the people hear

Some see the engineering, economic and finance backgrounds of many leaders, including Xi, and see lack of humane feeling in governance – that these technocrats are best at working with the physical rather than the human. And by its nature CCP wants rational solutions. At some point their ability to hear as the people hear, see as the people see will fail.

But leaders at every level of government are by no means all technocrats. As leaders rise in authority, they gain more and more of that practical experience Isaiah Berlin touted to accompany any technical training they might have obtained in school. And they pay attention to what the people are saying.

To hear and see, leaders are adept at using technology to measure citizen attitudes. Censorship does not imply ignoring what was posted and who posted it. Close monitoring of people’s posts and comments and attitudes is itself an industry in China. CCP does hear as the people hear, sees as the people see, as heaven is supposed to do in the mandate of heaven. Just the CCP response is always … measured. And to be fair, it sometimes took heaven a decade or two to respond as well. But if CCP provides voice to Chinese people, it is providing a sense of human dignity that can make “democracy” unnecessary – as it has in Singapore.

Let me point out that Chinese leaders – certainly those I know in special economic zones and districts of cities and counties and provinces – go through training and vetting processes with which Americans are absolutely unfamiliar. Not only do college students have to pass the standard government entry exam, held once each year. The exam has two parts: an aptitude test with 135 multiple-choice questions on math, world affairs, language, and logic that lasts two hours. Test-takers have another three hours to write an essay. About 1% or 2% of test takers pass. For those who pass, there are additional special or technical exams. Once ensconced in a government position, training is not over. Anyone being promoted to a new job receives training for that job. Sometimes the training is at the city or provincial School of Administration, which doubles as CCP party school. People in many mid-level administrative positions are exposed constantly to others in similar positions via two or three day meetups, in the same or other provinces, by way of getting seasoning and exposure. And there is not the rather extreme division one sees in American politics versus administration. One can mature from a lower level government administrative position into a higher and more political position, which does happen in the US as well but I think to a far lesser degree. Certainly no one comes from private business in China to government service with the threat to “run government like a business.” There are no ignorant buffoons in higher positions in Chinese government. They are vetted out long before. There are people who are corrupt. But for most the good of the Party and the country comes before personal aggrandizement. And ability to control popular dissent is one evaluative measure by which to judge readiness for promotions. That ability does not come from any technical training. There can be voice without democracy, and that is what CCP provides. (See post #1 in this thread).

The central government zuzhibu organization department controls the top 5,000 positions in the party and government. This includes all ministerial and vice-ministerial positions, provincial governorships and First Party Secretary appointments, as well as appointments of university chancellors, presidents of the Academy of Science and Academy of Social Sciences, etc. Provincial, city, county and university organization departments vet people at their levels as well. The vetting is not proforma. The Chinese attitude is why, oh why, would you let someone ignorant of the requirements of a job be a leader in that department or ministry? Those 5,000 or so senior positions are filled by people who have the Chinese IBM experience – I’ve been moved – to different cities and provinces across China to provide experience and ability for the zu zhi bu to judge ability under stress.


What do we want?

Sometimes we have the idea that the way we do democracy in the US is  the only real way. But other countries do democracy also, with a wide variety of means. And all countries use a mix of openness and control to get to governance. People generally can be satisfied, even happy, with a wide variety of governance systems.

Perhaps we would be better off if we understood democracy as simply a way to provide voice, and thereby express human dignity. We don’t have to win every time we vote, but we want to know that we are heard. And we could understand capitalism as allowing people to make their own economic choices. Democracy and capitalism must defer to the other at times and to what people decide they want. There cannot be a normative democracy or a normative capitalism.

Modern economies are complex. Modern social problems are complex. Successful governance requires more than technical expertise or book learning and more than paying attention to profit and the bottom line. So tell me – on the ship of fools, who do you want as navigator? The pure innocent, the ignorant noble savage, or the sailor who knows how to use a sextant, has sailed before and can communicate his findings to the crew? It is not just technical knowledge and it is not being glib. In the US we do rely on technical staff with deep experience to advise leaders. We don’t expect experience, expertise or wisdom in our leaders. Chinese do expect those traits, and rather often, they get them.


 The artistry of power

It is a mistake to see “China v US” as a contest between -isms - “democracy v authoritarianism” struggle or Slater’s “control culture v integrative culture.” These terms are too ill-defined and far too broad. For most people the government is just … government. They don’t want to interact with it. They want it to be procedurally fair and understandable and they want human dignity. Otherwise, they mostly don’t wish to deal with government at all.

All governments consider what they have to do to remain in power. They take what actions are necessary and otherwise work to please their funders, supporters, friends. For China that means CCP can be quite flexible locally. Remember that in 2002 Jiang Zemin invited capitalists and business owners into CCP after killing hundreds of thousands of them fifty years earlier. A provincial or municipal party chief in some east China province has to be attuned to what the people want. This is the artistry of power that Robert Hariman discussed in his Political Style - The Artistry of Power - how matters of style - diction, manners, sensibility, decor, and charisma influence politics. That can certainly describe the machinations of power within CCP. This is part of the practical reasoning that Isaiah Berlin and Aristotle proposed.

Matters of style carry on even when away from home. A very minor example. At IIT in Chicago, we held an end of year party for our Chinese government students. One year, we had the leader from each of the three groups deliver some short remarks. We had government officials from cities around Liaoning Province. Liaoning has a deserved reputation as home to heavy industry – coal mining, oil, steelmaking and chemicals. We had officials from Dalian, also in Liaoning but sophisticated and international in a way that the rest of the province was not. And we had officials from Hangzhou, the wealthiest city in one of the wealthiest provinces, and very cosmopolitan. The Liaoning leader was nicely dressed for his remarks, with a light black leather jacket over a dress shirt, no tie. The Dalian leader wore a dress suit and tie. The Hangzhou leader wore a sport jacket over a light sweater. To me, each style of dress reflected the socio-economic status of their home base, from less cosmopolitan to more so, whether by intention or not.

Life for middle class Chinese is … at least ok. It is pressure filled and there are worries about jobs and spouses and the kid. Not different from life in the US. Rural poverty in China is bad. It is bad in the US, too. Health care is poor for many in China. US medical system, heal thyself. Schools, ditto.

Chinese can and do complain online about local problems – potholes and noise and air quality. Metaphorically, as long as the garbage gets picked up it does not matter who runs the government. Freedoms of speech and press and religion and association are fairly existential worries.


Locally …

There are benefits to not having to worry about politics. Chinese do not walk around with a fear of being attacked on the street or their kids being murdered in school. There are poor people begging on the street in some places, but they are not to be feared. There are thefts and robberies and arguments on the street and killings. But nothing like the threat of daily violence we have learned to live with in USA.

Short of wars and natural disasters, people … well, cope. Lying flat (tang ping)     is coping, but it is not going to be a life-long practice for most. Maybe a few weeks.

Sometimes we get distracted by the simplicity of econ 101 and supply must equal demand and Newton’s third law and every change ostensibly for the better has its attendant, if subtle, costs.

Sometimes we get distracted by the authoritarian stories coming out of China and think that the people are uniting in opposition. We remember “The People ... United ... Will Never Be Defeated!” But that assumes that the people are really uniting against anything. It probably is worthwhile to point out that the authoritarian horror stories are of most interest to those of us in the US for whom free speech and association are most directly relevant. And perhaps it is worthwhile to remember the old adage about Chinese - "no people more discontent and no people less revolutionary."

James Fredericks again, in Confucianism, Catholic Social Teachings, and Human Rights -

The Chinese state enjoys a very different kind of relationship with society compared with the Western state. It enjoys much greater natural authority, legitimacy and respect, even though not a single vote is cast for the government. The reason is that the state is seen by the Chinese as the guardian, custodian and embodiment of their civilization. The duty of the state is to protect its unity. The legitimacy of the state therefore lies deep in Chinese history. This is utterly different from how the state is seen in Western societies.

The US has its own problems with uncaring government and political officials. The rest of the world looks at our obsession with guns and our lack of obsession with poverty and health care  and abysmal schools and moronic public officials and they now look elsewhere for spiritual encouragement. I don’t have any data, but I would be there are few immigrants to the US from anywhere in the developed world.

When it comes down to it, we always need to find a balance. In the American system, as destructive and heartless as it is, most of us find a way to balance need for stability and change. Chinese do similar things, starting from a different social place. It is, frankly, a toss up as to which society manages change better. If one thinks Chinese don’t manage change well, how did they do what they did in the last forty years?

When we too closely link democracy and capitalism, or innovation and political freedoms, we make a category error. Capitalism and democracy do need each other, but only at the margin. Both have an infinite variety of expressions in customs and institutions. All governments, however, need to provide for expression of human dignity.

Ci Jiwei analyzed the modern Chinese moral problem in his 2014 Moral China in the Age of Reform. He sees the lack of empathy, the corruption, the obsession with conspicuous consumption as symptomatic of an inability to express oneself, to express human dignity. There is almost complete lack of moral freedom, to express oneself in speaking, writing, reading, association. Ci sees democracy as a way for people to express human dignity, but there are other ways as well. I wrote a series of posts about moral freedom three years ago at What is this Moral Freedom Business?

Ci notes that modern human societies need to provide for individual human dignity, and dignity is expressed through agency – how do we interact with others to achieve our position in the world? He sees agency expressed in two ways - through freedom or through identification with a superordinate idea. Agency  expressed through freedom leads us to thoughts of democracy. Agency expressed through identification with a cause or charismatic leader leads us to thoughts of authoritarianism. But if agency either way is expressed in customs and institutions and laws and regulations, how many different varieties can there be? There just isn’t one form of any -ism that is normative or definitive.

This discussion is getting a bit past my pay grade. I want to make the point that China doesn’t have a system that we would call capitalist, but capitalist it most certainly is in many ways. China doesn’t have a system that we would call democratic but it provides a certain amount of voice for its people. If we look at governments in the US and China, they have many similar responses to social needs and many similar problems going forward in the next decades. Both will need to spend more money on people and less on things. Both will need to do more to provide dignity for their people. China has come as far as it has in the last forty years with a system that we think of as unworkable, but work it has. To say that suddenly now it is unworkable is an unwarranted conceit. To say that the US has the only workable system of democracy and capitalism is also a mistake. My contention is that human dignity is satisfied in many forms. There is no reason to think China – even CCP – cannot find a way that allows it to prosper, even innovate.

Its tricky to use cities as examples of democracy or innovation. Cities are complex beyond anything we can easily write about. Hong Kong has been cited as an example of capitalism par excellence; it was really more corporatist than capitalist. Its version of democracy was not one that Americans would find appealing. But what moral freedoms did exist are now being erased quickly. In the new school books, Britain never governed Hong Kong and newsrooms are empty. Thousands of people have fled, and lots of businesses have decamped for Singapore or Bangkok.

We can see the capitalist-corporatist system working even as the democratic one is erased.

Hong Kong is being remade almost faster than the changes can be reported, as if the whole city had suddenly been unzipped to reveal a shadow society lurking beneath.

Many key institutions — civil society organizations, political parties and trade unions — have dismantled themselves in the ultimate act of debasement. In 2016 elections, pro-democracy or other nonestablishment figures won about one-third of Hong Kong’s legislature. After a drastic overhaul of election rules and a resulting boycott by democratic parties, a 2021 vote returned just one nonestablishment lawmaker out of 90 seats. Hong Kong’s population shrank for three years in a row because of emigration and a falling birthrate.

Friends who are still there tell me they no longer talk politics, even with family or close friends — this in a city that was once defiantly political. One friend spoke of wanting to like a Facebook post of mine but not daring to. In that tiny nonaction, a failure to click, the individual becomes complicit, accelerating the degradation of memory.


CCP is working as fast and as hard as it can to erase memories of moral freedoms. Democracy is not coming to Hong Kong.

I said in previous posts that my Chinese undergrads did not recognize the famous “tank man” photo from Tian’anmen in 1989. They were born in 1990 and after. Few people would talk about that time and there were no images of value. Erasing that part of history from social experience took less than a decade. Some of my curious students did ask me what happened in June of 1989. I gave them copies of the two-part Gate of Heavenly Peace movie –   and

The Chinese language version -


The videos on my thumb drive were a very small contribution to historical memory and being able to see and think for oneself. CCP was able to declare victory after Tian’anmen and it will do so after Hong Kong. Memories of Tian’anmen and Hong Kong are preserved outside China; but what matter that?

If anything, financial capitalism sees democracy as irrelevant. Chinese companies and corporatist foreign companies will do just fine, thank you, without a democratic polity. How easy would it be to get big American companies to restrict themselves from the Chinese market?

Many American companies have left the Russian market; but that was marginal. There’s too much money to be made in China for political freedoms to be of concern. We are at “what’s good for (insert name of major international company here) is good for America.” That wasn’t what Charles Wilson said in 1953 but it seems quite relevant now.  



Going deeper, American culture of individualism has told us, forced us, to be good at adaptation. We don’t have resources upon which to fall back – extended families, the neighbors, clans or the church. Now, even unions and schools and local governments are less available to pick us up when needed. We get counseling but we don’t get much help. One wonders, with Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism how a society of sovereign individuals, not paying attention to the needs of others, can long survive. I liked this comment from a recent post: “Americans do not agree about the duty to protect others, whether it’s from a virus or gun violence.”

That is not the cultural Chinese view, regardless of how closely it might not be followed in practice. 

China has similar modernism adaptation problems but is starting from a different place. Jobs and social services and society were always available in the family, the clan, or the lineage group. Even the most modern and upwardly mobile Shanghainese financial advisor has a family home back in some village somewhere. It might be a supreme embarrassment to move back in with grandma, but it is a safety net. Family remains the locus of support, from pitching in to fund college education abroad to buying that first apartment. Grandparents and uncles are regularly involved in education donations. We just don’t have nearly the level of family support that one regularly finds in China.

We also don’t have nearly the willingness to let government have the benefit of the doubt in enacting policy. That is partially due to fear of retribution, true. But the government is not ignorant of the wishes of the population, as we saw with the sudden relaxation of covid restrictions last fall.

China has big problems, some of them looming natural disasters like climate change and water scarcity and some manufactured by CCP modernism and policy – hukou restrictions and poor education and health care and fevered promotion of spending and buying. The US has big problems too, some of them looming natural disasters like climate change and water scarcity and some manufactured by racial enmity and financial capitalism – restrictions from zoning laws – the American hukou - and poor education and health care and fevered promotion of spending and buying.

If Chinese look at America now, not the shining city on a hill from fifty or a hundred years ago, they mostly see a social system they do not want for themselves. Sure, there are some good things about America, but the risks are high.

This democracy thing isn’t quite as attractive as once thought, back in the  early 20th century when Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy were all the intellectual rage, promoted by none other than Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of Chinese communism. How times change.

Every country has its own understanding of capitalism and its own understanding of democracy. This is to say, every country has its own ways of letting people find agency for themselves and express human dignity. In these posts I tried to suggest that notions of freedom – economic and moral – exist on a wide spectrum. China is an easy place in which to live if one is only concerned about economic freedom; not possible if one is concerned about moral freedoms. Nevertheless, people cope. Some want significant change, and will take risks to accomplish that. Mostly they love their homeland and don’t want to see too much change. People do that in the US, too.