Anti-Xi protests should end American left’s China envy

opinion, china, coronavirus, protests, xi jinping, anti-xi protests should end american left’s china envy

Chinese protesters are denouncing President Xi Jinping, the ruling Communist party and the government’s heavy-handed COVID policies and rampant censorship. UNTV via AP

Xi Jinping, just starting a third term as head of China’s ruling Communist Party, is having a bad week. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In his first two terms, Xi cracked down hard on opposition to government policies, cut back on his predecessors’ economic liberalization and purged rivals to consolidate power. But now he faces grassroots protests across China, with large groups of demonstrators even calling for him to step down and Communist Party rule to end.

Protesters aren’t just denouncing Xi, the party and the government’s heavy-handed COVID policies — they’re also objecting to rampant censorship by holding up blank sheets of paper. The government has tried to keep the public from figuring out what’s going on, but it has failed.

This poses a challenge to the many Westerners who seem to have suffered from “China envy” in recent years. Frustrated by democracy, they wish they could emulate Xi in enacting the policies they desire without the tedious necessity of persuading voters.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman famously wished we could be “China for a Day” so we could implement “the right solutions.” The World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab recently praised China as a “role model” for other nations. And much of the West’s initial COVID policy was based on China’s, something infamous Washington Post writer Taylor Lorenz was just celebrating.

opinion, china, coronavirus, protests, xi jinping, anti-xi protests should end american left’s china envy

Protesters holding up blank pieces of paper in a demonstartion against the Chinese government in Hong Kong on November 28, 2022.

Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

On the corporate front, Apple even gave Xi more than moral support, effectively disabling AirDrop — an feature that lets iPhone users directly share messages and files, popular with Chinese activists — only within China, just before the protests heated up. That’s clout.

But being China isn’t actually as great as it sounds. Being a one-party state without democratic institutions makes you stupid. You don’t get the information you need when you need it because there’s no free press or opposition, and underlings don’t like to share bad news with bosses. And having eliminated all significant opposition, Xi has no one else to blame. The “zero-COVID” policy is his, it’s been a disastrous failure, and everyone knows it.

In a classic “Star Trek” episode, a rogue sociologist infects a planet with Nazism because it was the most “ruthlessly efficient” government in history. Bunk. Hitler did lots of stupid things, and there was no one who could stop him. His Germany was the scene of endless bureaucratic backstabbing, duplication and waste. (Stalin’s Soviet Union was at least as bad, for the same reasons.) Dictatorships may look dynamic because they can do things fast. The problem is they often do stupid things fast.

opinion, china, coronavirus, protests, xi jinping, anti-xi protests should end american left’s china envy

A person holding up a sign calling for the removal of Xi Jinping at a protest outside of the Chinese consulate in Toronto, Canada on November 29, 2022.

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Intellectuals are nonetheless instinctively attracted to authoritarian regimes because they have ideas they want put into practice, but ordinary people are usually resistant to being their lab animals. Famous architect Le Corbusier dedicated a book “to authority” because, well, who else was going to put his (bad) ideas for redesigning cities into practice? He was far from the only intellectual to feel this way.

Democracy requires those who want society to change to persuade the masses. That’s hard work and often results in one’s ideas being subject to withering criticism, which is always unpleasant. Hence the desire to sidestep that process with autocracy. That desire is distressingly widespread among our political class.

Americans should be concerned.

We’re protected from becoming China, to a degree at least, by institutions that keep our governments from exercising the kind of unchecked power Chairman Xi takes for granted. But it’s worth remembering those institutions require constant maintenance and support. And there are plenty of people in our own governing class who would rule like Xi if they could, even though the results would likely be just as disastrous. We should be worried that neither our media nor our elected officials seem as supportive of those institutions as they should be.

We should also be concerned that many of our institutions — particularly our universities and the press — are particularly prone to turning out people who regard the great mass of Americans as, at best, dangerous boobs to be managed and at worst as an active threat to their own hopes and dreams.

Autocracies ultimately never deliver the wealth, peace and security they promise. But they do make some people feel powerful and important. And that, unfortunately, is enough to make autocracy a constant threat. Even here.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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