Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Chinese Dominance over the West: A False Victory 

Chinese Dominance over the West: A False Victory 
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The weakening of the West on the international scene could be interpreted as a victory for authoritarian regimes over democracies. However, China and Russia are much more fragile than they appear, according to Dominique Moïsi.

"The West is its own worst enemy." This is a trendy statement, especially among those nostalgic of the past or, as they are often the same people, prophets of decline. But couldn’t the same be said of China and Russia? Are they not also their own worst enemies?

In his superb recent essay "Le Premier XXIème Siècle", Jean-Marie Guéhenno refers to the Western world’s illusion that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc was a great victory for democracy. But is the West’s triumphalism of the late 1980s being mirrored today, with the Chinese falling into the same trap as the West did thirty years ago? By claiming the current global political situation as proof of the superiority of their own system, China is mistaking the flaws of democracies with the intrinsic superiority of their own authoritarian model.

"Competitive decadence"

At the end of the 1980s, Pierre Hassner, a philosopher of international relations, spoke of "competitive decadence" when describing the relationship between Reagan’s America and Gorbachev’s USSR. Indeed, in terms of decadence, Moscow definitely won over Washington. We could use this same formula to describe the current tension between "Western-style liberal democracy" and forms of despotism, but it wouldn’t necessarily reveal democratic systems to be the most fragile.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and Minister of Armaments, noted in his memoirs that the mobilization capacity of Nazi Germany never equalled that of Great Britain. He explained that, unlike Hitler, Churchill did not have to disperse his efforts by exercising permanent control over his troops. During the Leningrad and Stalingrad sieges, it was not two, but four armies that clashed, with the political leadership forces weakening the efforts of the regular armies on both sides.

The personality cults of Xi Jinping in China, and that of Putin in Russia, are ultimately even more dangerous for the future of those two countries than the wanderings [...] of democracy.

It is true that Speer mirrors the thoughts of a generation born in the aftermath of the democratic victory over Nazism. This generation inevitably believes that in the end, good will eventually triumph over evil. In a less subjective way, one can also think that the personality cults of Xi Jinping in China, and that of Putin in Russia, are ultimately even more dangerous for the future of those two countries than the wanderings - even the blindspots - of democracy in the West. China emerged from a long period of historical decline, which began around 1815, thanks to the wisdom and moderation of Deng Xiaoping, who was able to put an end to the totalitarian drift of the last years of Mao’s reign.

The current specter of a "second cultural revolution" threatens the intellectual and artistic elites, who can only feel humiliated by the new, infantilized political discourse that claims, "Grandfather Xi is watching over us!" The most creative and productive elements of Chinese society will surely be affected.

Cult of personality

During my years of teaching at Harvard University and King’s College, London, I was fortunate to have many exceptional students from China. Most of them shared the ambition of putting their talents at the service of their empire/civilization.

In their overall confident patriotism, there was only one period towards which they expressed strong and open criticism - that of the Cultural Revolution. Why bother becoming the best through hard work and talent if you then make such a cultural and political "great leap backward"? The absence of freedom is one thing, but the shift towards totalitarianism through personality cult is another. What is at stake is the very functioning of the Chinese economy, which would be destabilized by something presented as a "return to the roots of socialism." The fight against endemic corruption and the excesses of Chinese capitalism was necessary, but taking the risk of killing the goose laying the golden egg is an entirely different matter.

What is at stake is the very functioning of the Chinese economy, which would be destabilized by something presented as a "return to the roots of socialism."

The key to the stability of the "Red Empire" lies at least as much in prosperity through economic growth as it does in repression and fear. History teaches us that all systems based on the cult of personality, from China to Russia, North Korea to Cuba, are ultimately doomed to fail in the long run.

The leader is not eternal, and the succession becomes more difficult as time goes by. With age, despots always become less enlightened, that is if they ever were at all. Westerners are sometimes envious, not so much of Chinese hard work or their mercantile genius, but rather the improved balance - actually more Asian than uniquely Chinese - that exists between collective and individual destinies. But at what cost?

Fragmentation of the world 

The risk of China drifting from authoritarianism to totalitarianism does not mean that Western democracies can simply wait for the collapse of their adversary, a victim of its systemic contradictions. On the contrary, the West must show firmness and unity, as there is a long way to go on this road.

The fact remains that the Western world, due precisely to its democratic nature - and regulated by the mechanisms of elections - is ultimately less fragile than nations dominated by a cult of personality. As China celebrates victory over the West, is the pendulum swinging between positive forces pushing it up and negative forces pulling it down? Could the 21st century be the century of a fragmented world rather than the century of Asia?


Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 26/09/2021).


Copyright: STR / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English