“I have seen the future, and it works,” the left-wing journalist Lincoln Steffens famously declared, after observing Bolshevik Russia in its infancy. What was intended as a utopian boast soon read as a dystopian prediction — but then eventually, as Stalinist ambition gave way to Brezhnevian decay, it curdled into a sour sort of joke. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved, even the people inclined to defend the “ideals” of Marxism tended to acknowledge that as a system for managing an advanced economy and running an effective government, the one thing Soviet communism definitely didn’t do was work.
Today, though, there is a palpable fear in the liberal West that Beijing is succeeding where Moscow failed, and that the peculiar blend of Maoist dogmatics, nationalist fervor, one-party meritocracy and surveillance-state capitalism practiced in the People’s Republic of China really is a working alternative to liberal democracy — with cruelty sustained by efficiency, and a resilience that might outstrip our own.
This fear is stoked by a growing realization that the “Chimerica” project, our great integration of markets and supply chains, has had roughly the opposite effect to the one its U.S. architects anticipated. Instead of importing liberal ideas into China and undermining the Politburo’s rule, the Chimerican age has strengthened Beijing’s policy of social control and imported totalitarian influences into the officially free world.
A crucial mechanism for both trends is the internet, once hailed as a great liberator and now revealed as something rather different — a surveillance engine that the NKVD could only dream about, a machine that induces its users to trade privacy for entertainment and distraction, and a panopticon whose global expanse exposes anyone who wants to do business in China to the manufactured consensus of Chinese nationalism, the grievance politics of the Politburo.
China’s influence within U.S. industry is evident well beyond the online realm, of course. But its successful censorship of U.S. businesses generally involves websites, app stores, social media. It’s not a coincidence that the National Basketball Association’s supine behavior toward China in the past week — from what is supposedly the most progressive and politically engagé of the American professional sports leagues — followed from a general manager fleetingly expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters on Twitter. Likewise when China induced Marriott to fire a luckless $14-an-hour worker recently, it was for seeming to endorse Tibetan independence by “favoriting” a tweet. Having figured out how to tame their internet, the Chinese are intent on using commercial power to tame ours.
How afraid should this make us? One possibility is that just as Chimerican optimism was once delusional, so now Chimerican fears are overblown. The Chinese regime has capabilities that outstrip Soviet Russia, but deep weaknesses as well. China’s demographic picture is potentially disastrous, its economic surge may be leveling off, many of its best and brightest are eager to depart, and it has more to lose than America from constant trade brinkmanship, a trans-Pacific Cold War footing. As with fears of Japanese dominance in the 1990s, some Sinophobes may overrate the internal strength of the Chinese model, the permanence of its ascent.
But one can believe that China may be somewhat weaker than it looks and also believe that the fear of the People’s Republic is a healthy thing for Americans to cultivate. For one thing, our policy approach to Chinese power clearly needs adjustment, and yet there are many high-dollar reasons for our elite to protect their Chimerican entanglements — with “elite” here including not only the influence-peddlers of D.C. and Silicon Valley, but also figures like Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose professional obligations induced him to draw shameful analogies between America’s sins and Chinese totalitarianism this week.
Given those elite incentives, the only way our China policy will be permanently adjusted is if the outrage that bubbled against the NBA in recent days becomes a permanent factor in U.S. politics, a sentiment that cannot be ignored.
Then, too, a palpable fear of China as a different, darker model for high-tech modernity could be a useful brake on our own potential slide in their direction. Not that we are ever likely to reach the fullness of Xi Jinping Thought and Uighur re-education. But there are clear tendencies within our own society — the evaporation of privacy and the rise of online mobs, the power of “inner party” oligarchies and the consolidation of tech giants, certain radical ambitions among progressives and certain authoritarian flirtations on the right — that converge with the Chinese model of oligarchy, surveillance and ideological control.
Given these tendencies and drifts, the bipartisan, pan-ideological outrage over the NBA’s spinelessness is genuinely encouraging. There is a cliché that in fighting an enemy you become much more like them, but the reverse is just as often true. For a divided, Balkanized America, it might take the looming-up of a rival power, the rise of a dark but all-too-plausible alternative, to remind us of who we are, and what we do not want to be.