China also needs to confront mounting national debt and the problems associated with an ageing population. Still, scepticism about its material progress, insistence that regime change and American-style democracy are inevitable, or that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab, do nothing to improve the prospects of citizens in the countries that are so proud of being democracies.
Their sanctimony can’t disguise the fact that China, single-mindedly pursuing modernisation under a technocratic elite, has verified Hamilton’s belief that only a strong, proactive state can protect its citizens from the maelstrom of violent and unavoidable change: ‘Nothing but a well-proportioned exertion of the resources of the whole, under the direction of a Common Council, with power sufficient to give efficacy to their resolutions, can preserve us from being a conquered people now, or can make us a happy people thereafter.’
China’s economic expansion has been accompanied by unparalleled damage to the environment and cruel limitations on individual liberty.
China has been more coldly pragmatic, too, than its Western critics. After all, a ruling party that calls itself ‘communist’ chose to abandon its foundational ideology and adapt itself to a market economy, just as the US, seeking to build a new world order, was failing to implant democracy by persuasion or military force in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Arab world, succeeding only in facilitating brutal anarchy or despotism in almost every country it sought to remake in its image.
More recently, and damagingly, a feckless global experiment in economic hyper-liberalism led by Anglo-America’s political class and mainstream intelligentsia has helped empower neo-fascist movements and personalities in both countries. China may or may not address its democratic deficit, as South Korea and Taiwan have both done. Its chillingly resourceful suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang renews the warning from the histories of Germany and Japan: that the modern state’s biopower can enable monstrous crimes.
But there’s not getting around the desolate position that the great paragons of democracy find themselves in today. Neither Britain nor America seems capable of dealing with the critical challenges to collective security and welfare thrown up by the coronavirus. No less crushing is the exposure, as the statue of Rhodes finally falls, of the fact that the power and prestige of Anglo-America originated in grotesque atrocities and, as American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in 1897, that ‘a land of freedom, boastfully so called, with human slavery enthroned at the heart of it’ was always ‘a thing of falsehood and horrible self-contradiction’.