By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 05/01/06):
The year 2006 has begun with a taste of what 2026 might be like. An undemocratic, imperially minded energy superpower puts a crude, politically motivated squeeze on its more democratic neighbours. They squeal, but Russia has the oil and gas. Meanwhile China, a communist-ruled emerging superpower, continues to flex its muscles both economically and politically. And all over the west one hears the sound of kowtowing. Is this the shape of things to come?
Many Europeans have been critical of Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the world-historical triumph of democratic capitalism, and dismissive of George Bush’s attempt to hasten that triumph with the aid of God and the US military. Yet since the end of the cold war most of us probably have a feeling that the richer and more integrated into the global economy countries become, the more democratic they will tend to be. And last year began with the orange revolution in Ukraine providing further encouragement for liberal optimists.
The Economist’s latest excellent annual compendium of informed guesswork, The World in 2006, looks back over 20 years of such predictions, since the magazine began the exercise in the last years of the cold war, as well as forward to 2026. Acknowledging that the Economist pundits inevitably got many things wrong, the report’s editor, Daniel Franklin, concludes by asking: “What did we get right?” “Many of the essentials,” he answers, “including an abiding confidence in the march of globalisation and progress. Despite the gathering risks ahead in 2006, that march will surely go on.” I would very much like to believe that he is right; but let us consider for a moment why he might be wrong.
Those last 20 years do, after all, span an unusual period: the end of the cold war and its aftermath. If you had taken almost any other chunk of two decades in the 20th century, you would have had to acknowledge the dynamism of forceful, undemocratic powers, from Wilhelmine Germany, through the fascist Axis, to the Soviet Union. And, in a longer perspective, we sit at the end of two centuries when the most powerful single country in the world has been an Anglo-Saxon democracy: first Britain, then the United States. It wasn’t like that before, and it won’t be for ever.
To be sure, in today’s world it is the case that most rich countries are also free ones. The exceptions are those “rentier states”, like Saudi Arabia and Russia, whose undemocratic elites can long survive, without a strong bourgeoisie or civil society, by extracting natural resources through state-controlled companies such as Gazprom. So long as we remain dependent on their energy and raw-material supplies, our political leverage over such states will be limited.
Fortunately, most of the likely economic superpowers of tomorrow are not equipped by nature with such corrupting abundance. In a well-known study, Goldman Sachs analysts have suggested that in 20 years’ time what they call the Bric economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – could account for half the share of the world economy now held by the G6 (that is, the G7 minus Canada). The Economist’s own latest predictions make China the world’s largest economy in 2026, when using purchasing-power parities, which are probably a better measure of an economy’s real size than market exchange rates. China would be followed by the US, India, Japan and Germany, in that order, with the UK just scraping in before Russia and Brazil.
Most of these countries are today democracies. India, the world’s largest democracy, would be entering the ranks of economic superpowers. Despite appalling political corruption, Brazil is still classed as a free country by the American organisation Freedom House. The big question is China. Can it, with its “Leninist capitalism”, disprove the apparent rule that a capitalist country that does not mainly derive its wealth from natural resources will, as it grows more prosperous, tend to grow more free? If it does, and if the Economist’s predictions for GDP hold true, then the whole prospect shifts, as the world’s largest economy would be controlled by an undemocratic state. Admittedly, by that time India should be the more dynamic of the two east Asian giants, since China will be burdened with an ageing population. But for the time being China will have more weight to throw around.
Russia is a major worry, especially for us in Europe, and we need a more coordinated EU policy towards our Eurasian neighbour, but the bigger questions for the next two decades are about India and China. If India remains a democracy, and China moves in that direction, then the editor of the Economist’s World in 2026 will find his predecessor’s liberal optimism entirely justified. If not it could feel more like someone in 1926 looking back at the Whig hopes of 1906.
This being so, few things matter more in the next decade (climate change being one of those few) than how we approach China. A perfect example of the wrong way to approach it was given recently by Sir John Bond, the chairman of HSBC, in an interview for Radio 4’s Today programme. He made an apologia for the Chinese communist regime worthy of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s whitewashing of Stalinist Russia. China, he said, would probably remain under “one-party leadership” for longer than most commentators expected. He had worked under all sorts of regimes, and he’d seen economies thrive under a one-party system. So much for democracy. As for human rights: if you had a Chinese leader here, observed Sir John, he would probably say that they had first to fulfil the basic human right of people being clothed and fed, before going on to more advanced, western-style human rights. HSBC for communism!
This was an extreme case, but I see the anticipatory adjustment all around. As Lenin said, the capitalists will sell you the rope with which they can be hanged. If we want a China that satisfies the hopes of Economist optimism over the next 20 years, we need to engage with it, certainly; but we also need to keep articulating our own values, not parroting theirs.