Singapore academic’s paean to autocrat Xi Jinping

‘Has China won is one of the most vital questions of our time. And the time is not inconsequential here.

We are living in a period of a pandemic which originated in China, killed millions and is still taking its toll, crushed global economy and has brought the world to an existential crisis of an unprecedented magnitude.

So much so that the world has been wondering if the American primacy and the world order, established since the World War II, is over?

After the monumental failure to prevent the ongoing catastrophe, does the US still have the military, economic and above all, the scientific might to call itself as the world’s leader? Has its over-dependence on China been pragmatic? Are the US and China equals now? Or have the scales tipped in favour of China?

Among many China admirers, Singapore civil servant and career diplomat Kishore Mahbubani has been making a case that China is an equal of the US and has therefore rightfully earned its spot on the cliff where until now only Washington’s flag was hoisted.

Mahbubani, who grew up under ‘one man one family rule’ in Singapore, is understandably in awe of China. Through his various articles, interviews and his latest book ‘Has China Won?’, he argues that the world would be better off if both the players maintain balance through this bipolarity.

On the surface, Mahbubani is eloquent in weaving this grand narrative about how China under Xi Jinping has economically, technologically and socio-politically, arrived on the globe. Though at a military level, he concedes that the US remains way more powerful but he insists that the two countries will never compete on that front because it will ensure complete mutual destruction.

In every other arena, he puts China at par with the US and even goes on to justify the Chinese system, and all its excesses – authoritarianism, aggression, expansionism – with every logical fallacy available in the toolkit of courtiers of an imperial power.

Wherever he is not able to provide any justifications for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) totalitarian functioning, he has spent voluminous amounts of argumentation to establish that the US has been a bigger unscrupulous hegemon. At other places, he repeatedly draws a false moral equivalence between the US and China.

But instead of holding both the US and the CCP accountable for their foreign and trade policies which have wrecked the developing and under developed world, he is urging both the imperialistic powers, with a wink and a nudge to join hands and share hegemonic space with each other.

The only mistake China seems to have made with respect to its relations with the US, from his perspective, is that before Xi Jinping’s ascension, the country did not have enough centralised control in provinces to address the concerns of American investors.

Part of the mistake was that China displayed hubris, following the subprime crisis in the States. America is facing a working class crisis (the Trump phenomenon), according to him, only because the US wasted nearly $5 trillion on wars in the Middle East since 9/11.

The problem with his argumentation is that he selectively chooses his facts. The fact is that from the end of WW-II in 1945 till post-9/11 War on Terror, the US has spent massive amounts of funds on dozens of prolonged wars and conflicts in Korea, Lao, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, Gulf, Somalia, Afghanistan etc.

Yet, there was no such working class crisis through those military interventions as it has been since the US outsourced its manufacturing to China in the last two decades. Also, how will the post-9/11 $5 trillion expenditure compare with the billions spent on all those conflicts and wars, after adjusted for inflation, is a moot question.

China benefited hugely from the US capital and technology after opening up its economy under Deng Xiaoping. But in that process, the US working classes suffered due to China’s illegal export subsidies, tariffs, quotas, manipulation of and undervalued currency, piracy, theft of intellectual property, predatory pricing, dumping and protectionism.

Consider the fact that the US domestic manufacturing sector was predominantly run by the baby boomers. After China became the hub of manufacturing, the US began importing Chinese manufactured goods massively and the skilled labor in the American manufacturing turned jobless.

The new jobs created in the US were mostly in service sectors driven by technology which required new skills. As a result, the working classes in the US, remained unabsorbed. However, the US weapons manufacturing continued to retain jobs including those of the working classes.

Additionally, in the last three decades, while the US lost jobs mostly in the manufacturing sector to China, the exports and dollar-led growth in China was used by the CCP to create significant differential and domination in all the areas from rare earth elements to the agricultural sector.

The West knew importance of rare earth in semiconductors, IP in digital economy but it never leveraged knowledge to create firewalls. With the rise of the West, the world saw opening up of universities to international students, access to key defence industries, unmatched access for foreigners in Silicon Valley, NASA etc.

Mahbubani may boast about Tsing Hua or Peeking universities or Chinese Science academy, Huawei, ZTE employing foreigners in 5G/6G research but he is unable to prove that upward journey of China thus far is as open and as superior in purpose for the rest of the world.

The world will always be open to better leadership but not self-centered and consumed power. If anything Chinese people are seeing their hard work and sacrifice, enabling the power and wealth corridors of Beijing consolidated in the hands of few.

The US assumed China’s economic liberalization would lead to democratization of its state and society. However, that did not happen. Instead, one party rule has transformed into one man rule in China. The speed and scale at which China acquired control over key knobs of frontier technology demonstrates that this power will go far beyond than the worst of Western imperial powers have ever attempted.

At a political level, Mahbubani has gone beyond any other cheerleader of China in academia. One of the bottom lines of his argumentation is that while the CCP wants to merely rejuvenate the Chinese civilization, it has no missionary zeal to convert everyone into Chinese and take over the world. The conclusion is flawed.

In 2018, Xi Jinping fortified his position in the constitution, to a degree not seen in the country since Mao, by making himself China’s President for life. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in October that year, while articulating modern China’s aspirations as a global power, he argued that his regime was a model for governance that other developing countries should adopt.

He was clear that he believed in the superiority of the Chinese system and not the world order established by the West.

Not only does Mahbubani defend the closed and authoritarian Chinese political system, but he argues that democracy should not be the end goal in a society if the alternative structures can provide social and political cohesion. He wants the world to believe that the Chinese people (who have not known anything better) under the CCP are voluntarily in agreement with its tightly controlled system and are happy.

The Singapore academic believes that it would have been easier for America to accept the rise of another power if China were a fellow Western democratic power, especially a fellow Anglo-Saxon power. But then Mahbubani does not tell us why China finds it hard to accept the rise of India as another power in Asia, apart from itself.

He, however, insists that the US and China should look at similarities rather than differences. One of the similarities, he argues is that the national interest of both societies is to improve the well being of their respective people.

Although this is common to all countries but he, in this particular case overlooks the fundamental nature of the world and international relations where each state will always act in its own interest first.

Also, the national interests of the US or overall West, involve much more than just the well being of their people. In the last 400 years or so, the West has been at the forefront of scientific inventions and innovation.

China under the native Ming and Qing dynasties, did not have much to show off. All its recent forays into science and technology, is an outcome of globalisation and the world created by the West in the last four centuries.

The only name China really has earned for itself in the last three decades is in copying technology and manufacturing cheap products.

Mahbubani fails to tell his readers and viewers how the US institutions, their transparency and accountability remain superior to those in the Chinese system. To him, the Western values of freedom, free speech and expression, free press, electoral democracy, public opinion and the power of common man to defeat an elected dispensation through one vote, is trivial.

Nor does he think it is of any importance to consider why the developing world looks upto the West and not to China even as the Dragon has established its muscle and might in the last three decades. There is no insight in his pro-China campaign into why soft power of the Western culture remains the greatest appeal for the young across the world.