On this episode of the Authors Corner, Ethan interviews AIER Senior Fellow Dr. Ryan Yonk on the development of China’s political economy, which blends authoritarianism with limited markets and civil liberties. They explore the initial history of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, and their modern “Socialist state-with Chinese characteristics” under Xi Jinping. Dr. Yonk is a political scientist by training and has held positions at North Dakota State University, Utah State University, and Southern Utah University, and was one of the founders of the Strata Policy. He has also spent time teaching in China and brings a level of intimate first-hand experience to his analysis.
Although Chinese civilization dates back thousands of years, the CCP and the People’s Republic of China are only the latest regime. In particular, its founder, Mao Zedong, and its current president, Xi Jinping, are two important political figures with two different philosophies. Dr. Yonk explains how Mao was a cunning political figure with radical Socialist views which would come to be called Maoism, and his ideology is still influential around the world today. Although he was a brilliant leader who united China and defeated formidable enemies, his domestic policies led to absolute disaster, killing off tens of millions. This led to a reform campaign after Mao’s death that introduced a small amount of Western-style economics and civil liberties that drastically improved standards of living.
Eventually, that would lead China to where they are now, a global superpower with modern cities and an upper-middle-income population. Xi Jinping, the current president, is an interesting figure because he has reversed China’s liberalization and consolidated more power than previous presidents. He is likely doing this as China attempts to balance the freedom and prosperity it has gained with emerging pressures both domestically as well as abroad. Under Xi, the Chinese surveillance state has drastically expanded while the economy has become more regulated and more interventionist. It remains to be seen whether he can continue China’s economic progress while suppressing demands for democracy.
Xi’s China has also been far more aggressive on the world stage, employing a number of sophisticated policies. These include economic tools such as The Belt and Road Initiative, debt-trap diplomacy, as well as leveraging its large manufacturing capacity and its population of over a billion people to exert pressure on other countries. China has also expanded its military and uses tactics that skirt the grey zone of international law.
Many qualified political scientists incorrectly predicted China’s exposure to markets and globalism would result in democratization by 2005. Dr. Yonk explains that we need to understand that democratization takes time and it is not guaranteed when, if ever it will happen. However, he qualifies that the idea is still sound and we are already starting to see the tensions created by economic freedom and social progress in China. The CCP likes to project an image of strength abroad and it would be easy for casual onlookers to miss the serious challenges that are starting to arise when it comes to balancing progress with stability in an authoritarian system. Although full democracy may not be likely in the short term, it will be difficult for the CCP to maintain long term growth while also fending off calls for liberal reform.
In fact, China is already dealing with a myriad of problems associated with heavy state intervention and central planning. They have stagnating economic growth, an aging population, a state banking system that is deeply flawed, and they are starting to kill off many of their engines of growth in order to maintain stability. All these problems could be resolved if they simply implemented more liberal policies, such as economic liberalization, privatization, foreign engagement, freedom of thought and so on. However, this would likely undermine the CCP’s power. This is not unlike the imperial Chinese dynasties of the past, which closed themselves off from the world to maintain stability but ended up dooming their empire’s progress.
Dr. Yonk summarizes China’s contemporary challenges as a result of their own behavior and how that contradicts the common narrative that they are unstoppable. For years, politicians have used the narrative of an ascendant China to justify their agendas, whether that be overly hawkish foreign policy or interventionist domestic policy. The reality is far more complex and perhaps the best way forward would be to double down on our system of limited government and economic freedom. That is because unlike China’s system of authoritarian command and control, we know our model works.