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Beijing Is Right -- Google Should Go

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Contrary to popular myth--and the Harvard Business Review--democracy is not inevitable. In fact, there is good reason to believe democracy is not the best or most desirable form of governance. In yielding to popular whims democracies are led into wars, caused to spend beyond their means, and compelled to allow for the incitement of violence. Nonetheless, we are repeatedly reminded of Churchill's infamous dictate, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Beijing, however, is less certain of Sir Winston's wisdom.

Confronted with a requirement to govern a nation of 1.3 billion residing across a geographic space roughly equivalent to United States, the Chinese Communist Party has opted to employ authoritarian principles that are deemed unconscionable by self-righteous Western crusaders. Like their European forefathers, who were irrationally compelled to rescue Jerusalem from the "infidel," these modern-day Knights Hospitaller are simply unwilling to accept the possibility there are legitimate alternatives to liberal democracy. Count Google in this teaming mass.

The internet giant, whose 10-point corporate philosophy includes the catchy phrase "you can make money without doing evil," is apparently no longer willing to allow China's leadership to...well...lead China. Go figure. Google's corporate leadership, that readily signed on to Beijing's self-censorship rules in 2006 so as to grab a share of the world's largest internet market, now wants to unilaterally change the rules. Guys, allow me to be the first to say this in writing....you are not a sovereign entity, and you are not charged with protecting the greater good of the Chinese citizenry. You are capitalists who chose to stage a moralistic fit after a collection of rank amateurs managed to hack into your systems. Beijing is entitled to ask you to leave, and to take your democracy crusade with you.

Now, before my email is inundated with angry missives, allow me to explain why I have come to this conclusion. Americans have a historical tendency to believe we are practitioners of the world's only form of legitimate governance. That sentiment was certainly evident when Philip Slater and Warren Bennis published "Democracy is Inevitable" in 1964. According to Slater and Bennis, "barring some sudden decline in the rate of technological change, and on the...assumption that war will somehow be eliminated during the next half century, it is possible to predict that after this time democracy will be universal." Slater and Bennis were wrong. And they were not alone.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama, a former Rand analyst and then-Deputy Director of the State Department's policy planning staff, published an essay titled "The End of History?" Written as the former Soviet Union visibly collapsed and China's dalliance with capitalism transitioned into a permanent state of affairs, Fukuyama's piece heralded "the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives to Western liberalism." More specifically, Fukuyama told the U.S. policy community that...

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human governance.

In this brave new world, national governments would be "liberal insofar as [they] recognize and protect through a system of laws man's universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as [they] exist only with the consent of the governed." A noble vision--and one that won much acclaim, even among American political scientists.

In September 1989, Lucian Pye, a renowned sinologist and then-President of the American Political Science Association, stood before his assembled colleagues and declared they were witness to the "crisis of authoritarianism." Pye insisted political science needed to get busy studying and explaining the imminent demise of what he argued were "all manner of authoritarian systems." According to Pye, authoritarian regimes were fundamentally challenged by the rise of global communications systems, expanding educational opportunities, international trade, and the effects of contemporary science and technology.

Furthermore, Pye was willing to argue "the presumed advantages of totalitarian practices for economic development have apparently evaporated." All of which led him to conclude, "The long historical trend that favored the strengthening of centralized state power has seemingly come to an end, and the trend now favors the pluralism of decentralized authority." For Pye, like Fukuyama, the future promised national governments who worshiped at the West's temple of free-markets and liberal democracy.

Rather than fading away the authoritarian capitalists appeared to develop a remarkable staying power. China's continued high growth rates suggest there is more to the story. Instead of disappearing, the authoritarian capitalists actually seem to be thriving. This disconcerting development was brought to the fore for Washington's policy elite in July 2007, when Foreign Affairs published Azar Gat's "The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers." Gat used his essay to argue Russia and China's rise suggested "capitalism's ascendancy appears to be deeply entrenched, but the current predominance of democracy could be far less secure." As Gat put it, "all that can be said at the moment is that there is nothing in the historical record to suggest a transition to democracy by today's authoritarian capitalist powers is inevitable."

In George W. Bush's Washington these were fighting words. The first shot back across Gat's bow came from Michael Mandelbaum, the Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. In an essay titled "Democracy Without America," Mandelbaum hoisted the torch for those who believed authoritarian capitalist states were simply at a waypoint on the path to democracy. According to Mandelbaum, "the key to establishing a working democracy...has been the free-market economy. The institutions, skills, and values needed to operate a free-market economy are those that, in the political sphere, constitute democracy." Mandelbaum would have us believe free-market capitalism did more than build institutional and social skills requisite for a democracy. The professor argues participating in a free-market economy cultivates two habits essential for democratic government: trust and compromise. His bottom line, "For a government to operate peacefully citizens must trust it not to act against their most important interests and, above all, to respect their political and economic rights." So where is China in this process?

Mandelbaum dodges the question. While he admits China has undergone a "dizzying change" that has installed "many of the building blocks of political democracy," Mandelbaum notes the Chinese Communist Party is "determined to retain its monopoly on political power." As such, he believes the Chinese Communist Party is willing to forcefully squelch any organized political opposition and bid for popular support by pointing to the country's economic successes. Furthermore, Mandelbaum holds many Chinese are loath to be plunged back into the chaos that so traumatized pre-1976 China. This does not mean Mandelbaum thinks Beijing will be able to ward off democracy forever. Revealing his determinist tendencies, Mandelbaum ultimately concludes democracy may come to China because pressure for adopting this form of governance "grows wherever nondemocratic governments adopt the free-market system of economic organization."

Unfortunately for Mandelbaum, this predilection for democracy in free-market economies does not appear permanent. As Larry Diamond--co-editor of the Journal of Democracy--noted in March 2008, "If democracies do not more effectively contain crime and corruption, generate economic growth, relieve economic inequality, and secure freedom and the rule of law, people will eventually lose faith and turn to authoritarian alternatives." So how to avoid this problem? Diamond contends democratic institutions "...must listen to their citizens' voices, engage their participation, tolerate their protests, protect their freedoms, and respond to their needs." The assertion here, of course, is that the Chinese Communist Party does none of these things--a premise we know to be erroneous. In fact, Beijing appears headed down the very path Diamond would have us believe essential for any democracy--"rigorous rules and impartial institutions." This would lead me to believe we are coming full circle and Gat was right, we are preparing for a revival of authoritarian great powers.

But not without a bitter intellectual fight. The challenge is to convince Western policy makers this is indeed the case--that they do not need to be planning for the Coming Collapse of China or the Coming Conflict with China because Chinese leaders failed to adequately prepare for the future. This will be no easy task. As we have seen, Western academics have poorly prepared the policy and business communities for understanding China's adaptively.

This poor preparation of the intellectual battlefield helps explain the blog posts David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, uses to explain his corporation's latest policy concerning China. It helps explain State Department and White House demands the internet be respected as an electronic form of Hyde Park's Speakers' Corner--and, more specifically, that the globe's population should be exposed to same. And it helps to explain why we are confronted with an increasingly tension-prone relationship with Beijing. Americans simply do not understand there are other forms of governance that should be respected and treated as legitimate stewards of the state. Perhaps watching Beijing escort Google to the door will help us overcome this myopia.