China is undertaking efforts to create the infrastructure for a separate global system for autocratic states. The initiatives range from new trade agreements and transport routes to the control of information. However, a decoupling from the West would ultimately have tragic consequences for the People’s Republic.
The pandemic has made travel much less common than it was just a few years ago and thus, inevitably, constricted the flow of information country to country. Depending on your perspective, China in pandemic times has either taken extreme measures to protect its population or opportunistically cut itself off from the rest of the world, and investors and researchers, both inside and outside of the country, see much less of what is going on inside.
Now, as the war in Ukraine brings the global battle between autocracy and democracy into high relief, China threatens to harden that separation into an alternative universe of infrastructure for tyrants.
The world has become a much more accessible place in the last fifty years. In the 1970s and 1980s, overseas travel was for the wealthy; by the late 2010s, flights between Beijing and New York had become so cheap that some people took planes just to keep their points accounts filled up. In the 1980s, one had to rely on handwritten letters to keep in touch; by the late 1990s, there was instantaneous communication by email. Money in the 1970s crossed borders so slowly that a wire could take up to a month, and the most modern way to carry cash across borders was to go to one’s bank and buy travelers checks. Now, wherever there is a network you just sign into your bank on your phone. News also now moves instantaneously.
During the Cold War, the Communist «bloc» managed to remain sealed off from the «free world» in travel, trade, currencies, visa protocols, and information, but it seemed that the information revolution had broken that hermetic seal for good. There may be countries, like North Korea and Cuba, that can keep their people completely cut off from the rest of the world, but they have achieved this by virtue of their small size.
Now we are facing a whole new form of autocratic apartheid, in which the vertically organized regimes of the world are working with China to build a separate infrastructure for the delivery of energy, transportation and travel, financial transactions, and information control.
Consider China’s efforts in infrastructure that links with fellow autocrats:
China has become increasingly less tolerant of criticism during the era of Xi Jinping, since 2012. China’s choice to use strict lockdowns to combat the Covid pandemic has exacerbated the isolation fostered by information controls by making travel in and out and within China much more difficult.
Due to regional lockdowns and lengthy quarantine periods, journalists find it extremely difficult to move around the country now, and that occludes the reality of economic life for people in small cities and rural areas, which are less scrutinized by foreigners. New data laws apply strict penalties to independent data collection. Making matters worse, China’s economic statistics, never reliable, have become little more than propaganda for the CCP.
The democratic world of the English-speaking countries and most of Europe are doing their part to seal themselves off from the autocracy bloc by applying more and more restrictions to immigration, reconfiguring supply chains to be more independent, and cutting transportation links with countries like Iran, Cuba, Russia, and North Korea, which are considered outside the systems of worldwide democratic governance. Climate change and the related refugee crises can only heighten this separation.
This new Cold War is really not ideological. Unlike during the rise of Marxism, China and Russia, leaders of the new autocratic block, do not offer a stirring message to the world’s oppressed. That would be tough, because both countries jettisoned communism in favor of crony capitalism.
In China’s case, the cronies grew too powerful, and now the Chinese Communist Party wants to claw back power over capital flows. In Russia’s case, the power of the cronies has gone unchecked for so long that there’s a sort of «madness of King Lear» syndrome. India’s Modi, as an autocrat-wannabe, is half-heartedly tagging along with Russia.
That China sees its interests opposed to those of NATO and aligned with Russia’s in this round seems contrary to two decades of trying to persuade the West that it was going in the direction of rule of law and even Jeffersonian democracy. Former Party leader Jiang Zemin used to enjoy reciting the Gettysburg Address when he met with American political figures. The promises on entry to the WTO in 2001 suggested an ever-widening opening and reform. Now, like the promise that Hong Kong would keep its democratic system for fifty years after the 1997 reversion to Mainland sovereignty, those trade and investment commitments turn out to be hollow.
So, will there be a new Cold War between the West and the autocrats? Not likely. China and Russia, sealed behind their walls of seething official resentment, will become increasingly impoverished. But they are unlikely to develop an alternative universe of trade, transportation, and information. The political idea may be there, but not the organizational heft. In China, the system of governance has become so sclerotic that the government can act only when issues directly affect the continued supremacy of the Communist Party; if it’s not about Taiwan, human rights, or domestic dissent, the CCP is basically paralyzed. Russia and other autocratic countries appear similar.
That makes it likely that China and the U.S., like China and Russia, will continue to withdraw from each other. The results for China will be tragic.