Over the course of the past two decades, I’ve flown more than 2 million miles and visited approximately 50 nations in order to minister, lecture, research, or tour. In the midst of the diversity of destinations and purposes, however, there has been one bedrock of continuity: I cannot sleep on airplanes, even in the midst of a 30-hour itinerary to southeast Asia or southern Africa. It is the bane of my existence.
The silver lining in my insomnia is that I get a lot of reading done. Although I read a variety of books on any given international trip, my chief goal is to read a journalistic history of the region or nation I am visiting. Doing so allows me not only to “listen in” on the social, cultural, and political conversations of a given context, but also to draw applications to my own existence and native context.
Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow
Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow is one of those books. Pan sets forth to show how China is emerging from its authoritarian communist past into an authoritarian capitalist future. He explores how the Chinese government steered its mammoth populace toward a decade of globally unprecedented economic growth by balancing its version of capitalism with its unique brand of authoritarianism.
He does so by focusing on the profiles of eleven of China’s dissidents: a young entrepreneur’s open defiance of the police by attending the funeral of Chinese dissident Zhao Ziyang, the arrest of a young physician who blew the whistle on the government’s handling of the SARS epidemic, a filmmaker’s documentary about Mao-era dissidents who wrote a prison manifesto in her own blood, and others.
Pan, currently the Asia editor of the New York Times and formerly the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, draws three significant conclusions about China’s recent history. I will enumerate very briefly those conclusions and then draw some lessons for the United States, whose citizens are experiencing a temptation toward America’s own unique version of authoritarian rule.
China’s Recent Experiment in Authoritarian Capitalism: 3 Conclusions
- The Communist Party is, on the whole, winning the economic battle for the nation’s future. “What I found,” Pan writes, “was a government engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world. The West has assumed that capitalism must lead to democracy, that free markets inevitably result in free societies. But by embracing market reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, China’s Communist leaders have presided over an economic revolution without surrendering power.”
- The Communist Party’s path toward victory includes deceitful, manipulative, and often brutal authoritarian governance. “Fabricating and controlling history was so important to the party,” Pan writes, “that it devoted a vast bureaucracy to the task, an army of propagandists, ideologues, and censors who labored to deceive the masses in the name of serving them…. The result was a complex tapestry of truth and lies intended to bury unpleasant memories and obscure inconvenient facts.”
- China’s citizens, are making a positive difference in the face of authoritarian rule, even though their efforts are costly and sometimes fatal. “As I examined the party’s success,” Pan writes, “I also saw something else extraordinary—a people recovering from the trauma of Communist rule, asserting themselves against the state and demanding greater control over their lives.”
The United States’ Gravitation Toward Authoritarian Capitalism: 3 Lessons
There is an analogy to be drawn with the United States’ slow gravitation toward more centralized and authoritarian forms of government. Now, to be clear, the United States is not experiencing an authoritarian regime, nor is its governance brutal in any way similar to China’s. And yet, we are experiencing the slow and sometimes-barely-discernible reduction of personal liberties and self-governance.
One example is the Supreme Court majority’s tendency to bypass the legislature (thereby bypassing the will of the people) in order to legislate from the bench. Another is our current president’s fondness for executive action as a way of outflanking Congress. Yet another is the recent and surprising fondness displayed by some Americans for authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin of Russia. A final example is our nation’s steady gravitation toward centralized federal authority at the expense of our 50 states and more than 300 million citizens.
- We should resist the impulse toward authoritarian forms of governance, no matter what benefit is promised in return. Even though our nation is a democratic republic, and even though our version of the authoritarianism impulse is much kinder and gentler than China’s, we should beware. We should resist the temptation to let either major political party and its elected representatives intrude oppressively into communities established on different sets of principles than the party’s own.
- We should understand that even small flirtations with authoritarian forms of governance will reduce our liberties and form obstacles to self-governance. Even if a Supreme Court majority or an elected official holds our preferred views, we should resist those actors’ attempts to force their views on the population. Once a nation opens the door for it, the authoritarian impulse might (and probably will) go in different directions than originally intended. The result will be that American citizens will experience significant reductions in liberty.
- For that reason, American citizens should work hard to make a positive difference in the face of authoritarian impulses, even when those efforts are costly to us personally. We can make a positive difference in the short-term by voting for governors, congressmen, and presidents who exemplify the type of democratic leadership promoted in the United States Constitution. We can make a difference in the long-term by bolstering the mediating institutions (e.g. families, churches, schools, universities, local businesses) and state governments that serve as checks and balances against federal power
Democracy with Limits
We must work together to build and maintain a democracy with limits. We must limit the power of the federal government, of the Supreme Court, and of the executive branch. We must resist the attempts of our favorite political parties and politicians to force their vision of the good life upon the entire political system, upon the whole of life, or upon the various spheres of culture in which they have no business intruding. To the extent we can build and maintain a democracy with limits, we can experience the type of liberty and soul freedom God intends and our Founding Fathers envisioned.