Communist China abandoned socialism overnight to head off the economic collapse then overtaking its Communist sibling, the Soviet Union. The traditional one party government and its police state remained in charge by handing much of the economy into private hands, inviting them to become rich. The government also bought, borrowed or stole everything useful available from the West that might accelerate economic growth, producing the greatest economic explosion ever seen.
China’s equally traditional corruption was at first, helpful, bribed officials are pleased to open doors for those making them rich. With growth however, the corruption spreads a permanent, costly layer of sand in the economic gears. And China’s explosive growth period seems to be over, as the world’s economy slows. Should this persist, the government faces difficulties: Chinese total debt resembles that of the United States at about two and a half times gross domestic product and the forced draft spending has left vast economic distortions in place; think of China’s “ghost cities” for example. There is still much poverty.
Large scale socio-economic change seems threatening to any government and police states are the most paranoid of all. China has designed and tested its new, high tech “Social Credit” system and is presently expanding its use around the country. The system closely monitors citizens at home and in public via cameras, electronics and informers; the internet is walled off from the rest of the world and heavily censored. Citizens are assigned a score based upon their conformance to desired behavior; if the score is too low, punishment follows. The opportunity for large scale calamity seems obvious; Mao’s Great Leap Forward comes to mind. But it is underway and clearly reveals the government mindset and a constricting future for citizens.
From the other end of the spectrum comes the United States, historically no police state but a democratic republic. The government’s trademark concern is the welfare of the citizens, not fear of them. Two parties contend at election; politicians are replaced by voters. However, human societies and their governments are never static for long; the governments always pursue expansion, driven by the ambitions of the governors. A government dedicated to caring for its citizens inevitably becomes more parental, those citizens, more childlike as de Toqueville pointed out. Children must be controlled, for their own good. The U.S. is proceeding without hesitation though more cautiously, down the same path to control its citizens that is expanding in China.
Facial recognition databases are under construction; cameras are appearing at airports and other public places. Cell phones and cars are tracked via satellites. The NSA and other government agencies monitor internet media and communications. Personal financial transactions are monitored, suspicious’ amounts of cash and cars are seized by police, cell phones and devices are searched at borders without warrants. The TSA screens and must approve travelers. Internet social media are increasingly subject to political censorship and both government and private employees are losing their jobs over politicized opinions posted on social media and personal websites. Businesses are subjected to boycotts for political reasons. Congress and federal agencies undercut the political process and interfere with elections. And Congress is presently considering the “Threat Assessment, Prevention and Safety Act” which seems likely to produce the classical government informers network beloved of tyrants. Nearly everything is politicized and naturally coming under political control. Both politicians and media are working hard to disarm the citizens. The only obviously missing piece seems to be China’s reeducation camps, and the various pieces are awaiting assembly.
The Chinese Communists remained in power by giving up socialism; their next test will come from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both are geese laying golden economic eggs and both are glaringly democratic affronts to the police state. If they are seen to suffer less at the next economic decline, they will be intolerable. China can liberalize its government as it has already done economically or it can clamp down on its two sources of political contagion, likely destroying much wealth production in the process. This should be fascinating to watch.
“What is this I see before me, handle toward my hand – a dagger?” Shakespeare’s famous line fits the decision the U.S. government will face as the economy grinds down next time. It will hold all the pieces needed to maintain order (called “security”) in difficult times, all it need do is assemble them into its own “Social Credit” system. Indeed, assembly seems inevitable anyway. And the advent of President Trump has led America’s Democrats at least to act as though they want to build a single party state.
Perhaps human DNA is such that eventually, all human governance ends, no matter from where it starts, in the same place.