The Chinese Challenge Facing Western Democracies

The success of the Communist Party, now a century old, is indisputable, though not complete. It forces democratic countries to provide a better proof of their exemplary model if they want to recover their aura with the Chinese youth.

With great fanfare, Beijing is celebrating the centennial of the creation of the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded in July 1921 in Shanghai by a handful of intellectuals under Moscow’s strict surveillance. Since then, the student has surpassed the master. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union was unable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. The CCP, however, in power for the past 71 years, has never seemed stronger.

No party has led so many people for so long. Its success is indisputable. Within 40 years, China has become the world’s second-largest economic power, every day further widening the gap with its great rival India and rapidly getting closer to the United States. The Chinese economy could even overtake the U.S. economy by the end of the decade. If the world succeeds in reaching the Millennium Development Goals set by the U.N. in 2000, it is largely thanks to Beijing’s performance. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic, which was better contained in China than in most other countries, has undoubtedly strengthened the legitimacy of its power among the population.

This success, however, is not complete: because it comes with serious human rights violations and restrictions on freedoms; because it is partly based on a non-sustainable development model; and because China, despite claims to the contrary, questions the international order and rejects multilateralism as soon as it goes against its own interests.

The World Will Not Become Chinese

The “Chinese model” is not a model. The leaders in Beijing who insist on the “Chinese characteristics” of their “socialism” actually do not really claim to be exporting it. The world will not become Chinese, and we can only be pleased about that. That said, the Chinese success is a challenge for the West. Barring some upheaval that nothing today points to, China will not become a democratic country either — indeed, there is no reason to believe that a majority of Chinese would want it to. Similarly, it is wrong to believe that Chinese nationalism is a creature of the Communist Party. The Communist Party stokes it constantly, often exploits it, sometimes channels it, but does not control it completely. The rest of the world must therefore get used to living with a powerful, nationalistic and even threatening China, at least for its neighbors.

Faced with this new giant, each country, except for the United States, weighs very little. Since China seeks to divide the rest of the world, the answer can only lie in alliances of varying types, both economic and strategic. But this will not be enough. Against the Chinese challenge, Western democracies, and the European Union in particular, should not merely denounce human rights violations in that country. They will only be credible if they themselves demonstrate the success of the democratic model, through their behavior and performance.

The Chinese youth are not stupid. They are much more connected to the rest of the planet than people in Europe or the United States think. The best way for the West to regain its leadership in its relations with Beijing is to recover the aura it once had with the China of tomorrow.

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