China stands ready as the West fails its own test of moral leadership

Mar 3, 2021

Growing inequality, corruption and the monopolisation of power by a “rich-get-richer” self-serving elite have revealed democracy to be a sham. Meanwhile, China exports its vaccine to 27 overwhelmingly developing nations. From Covid to climate change to international trade and globalisation, Xi Jinping is trying to present China as a responsible global power.

So, Xi Jinping has eradicated poverty. The Chinese President has declared “complete victory”, in what the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times has called “the great miracle”.

It is easy to scoff at this as a piece of propaganda, but it is not to be underestimated. China’s poverty reduction is remarkable.

In three decades, the lives of nearly 1.4 billion people have been transformed, as a country that could not feed itself has become the world’s engine of economic growth, and stands on the cusp of usurping the United States as the most powerful economy humanity has ever known.

How we got here

The span of Xi Jinping’s life tells this story. He was born in 1953 just a few years after the victorious Communist revolution. By the late 1950s China was plunged into famine, which would ultimately kill as many as 40 million people.

From the mid-1960s, his life was turned upside down by the tumult of the Cultural Revolution.

What Communist revolutionary hero Mao Zedong started, Deng Xiaoping, as China’s leader, built on, by opening China to the world and kickstarting its economy. Xi Jinping now aims to finish the work of rejuvenating the nation.

He is a brutal authoritarian, locking up rivals and crushing dissent, yet he has delivered on empowering the nation and is now extending its global reach.

Keeping faith with the poor is critical; it is the source of the Party’s legitimacy. The party will make the people wealthy but will not set them free.

Xi is breaking the rules, turning the international order on its head: China has embraced market reforms but rejected political liberalism and democracy. And he is winning.

Democracy is on the back foot. It has been declining globally for more than a decade. Democracies have been hijacked by demagogues and populists; the people have lost faith in the institutions of government. Growing inequality, corruption and the monopolisation of power by a “rich-get-richer” self-serving elite have revealed democracy to be a sham.

In a head-to-head match up with the United States — a country devastated by COVID-19, racially divided, opioid-addicted, ravaged by gun crime, with a seething, disenfranchised underclass, and reeling from the Trump years — Xi Jinping’s China appears more stable and more secure.

America is a warning for the West

As goes America, so goes what we call “the West”. Just 20 per cent of the world’s population has dominated the global political order: it has done so by colonising and dispossessing other peoples, exporting its own tyranny and, yes, making the world richer.

But it was never sustainable and we are paying the price: with environmental degradation, alienation, hollowed-out communities, disillusioned and unemployed youth, a lack of vision.

What leaders like US President Joe Biden offer is just more empty talk of unity and hope. It belies reality and the people no longer believe it.

The West is failing its own test of moral leadership.

Philosopher Herbert Marcuse saw this coming. More than 50 years ago he warned that the West had become “obscene”:

“…obscene in producing and indecently exposing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its victims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; in its prayers, in its ignorance, and the wisdom of its kept intellectuals.”

A ‘diabolical moral failure’

Look around the world today and try to deny Marcuse was wrong. We are living through a diabolical moral failure. In a world with enough food to feed everyone, the UN warns that the world is on the brink of mass starvation and famine.

More than 700 million people do not have enough to eat. UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called hunger an “outrage … a gaping hole in the heart of a society”.

The World Food Program executive director, David Beasley, has warned that if we don’t act “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions”.

Which countries are most at risk? They are not in the West. They are Yemen, Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti.

While the West throws away food as others go hungry, it is also hoarding vaccine for the other world crisis: Covid-19.

Just 16 per cent of the world’s population has bought up more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply of vaccine.

Antonio Guterres says this vaccine nationalism is “wildly unfair”. He calls this the “biggest moral test before the global community”.

But it isn’t a test of the “global community”, it is a test of the rich West, and it is a test the West is failing: looking after itself while poor nations suffer.

Vaccine diplomacy

Xi Jinping has sensed an opening. China is now exporting its vaccine to 27 countries: overwhelmingly developing nations. It represents a soft-power coup for Xi, extending China’s influence, but it is also doing something good for the world.

From Covid to climate change to international trade and globalisation, Xi Jinping is trying to present China as a responsible global power. Of course he bends and breaks the rules to suit himself and abuses human rights in his own country — particularly what has been described as genocide or ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims — but criticism of Xi by the West is tainted by its own hypocrisy.

Herbert Marcuse said that corporate capitalism makes individuals complicit in their own misery. They are trapped in a system that offers them happiness in return for their own obedience and conformity, and at the expense of others.

“The happiness of the ones must coexist with the suffering of others,” he wrote.

The answer, he said, was for people to “think free”; “they will not have redeemed the crimes against humanity, but will have become free to stop them”.

Rethinking Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout: beware a two-tier system. Part 1

For liberalism and democracy to survive, the West needs to confront its history — its assumptions of universalism, the dangers of exceptionalism, and its own moral and political failure.

In the meantime, Xi Jinping declares victory over poverty, doubles down on his tyranny and exports China’s growing power in a world that increasingly does not believe in the best of the West.

If China does usurp the Western global order, it won’t necessarily be because China is better — it will be because the West is tied to its worst.

This article was published by the ABC on the 28th of February, 2021.

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