Can You Bribe Tyrants into Freeing Their Countries?

Chinese president Xi Jinping arrives to speak at the Communist Party congress in Beijing, October 18, 2017. (China Daily/via Reuters)
All evidence suggests the answer is 'no,' but that hasn’t stopped Western elites from thinking otherwise.

Just a few weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof was putting forward a theory that Chinese president Xi Xinping would bring about liberalizing economic and political reform. “HERE is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well,” Kristof wrote, unaware that China would shortly institute changes making Xi, in essence, an emperor.

With the new reforms to China’s constitution, political figures have been walking back their declamations about Xi as “world leader,” or hedge against Trump. And there has been a general proclamation that President Bill Clinton and many others in the West got it wrong when they predicted that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization would bring about a quiet, liberalizing revolution.

But why did so many people believe this in the first place?

The theory that getting rich makes governments relax their authoritarian grip is a common one, but the evidence for it seems spotty. In fact, this is the second time China has served as a test case. Deng Xiaoping’s political revolution opened the country up to more trade, creating the first Chinese economic miracle in the late 1970s. The Tiananmen Square protests that followed a decade later were exactly what Westerners theorized they might see after years of rising prosperity. But the protests were quickly crushed, and no major domestic reformist movements grew from them.

Deng’s reforms were a source of inspiration to a group of Polish anti-Communists in the 1980s. After the Solidarity movement was met and mostly crushed by the imposition of martial law, Polish liberals sought a mandate for change in the economic and political theories of Friedrich Hayek. In his essay, “The Free Market in a Republic,” another Polish anti-Communist, Ryszard Legutko, explained their theory:

They maintained that the Communists would never tolerate an openly adversarial political force, but that there was a good chance they would tolerate changes in the economic order. The gradual marketization of the economy might be in the interest of the Communists and it was necessary to convince them not only that it would not jeopardize their political control, but that it would also put off the danger of an anti-Communist revolution and bring profits to individual Communists. In a way it was an attempt to bribe the Communists by giving them interests in private enterprise, which, it was hoped, would eventually make ineffective the dogmas of the centrally planned economy, the cornerstone of the Communist system. The implementation of such a long-term pro-capitalist strategy would create economic conditions similar to those that exist in the West. In this way Communism would lose its material basis and finally disappear.

Legutko is not sure that these activists quite understood Hayek, but he notes that in any case, they were staggered by what actually happened. The attempt at slow-motion bribery out of Communism never occurred, but the political revolution Hayekians thought was impossible came about and liquidated Communism almost overnight. “Thus the whole evolutionary strategy of minimizing politics suddenly became inadequate as the direct result of the annnus mirabilis of 1989,” Legutko writes.

Authoritarians don’t give up their power just because they get rich. You’d think America would know that having spent so much time and money conducting foreign policy in the Middle East.

Authoritarians don’t give up their power just because they get rich. You’d think America would know that having spent so much time and money conducting foreign policy in the Middle East. Perhaps we have a superstition that tyranny is a matter of willfulness, and riches dissipate resolve, whether in a man, a family, or a nation. But some family fortunes last for centuries. Tyrannies often do the same.

My prediction: The Chinese political elites will remain happy to take the cream off of economic growth, while reciting the dead catechisms of the Little Red Book in meetings of the party for as long as they can. More dispiriting, much of Chinese society will quietly support them. Humans are imitative. Masses of people tend to conform their opinions, over time, to those of elites. Especially when the elites are doing well.

The only thing that will bring about political change in China is political opposition. A different Chinese elite must contest for legitimacy and power. And that possibility seems pretty remote at the moment.

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