China’s Olympic victory carries much symbolic meaning. For between 1912 and 2004, only two nations besides America had topped the gold medal charts. In both cases, the Olympic victories of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union served to introduce their ideological alternatives to liberal democracy, namely fascism and communism. Their implied message to the world: Our people are the fastest and strongest on earth; our system represents the future of mankind.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote that the “real competition lurking behind the [Beijing] Olympic Games is between democratic capitalism and authoritarian capitalism.” And the values that shape America’s model of democratic capitalism are very different from the values that shape China’s model of autocratic capitalism.
Freedom is the defining value of America’s democratic capitalism. Our capitalist system is based on the idea that people should be free to conduct business, invest their savings, and choose their jobs. Our society is founded on the principle that people should be free to choose whom to marry, what faith to follow, and how many children to have. Our government is founded on the idea that people should be free to choose representatives who can protect their interests. Even our foreign policy seems based on the idea that America should promote freedom in other countries.
In contrast, the Chinese system is seemingly defined by pragmatism. The Chinese rejected Mao’s socialism in favor of capitalism, mainly because they recognize that free markets do work. To them, the fact that people are free to engage in commerce is of secondary importance; what really matters is that wealth is created. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping expressed this pragmatic sentiment when he launched China’s economic reforms: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”
On the flip side, China’s pragmatism also leads it in an autocratic direction. There is a widespread belief that democracy, having failed previously in the form of Sun Yat-Sen’s tumultuous republic in the 1910s and ‘20s, will not work in the future either. Although China’s current government is autocratic, it does a relatively effective job of promoting China’s economy, power, and prestige. As the Pew poll suggests, at least four-fi fths of Chinese seem to approve of the job their government is doing—notwithstanding existing problems involving pollution, the Falun Gong, or Tibetans and Uighurs.
There was an interesting incident during Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The Chinese organizers needed a little girl to sing at a key event. There were two girls available. One had a prettier face; the other had a better voice. In the end, the organizers decided to have the first girl perform on stage, lip-synching to the voice of the other girl.
In a sense, that incident symbolizes the central contradiction of China’s political system. Given a choice between democratic capitalism and autocratic socialism—one good for creating wealth; the other good for maintaining tight control—the Chinese have chosen to combine the two systems. The resulting mix—autocratic capitalism— represents a bold ideological challenge, one that America must be prepared to answer.