To spot a would-be autocrat, look for someone who undermines language.
If Beijing Falls
Watch out for the return of the triumphalist neoliberal consensus.
A foundational premise of the contemporary nationalist-populist resurgence across the West is that the prevailing neoliberal worldview has been proven empirically false. Free markets and free societies do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; not everyone in the world welcomes secular democracy with open arms. No, history hasn’t ended. Yes, countries with McDonalds can go to war with one another. The duty of America’s laptop class is first to acknowledge as much and then, with the scales lifted from its eyes, consider alternative political, economic, and communal arrangements.
But myths die hard, particularly when they have the backing of NGOs, media and multinational corporations, academia, think tanks, and the like. No class, least of all our globalist neoliberal elite, willingly commits suicide. As a World History teacher and close observer of internecine right-wing discourse, I fear the retrenchment of the neoliberal consensus may come from the unlikeliest of sources, albeit indirectly: China’s brave anti-lockdown protestors.
Just as Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice parties, the socially conservative and economically populist movements, have poked holes in the argument that Central Europeans fought the Soviets in the name of Levi’s and punk rock or ballot-box democracy and boomer social morays, China’s evident success as an authoritarian dictatorship with a booming nouveau riche middle and upper classes puts the lie to the universalist, democratizing premises of the neoliberal agenda. Namely, that the universal aspiration of mankind is economic liberalism (represented by the libertarian right) and lifestyle liberalism (the libertine left).
As Westerners and Americans, we should celebrate China’s unprecedented protests and support them at the very least rhetorically and, when possible, with nonlethal aid such as communication assistance. We did as much with the Solidarity movement in Poland, for instance, in the eighties. But we should also be vigilant of the possibility that establishment media–ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times–will weaponize China’s protestors in an attempt to vindicate the increasingly assailed and besieged neoliberal consensus.
If and when the Chinese protest movement fells Xi Jinping or otherwise meaningfully alters China’s governing political structure, establishment liberals could try to turn back the clock to the nineties in regard to America’s China outlook. The “small business” donor class to the GOP will insist that the discrediting of China’s zero-Covid policies is tantamount in kind to the discrediting of government “planning” of any sort. Just as Conservatism Inc. will celebrate the opening of newly outsourced factories to other parts of the developing world, where assembly lines continue to hum regardless of Covid outbreaks, it will insist that any attempt to reshore American manufacturing—even of the defense industry—reeks of failed Chinese mercantilism or “state capitalism.” In other words, the big money wing of the GOP will attempt to smother America’s nascent New Right industrial policy in the crib. And parallels will be drawn between “ugly” Chinese nationalism—economic or otherwise—and its nefarious anti-globalist cousin in the MAGA movement.
A similar phenomenon could happen on the socially liberal spectrum of the neoliberal consensus. If and when Beijing succumbs to popular rage against the Chinese lockdown machine, a stream of carefully curated stories will emerge in the left-liberal media to buttress lifestyle liberalism and gin up the role of its avatars in slaying the Communist dragon. The unsung heroes of the protests will end up being gays, lesbians, and transgenders—a Chinese “Stonewall” will surely be uncovered by an enterprising Western or pro-liberal Chinese reporter in an underground club that refused to shutter its doors—not in the catacomb Christians who defied the CCP to hold surreptitious worship services. Given China’s restrictive policies on surrogacy, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see similarly disproportionate media emphasis on same-sex couples who fought the regime so that China could achieve family “freedom” (same-sex marriage) and reproductive freedom (the “right” to pay another person to carry an embryo).
As we in the West wait in joy and hope as the Chinese stand up for themselves, the New Right must be vigilant, lest the neoliberals once again rewrite history to fit the needs of the status quo. The neoliberal consensus has yet to die; even the sickest of patients occasionally beats the odds.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.