What Would Reagan Say Now About the Chinese Communist Party?

Is communist dictator Xi Jinping breaking the China model of economic growth? His Beijing regime is infamously hostile to democracy and religious liberty, and now the costs of his increasing state control over the economy are becoming manifest. To encourage reform, friends of Chinese liberty should consider the playbook of Ronald Reagan. As history’s most accomplished underminer of communist dictatorships, Reagan used a particularly effective method of highlighting Marxist dysfunction.

U.S. media folk have sometimes suggested that the Beijing dictatorship gives China a sort of efficiency advantage because, e.g., large infrastructure projects can be approved and implemented without time-consuming debate. But Xi Jinping has created the same problem that exists wherever power is concentrated in a central government. The Journal’s Chun Han Wong reports:

Since taking power in late 2012, Mr. Xi has realigned Chinese politics with his domineering style and a top-down drive to forge a centralized state under the Communist Party. But his efforts are running into an old foe: bureaucracy.

Party observers say the drive for centralization in a sprawling nation too often fosters bureaucratic inertia, duplicity and other unproductive practices that are aimed at satisfying Beijing and protecting careers but threaten to undermine Mr. Xi’s goals.

Beginning in the 1970s China pulled millions of people out of poverty by embracing elements of a market economy. Unfortunately the lesson seems to be forgotten as the regime now increasingly relies on central planning. The Journal report continues:

Reports of fraudulent and wasteful projects have marred Mr. Xi’s campaign to eliminate rural poverty, a centerpiece of his “China Dream”—particularly after 2015, when he ordered that officials sign pledges to meet poverty-relief targets and be held accountable if things went wrong.

In the eastern city of Fuyang, local officials were disciplined in 2019 for ordering homes in some rural villages to be painted white so that they would look nicer to party bosses—spending the equivalent of $1.2 million—without addressing deficient roads and drainage systems. Party inspectors found that local officials started the “whitewashing” as a way to deliver quick results after higher-ups demanded that residents’ homes be fixed up within three months. Even that project was haphazard, with many houses only partially painted, according to a state television documentary.

Provincial authorities denounced the episode as a vanity project and a highly damaging act of “formalism”—the official epithet for box-ticking and “CYA” behavior that prioritizes form over substance—and replaced Fuyang’s top official.

Given the potential costs of running afoul of Beijing, one can certainly understand the urge to engage in “CYA” behavior. But the story illustrates that with or without Chinese characteristics, central planning doesn’t work.

Friends of the Chinese people should be making this case with a powerful political tool that seems to be in short supply lately—humor.

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