An assortment of European leaders gathered last week at a tepid commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago the collapse of communism was hailed as the final triumph of western liberal democracy, which would sweep aside the vestiges of authoritarianism everywhere. So the downbeat tenor of this year’s anniversary was hardly surprising, since it hasn’t quite worked out that way: not only has authoritarianism proven remarkably resilient, but the western economies have suffered a near cataclysmic collapse as a result of allowing their bankers too much freedom and creativity.
Barack Obama didn’t go to Berlin, but this week he visits China – arguably the big winner from the global economic changes that began in earnest in 1989. China certainly passed through its own dramatic convulsion in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, but that anniversary went largely unmarked in June. Nor should anyone expect that Mr Obama will bring it up; or, for that matter, the execution last week of nine Uighurs accused of fomenting deadly protests in Xinjiang this year. Telling your bank manager to stop beating his wife is hardly prudent when you’re running an $800 billion overdraft.
The twist, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is that most of the countries thus liberated from authoritarian one-party rule are currently struggling to emerge from recession, while China – with a self-appointed ruling party that ruthlessly defends its monopoly on power – has been such a rip-roaring capitalist success that it feels compelled to protect its investment in the US by advising the Obama administration to rein in deficit spending. History, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.
The Chinese leadership have always understood that successful capitalism is not contingent on democracy. In their immediate neighborhood alone, authoritarian regimes in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are spectacular capitalist rags-to-riches stories. So they surged along the capitalist road without relinquishing their absolute political control. Eastern Europe got freedom, goes the saying, China got rich.