During a debate comparing Chinese and Western systems of governance, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by the American nonprofit educational organization Intercollegiate Studies Institute on April 5, French entrepreneur and Internet influencer Arnaud Bertrand made a case for the suitability of China's system for promoting the flourishing of its people. Edited excerpts of his presentation follow:
One unstated idea that derives from comparisons between political systems is that models compete against each other and, if one is indeed better, it has the potential to take over the world.
I don't believe this to be true at all. Take the Chinese model for example. It applies uniquely and only to China. It is the product of China's very long and unique history, and it also fits the very particular economic and geopolitical context China is in today, but doesn't fit or pretend to fit other countries.
As former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for East Asia Paul Heer said, "China is trying to pursue multipolarity and international legitimacy for their system, not impose it on other countries." Similarly, Stephen Walt, a legendary professor of international relations from Harvard University, said "China explicitly embraces the idea that each country should determine for itself how it wants to be governed. The U.S., by contrast, loves to lecture others on how they should govern themselves and keeps trying to get other countries to embrace our liberal values." Or again Henry Kissinger, who writes in his famous book On China that China never espoused the American notion of universalism to spread its values around the world.
Therefore, rather than comparing which system would be universally better for all, it makes more sense to look at which is better for their own people.
We've progressively come to have a rather skewed understanding of freedom in the West, where we equate freedom with individual freedom, when it's actually very much not the same thing. When you have a broader understanding of freedom as we used to have in the past, it becomes quite obvious that China might not in fact be the unfree place most people in the West picture it as, and vice versa: The West might not be quite so free.
A prominent example of this is China's war on poverty. Unarguably an immense success: the largest and fastest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen. Even China's biggest detractors agree with this.
The fact is that the extreme poverty has, by and large, been totally eradicated in China. I've traveled all over China, and the results are obvious. Can anyone genuinely make the case this made people less free, that they were freer when they were poor? Of course not, poverty is the antithesis of freedom. When you live in poverty, you're quite literally a slave to your condition.
In contrast, there is a lot of poverty in countries like France and the U.S. You go to certain areas of Paris and you see hundreds of tents of homeless people. Any one of you can go to China today, travel all around the country and it's extremely unlikely you'll see homeless people on street.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20.03 million people lived in deep poverty in 2021. Those in deep poverty represented 6.2 percent of the total population and 48.4 percent of those in poverty. Among them, a larger percentage of children under 18 live in deep poverty than adults in any age group. As defined by the bureau, "deep poverty" refers to living in a household with a total cash income below 50 percent of the national poverty threshold.
A recent study from the Urban Institute also revealed that, in 2022, a total of 25 percent of U.S. adults experienced food insecurity, meaning they sometimes can't afford to eat. In France we're at 14 percent of the population living under the poverty threshold. Can we genuinely say that those people are really free?
Many have forgotten this but Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 gave a so-called Four Freedoms speech in which he defined "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" as two of the four freedoms America ought to achieve. He, too, recognized poverty alleviation was fundamental to freedom.
On the subject of "freedom from fear," ask yourself a simple question: Do people feel free to walk alone anywhere in America at any time of the day or night? Do people have this freedom?
This freedom, by and large, does exist in China. The statistics are absolutely incredible: You're 70 times more likely to be victim of a violent crime in the U.S. than you are in China. This is anecdotal, but in my seven years in China, not only have I never been a witness or victim of any crime but I've never had anyone in my acquaintance who was. It is a very, very safe country. This freedom from fear does exist.
The biggest form of freedom, a freedom that Charles de Gaulle, former French President, used to describe as the precondition for all other freedoms, is your independence as a country, your collective freedom to determine your own future.
Can anyone argue that when you're a so-called "vassal state" or when you're in a larger state's so-called "sphere of influence," you're really free? Anyone can see that's not quite true.
America isn't of course anyone's vassal state, quite the contrary in fact. But there is something that limits America's freedom in that regard: its system of alliances. America is in many, many alliances: NATO, AUKUS, the Five Eyes, with Japan and so on and so forth. And of course this, too, limits your freedom of action since, on paper at least, you are committed to certain actions even if they might not be in your interest at that point in time. As we've painfully learned from World War I, alliances can be incredibly constraining and destructive.
China is unarguably the freest country in the world in this regard, as it cannot be even remotely considered as being any country's vassal state and it just doesn't do military alliances—it doesn't have any. In fact, many argue that it's precisely this independence that's driving the current attempt to contain China. This high level of sovereignty allows China to focus on internal development and to maintain its freedom of action on the international stage.
On stability and prosperity
China is arguably the oldest continuous civilization in the history of humankind. If that's not stability, I'm not sure what is.
Most surveys done on the Chinese population, even by Western institutions, show that the Chinese population is extraordinarily united and aligned in how they view their system. For instance, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School conducted a 13-year-long study interrogating the Chinese population, which they summarized in a 2020 report entitled Understanding CPC (Communist Party of China) Resilience. Their conclusion is, I quote: There is little evidence to support the idea that the CPC is losing legitimacy in the eyes of its people. In fact, the survey found that 93 percent of people in China are satisfied with the Chinese Central Government.
The U.S. and Europe is, of course, a vastly different story. Satisfaction rates with public institutions are, as we all know, at all times low almost everywhere in the West. For instance, in the U.S., public trust in government went from more than 70 percent in the 1960s to a mere 20 percent today. In France, only 28 percent of citizens trust their public institutions. When you ask Americans, an extraordinary 43 percent believe civil war is likely within the next 10 years.
If we talk per-capita GDP or salary levels then obviously the average Chinese citizen is still less prosperous than their Western counterparts. They also obviously started their modern economic development from a much lower base, and much more recently, so the comparison isn't quite fair.
The right way of looking at it, I believe, is therefore to look at the approach China is taking to make its citizens prosperous vs. the approach the West is taking, and which one is more likely to achieve sustainable prosperity over the long run.
China has spent close to 14 trillion yuan ($2 trillion) of all types of funding dedicated to lifting people out of poverty, roughly what the U.S. spent in the past 20 years in its post-September 11 wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is quite illustrative of the different priorities of the two nations and how they impact prosperity.
To conclude, the Chinese system, with its emphasis on collective freedom, long-term stability, and unwavering investment in itself, has demonstrated its ability to provide a more holistic approach to societal wellbeing. While the American and European systems have their merits, it is the Chinese system's unique blend of these attributes that ensures its citizens can enjoy greater overall stability, prosperity and freedom.
Arnaud Bertrand is an Internet influencer on Twitter and a French entrepreneur living in Malaysia
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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