Once Upon a Time
I was born and brought up in communist Poland. No, I had a happy childhood. Kids do not discern about political systems and are content as long as their parents are around. Their family, alongside the local community, provides them with reassuring routines. Like education. Going to school at 8am every morning on each working day. One of the routines in my own childhood was the all-school celebrations of the anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution, scheduled incongruously – from the schoolkids’ point of view – for early November. No explanations followed from the teachers, so we accepted the reality around us, unquestioning. We did not know anything else and our parents knew that it was better to keep silent on the subject until we grew older.
Teenagers question all and sundry. That is their right. In the two short years of 1980 and 1981 before I entered my secondary school, the old certainties were shaken by the Solidarity movement. At that time around four million people belonged to the Polish communist party (PZPR), but two and a half times more (that is, ten million) joined the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność). It dawned on all that a different political reality was possible, that many different political views may be, at different, times right for various peoples in this or that country. That a single ‘correct – meaning: socialist – view,’ as prescribed for everyone by the communist party, is a fallacy.
The powers that be would not have it. Martial law was clamped down on this ‘carnival of freedom’ in the supposedly ‘merriest barrack’ of the socialist camp, as Poland was often dubbed then. The economy went from bad to worse. Telephones went dead for a month or so and intercity phone calls were disabled for half a year. (Landlines and phoning abroad remained closely regulated and in very short supply until a couple years after the fall of communism.) Curfew was imposed between 10pm and 5am, and one could not leave one’s town or village without a permit. In this social dead of martial law I entered secondary school. The subdued atmosphere would not repress our youthful spirit. We made fun of the make-believe reality in small ways and could escape scot-free because the party itself stopped believing in its own propaganda and ideological goals. The most pressing task at hand was to ‘hunt’ for scarce goods in empty shops, where money and rationing cards could not buy anything at will. Standing in never-ending shop lines became an everyday nightmare that kept robbing us of free time. We brandished on our sweaters small but colorful electric resistors, a seemingly innocent metonymy for resistance to the communist system. We played dumb when teachers or militiamen (as the police was known then) demanded we remove them. We cheekily asked back why they would not require female students to remove earrings, that there was no law prohibiting personal adornment, so why to take it out on us. In shops you could not buy butter, sugar, cutlery, crockery, meat, coffee, shoes, coats, boots, chocolate, cheese, sour cream, record players, cars, fridges or furniture; but strangely enough, resistors were never in short supply. Perhaps an oversight in the planned economy. One of the planners must have had a difficult day and had all but regrettably forgotten to consult on the matter of resistors with a colleague in the office of censorship.
Most teachers in my secondary school played the game of dissimulation quite deftly and with a great understanding for our confusion. They told us to read textbooks and parrot what we had gleaned during exams, but added – sotto voce – not to believe all that was written in them. Often they followed with a story on what the truth really was. The sole exception was the History teacher. She stuck to the party line with a loving closeness. Then still single and in her early thirties, an unbending matron of ideological decorum, she melted into silly girlishness in front of regional party leaders on a visit to lecture us on socialism. The teacher tried to keep up with the times and allowed for closely-inspected exercises in ‘free expression of ideas’ on a preselected controversial subject. In 1940, after occupying the eastern half of interwar Poland, the Soviets executed 22,000 Polish army officers, most of them in the forest in the vicinity of the village of Katyn’, near the Russian city of Smolensk. During the late 1980s, it was one of the most contentious points in recent Polish history. We knew the story well from an unpublished doctoral dissertation, samizdat publications and Radio Free Europe. But, obviously, she concluded the discussion that ‘all the available proof’ clearly shows that it was Germans who had executed the officers in late 1941, after the Third Reich had attacked the Soviet Union. It was the official version adopted by the Kremlin and each and every communist regime in Poland stuck to this dictum until the bitter end in 1989.
New Brave (Almost) Democratic World
In that year, aptly christened annus mirabilis, communism collapsed, the Soviet bloc broke up, the first non-communist government was elected in Poland and the Berlin Wall fell. Freedoms of which previously we had just heard and dreamed became a reality. Gates were flung open in the big prison that communist Poland had been. Every citizen could obtain a passport and keep it at home without having to apply for it before each visit abroad and surrender the document again to the local militia station after returning home. Ironically, ‘Free Europe’ and even the neighboring former socialist states were loath to let Poles enter, lest they stayed or bought out all the goods from the shops. The only two places we could travel without visas and special permits were West Berlin and Austria. Czechoslovakia barred us. So, most people of my generation from Poland saw the West for the first time ever in West Berlin. After entering East Germany – which was permitted – from East Berlin, by the way of the Freidrichstraße station we took subway (U-Bahn) to the Zoo-Garten station. It was a seedy and garish place full of cheap shops with electronic equipment, gaudy clothes, pornographic magazines and VHS cassettes. To us, emerging from the metaphorically and materially grey world of yet not entirely non-communist Poland, this palette of clashing colors became the symbol of freedom. Communism was grey, oppressive and claustrophobic; while colorful, open and sunny was democracy.
The rapid changes in economy and politics that followed in Poland after 1989 were liberating, though they were also marred by unemployment, homelessness and unceasing toil on several jobs just to stay afloat and be able to buy the shiny goods of which we had been starved during the communist times. Freshly graduated from universities, we looked optimistically toward the future. Poland began its ‘return to Europe.’ The situation was so bad – we thought – that now it could get only better. Our diagnosis was reconfirmed by the intellectual gurus of free market and liberal democracy. In 1991, the US political scientist Samuel P Huntington from Harvard University published his seminal monograph The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, which was quickly translated into Polish. After the setbacks suffered across Europe during the totalitarian 1930s and 1940s, democracy now appeared unstoppable – the least bad of all the political systems ever tried. The following year Huntington’s colleague at Stanford University, Francis Fukuyama, reconfirmed this analysis in his study The End of History and the Last Man. Both democracy and capitalism were proposed to be the acme of human development in politics and economy, this eponymous ‘end of history.’ After having reached the stage, it was proposed that at the long last people might start enjoying their lives instead of losing them in the name of this or that political ideology or economic system.
It was a time of ‘peace dividend,’ or beating swords into plowshares. The armament race stopped, many kinds of nuclear warheads were decommissioned and the number of soldiers in standing armies was dramatically scaled down. The money and other resources freed from military budgets were expected to smooth out the transition from communism to democracy and to improve the existing welfare provisions both in the West and East that now were destined to become one undivided world, again.
The hopes were realized, partly. Until the turn of the 21st century democracy had spread across postcommunist Europe and the world hand-in-hand with ‘free market economy,’ otherwise known by its innocuous synonym of ‘capitalism’. Then a change of heart took place: the world continued to welcome capitalism, but democracy was gradually rejected. Capitalism creates wealth, it is claimed, while democracy sows confusion, disturbances and chaos when forced on ‘culturally and civilizationally immature or unprepared’ populations. In the infamous year of 2001, the only remaining superpower, the United States, through its hysteric overreaction and rhetoric elevated a small group of Islamic radicals into a worldwide terrorist plot, eerily reminiscent of the claims found in the 1903 Antisemitic hoax of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The subsequent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq neither found proofs of such a plot led by an evil Dr Who, nor uprooted Islamic terrorism. The global war on terror regrettably and unnecessarily pitched the West against Islam.
The promise of establishing democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was not kept, both states mired in internecine fighting descended into political chaos. A clear proof to those who doubt that democracy is an appropriate political system for polities outside the West. Neither did the United States nor NATO insist on observing democracy or a modicum of civil liberties and human rights in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, as long as these states’ authoritarian rulers have agreed to facilitate the West’s war on terror. Russia took the cue, and while the West turned a blind eye, the Kremlin used the slogan of fighting global terrorism to nearly halve the population of Chechnya in order to prevent the republic from gaining independence it had sought.
A Chinese Future?
After a decade of terror alerts and soaring spending on the military and the surveillance of the entire globe, no genuine global-wide Islamic plot against the West has been unveiled. But finally the West’s insidious rhetoric of war on terror created an enemy it had been so arduously looking for. In 2014, a worldwide caliphate of the Islamic State was proclaimed; at present its troops are busy seizing large parts of Iraq and Syria. As a result, money continues pouring into the coffers of the West’s novel surveillance-military complex. New powers of snooping on everyone and everything are given to national and international surveillance organizations across the West. Torture and state-sponsored unlawful kidnapping and detention (euphemistically referred to as ‘extraordinary rendition’) are becoming increasingly accepted instruments of democracies in their ‘struggle against terror.’ Whistleblowers standing up to the worrying trend are hounded down and branded as ‘traitors.’ In the name of preserving and protecting democracy, democracy is being dismantled in a piecemeal manner.
I fear that enjoying democracy and its freedoms in my middle age after my blighted youth in totalitarian Poland, in turn, I may have to live out my old age in a forthcoming epoch of high-tech totalitarianism. It will not be drab and grey like communist Poland was, yet it will be oppressive, controlling, and exponentially more intrusive thanks to computers, ubiquitous CCTV, and non-stop automated worldwide surveillance. A totalitarianism incarnate which Felix Dzerzhinsky and Heinrich Himmler could only dream of, with no means at their disposal to implement it.
What has never ceased to trouble me is the date of June 6, 1989. Throughout 1989 and 1990 we all were literally glued to television screens closely watching the never-ending stream of news reports on the fall of communism and hardline regimes across the Soviet bloc, from Tallinn and Vilnius to Bucharest and Sofia, from Berlin and Budapest to Kyiv, Moscow and as far east as Ulaanbaatar. On that aforementioned memorable day in June a quarter of a century ago, the first (partially) free multiparty elections took place in Poland, marking the end of communism in this country and the beginning of the end of this totalitarian system across Central and Eastern Europe. But our joy was bittersweet.
On the very same day the Chinese army and security forces, preceded by the column of tanks, moved onto Tiananmen Square where protesters had peacefully demonstrated for democratization since mid-April. The soldiers opened fire and butchered hundreds. Surviving students and intellectuals were rounded up and thrown into the black hole of the Chinese gulag of the Laogai concentration camps, where many perished. The lucky ones were freed after a decade or two. Some made it to the free West, which does not care a jot about the totalitarian reality in China behind the smokescreen of pleasing appearances. Most of the freed Tiananmen protestors keep a low profile, busy rebuilding their shattered personal lives and earning money. The Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, who in 1979 had cautiously opened China to the capitalist world, two years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in 1992, famously announced ‘Let a part of the population get rich first.’ In these words he reconfirmed socialist capitalism as the economic pillar of communist China. His pronouncement was also a warning to the populace at large: go on with your business, but stay away from politics.
This official stance encapsulates the essence of the Chinese reform focused squarely on economy, as opposed to the Soviet dual reform of economy and politics. According to Chinese party pundits, Mikhail Gorbachev was ill-advised in his reformist efforts and they blame this dual character of the changes undertaken in the Soviet Union for the break-up of this communist polity in 1991. The communist party and the state remain one in China, which apparently is no obstacle to capitalism, technological progress or economic growth. Nay, all of them can be swifter and faster, as it is the party who decides and there are no democratic procedures for listening to grievances of those who lose most because of proposed changes. No consensus on the part of the wronged is necessary. Should they defend their rights too loudly or raise a riot, the Laogai concentration camps are ready to absorb more free labor. Companies manned by Laogai inmates will always be more competitive than their counterparts in democracies. Laogai prisoners cost only their food and some basic accommodation. They are disposable and there are no welfare, healthcare, pension or unemployment benefit outlays involved. Capitalism pure and undiluted: Arbeit macht frei (‘work makes you free’), as the slogan announced over entrance gates of numerous German concentration and extermination camps during World War II.
China is now the world’s second largest economy, symbiotically interconnected with the United States. The West is addicted to cheap Chinese goods of increasingly better quality, many of them produced by forced labor or cheap countryside workers with no right of residence in the industrial cities where they toil. The breakneck growth spawns more big cities dotted with skyscrapers planted on yet untarmacked dirt streets, more freeways and high speed railways that connect the remotest parts of the country with the capital. Ubiquitous internet access and mobile telephones have made instantaneous communication the norm, but in this totalitarian state its flipside is the authorities’ improved capacity for surveillance, control and censorship. China is the world’s leading developer and exporter of internet control software and hardware. In an offensive mode these can be easily employed for cyberwarfare at which China already excels, making the West run an extra mile just to keep up. From an instrument that used to enable and improve the freedom of expression, in China, the internet has been remade into the prime tool for controlling and managing information flows, making genuine freedom of speech impossible. In present-day China one’s thoughts can be fully free only in one’s own head, provided one does not suffer the disorder of talking during sleep.
Having observed China’s unprecedented economic success since the turn of the 21st century, many other states, confused by the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, have made their steadfast decision to follow the Chinese model, including Russia, Belarus, Vietnam, Laos, or Uzbekistan. ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ as Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign slogan announced. Isn’t this slogan just a more colloquial rendering of Deng Xiaoping’s famous pronouncement from the very same year? The Chinese way is the marriage of capitalism in economy with the totalitarian (authoritarian) political system in governance. In polities where a democratic shell must be kept as a fig leaf to please the West, this form of government is dubbed ‘managed’ or ‘guided’ democracy,’ which now is the norm in Russia.
During the Cold War, faced with the Soviets’ ardent conviction that one day communism would rule all over the world, the West replied with an optimistic theory of the inescapable spread of democracy. Establishing links with China and the Soviet bloc during the 1970s détente was an attempt at applying this theory in practice. According to its central tenet, the more contacts and links exist between democratic and non-democratic polities, the surer is the eventual spread of democracy from the former to the latter. The case of China poignantly shatters this coveted belief. Huntington’s third wave of democratization has just been reverted. The Chinese end of history, unlike Fukuyama proposed, is capitalism and totalitarianism under intense, invasive and ubiquitous surveillance, as if straight from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
The theory of democratization had one gaping blind spot. It a priori excluded the possibility that political influence may spread from non-democratic states to democratic ones, too. This is exactly what is happening now across Eurasia and Africa. Chinese exports, investments and generous loans with no conditions on political and human rights attached, spread the Chinese model of totalitarian capitalism. In Africa, many of the de facto one-party democracies (for instance, South Africa, Namibia or Mozambique) have already entered the zone of managed democracy, which is the anteroom of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Beijing approves and more commerce and financial resources follow.
In 1997 when Britain left Hong Kong passing the territory back to China, the size of the city’s economy accounted for almost one fifth of the entire Chinese economy. By 2013 this proportion had shrunk to a mere three per cent. Hong Kong continues to possess the ninth largest foreign currency reserves (equal to India’s), but at present (2015) these constitute less than nine per cent of China’s currency foreign reserves that are the largest in the world. Beijing promised to maintain the special status of Hong Kong, complete with its laissez faire economy and elements of democracy for half a century after the 1997 handover. But should the Hong Kongers’ increasingly louder demands for more democracy become too irksome, soon China will be able to afford to squash this Special Administrative Region and backtrack on its 1997 promises of some democratization. The moment may well come when Hong Kong’s economy and foreign currency reserves account for around one percent of their Chinese counterparts. Beijing’s future action on this matter will be of decisive importance for checking the assumption of whether the theory of the global spread of the Chinese model is right, or if there may still be some life in the Western conviction that it is democracy that will prevail as the world’s most accepted system of governance.
A Cautionary Tale
Soon we will know.
But I suspect the Chinese model will win hands down. So many of its illiberal elements are already part and parcel of the everyday social, political and economic reality in the (increasingly less) democratic West. It appears I am doomed to old age under a totalitarian regime packaged in an elegant wrapper and rebranded as a ‘well massaged managed democracy.’ My paltry pension may be insufficient to buy me necessary medications, let alone a visit to a clinic or hospitalization. But hopefully applying for euthanasia will still remain my own decision and that it will not be simply imposed on ‘unproductive parasites’ with not enough money to their name to justify their continued curmudgeonly existence. Otherwise, the ‘scientific and humanitarian culling of the old’ would be no different than the dystopian vision presented in the 1973 film Soylent Green (loosely based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!).
But the future is a foreign country, unless we live long enough to experience it with our own eyes. In September 2014, I visited Beijing on the way to a conference in the north of China. It was balmy warm. When I left the airport, the sun shone promisingly. But soon the sky was solidly overcast, followed by hazy fog that blurred the contours of buildings. Like many tourists I first went to the Forbidden City, turned into a show-case museum of China’s reinvigorated national spirit. Crowds rushed across the palatial grounds with no access to the pavilions, which was a disappointment. At the end of the day, I was dizzy and had problems breathing. I thought I must have forgotten to take my allergy pills. I swallowed the regular dose back at the hotel and made sure to take another the next day before breakfast. Nothing helped. My nose stayed blocked solid and my watery eyes acquired an ominous reddish hue. The hotel staff advised, when I inquired, that I check the levels of pollution. This fog is smog. The room television-cum-computer did not permit any google searches; this service is blocked in China. Other search engines provide you with pre-screened results. The state-controlled Chinese internet is reluctant to release information on the actual level of air pollution in the capital. Luckily, I chanced upon the website of the American Embassy, which continuously monitor air pollution. Its information bar was flashing red. No wonder I felt so bad.
But in order not to give in to the adverse circumstances, I embarked on another sightseeing trip. As a hardened flâneur, I decided to have a good stroll across the heavenly peace expanses of Tiananmen Square in front of the huge iconic portrait of Mao hung on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the imposing entrance to the Forbidden City. The immense square was almost empty with a mere few – from the distance – ant-like figures crawling across its steaming surface after a brief rain shower. A strange sight in the overcrowded 25-million-strong megalopolis. I patiently stood in a short line to the security screening point. I went through the metal-detecting gate and my rucksack was duly X-rayed. The bevy of officers looked at each passerby intently, perhaps, to detect any signs of agitation or unusual behavior. No smiles or friendly gestures. Full – or, should I say, total(itarian) – professionalism.
Behind the gate, after several steps, I saw a small crowd. The student guide who was walking by my side just whispered without turning his head: ‘Walk straight, Mister, don’t stop, we see nothing.’ I kept walking, as advised. Next to the small metal canopy shading a plastic chair I saw a policeman. He stood up and approached a group of two men and one woman in peasant attire. They carried huge blue-striped plastic bags in which people now haul their possessions across the entire Eurasia. The policeman called out curtly to one of these man. He reluctantly approached the policeman, who promptly started pummeling the man’s shaven head with his bare fist. The officer chose not to waste the regular issue baton dangling at his leg on this low life. Unabashedly, the policeman continued beating the man in the full view of all present and under the watchful eye of numerous CCTV cameras. The punishment had to be carried out, foreigners around or not. Who cares: dura lex, sed lex. It is a new self-assured modern China of global aspirations, so Ordnung muß sein. Human rights are just a Western invention. Democracy may be good for Europe and North America, but the rest of the world needs something else: dynamic growth and stability. China has found the philosopher’s stone of politics. A correct amount of violence appropriately applied to the individual allows for exerting transformative pressure on China’s one billion and a half inhabitants, shaping them into the unceasing stream of orderly cadres for this factory and economic powerhouse of the world.
Woe to us. Now the West is the rest. Democracy, alongside already trashed marxism, is going to be dumped on the dustbin of history. Western scholars and students flocking to China on the Chinese Government Scholarship Scheme are obliged to declare that they do not suffer from ‘mental confusion’ that could ‘endanger the public order and security.’ In the good political tradition of Soviet political psychiatry, ‘mental confusion’ stands for democracy and freedom of speech. Any direct criticism of the social and political reality in today’s China would amount to ‘manic paychosis’ [sic], ‘paranoid psychosis’ and ‘being hallucinatory.’ Soviet ‘doctors’ used to dub this dangerous disorder as ‘philosophical intoxication,’ ‘delusion of reformism’ or ‘sluggish schizophrenia,’ all sounding scientific and professional enough for imprisoning offending dissidents indefinitely. It would be inexcusable to incarcerate a Western scholar who crossed the mark, but no one will blame the Chinese authorities for gently hospitalizing a sick person for his own good.
May 17, 2015