I recently came across this: Visitors “coming home from Berlin, where they had been carefully showed around and flattered, praised the orderly regime of the country and its new master, and were coming to think that his claims to a greater Germany might be justified.”
That is from Stefan Zweig’s memoirs, The World of Yesterday. He is writing around 1940 and is remembering how “visitors” preferred to see the Hitler regime during the 1930s.
Well, substitute “from Beijing” for “from Berlin” and “greater China” for “greater Germany” and you have the preferred Western understanding of today’s Chinese regime, in particular that of business interests. Even people with extensive experience in China prefer to see the regime as a pretty benevolent autocracy, the main achievement of which is to deliver effective governance.
It seems to be a regularity in history that many in the democratic world bend over backwards, as long as possible, to give powerful dictatorships the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps out of convenience: it’s good for business. Perhaps because we do not have enough confidence in our own systems.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, I said that I think “the world has failed to grasp the scale of the repression now playing out in China, still viewing the country as a benevolent autocracy when in fact it has mutated into a very, very hard dictatorship which manages to look better than it is.”
In my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I put it thus: “I have been struck by how often visitors on some more or less official errand come home, having been flattered and entertained, without really having seen the obvious combination of misery and progress. In hindsight, I have not learned all that much from my own visits, except to have my critical instinct stimulated.”
Visitors to a dictatorship that is in control should know that their “impression” of things is not necessarily the way things are, in fact that their “impressions” are likely to be distorted. I know this very well from my own experience. I have had very good collaboration with academic colleagues in China at their universities and institutes, and if I were to go by my “impressions” from my visits, I would side with the benevolent view. But through my analyses I have found a different reality, a hard dictatorship, and one, as for my own “impressions,” that also holds universities and academic institutes in its firm grip.
Read another comment on the Western misunderstanding of China here.