Man Bites Dog: Tom Friedman Criticizes Chinese Autocracy

Something has happened to Thomas Friedman. After years spent praising China's infrastructure and political efficiency, Friedman has come out today with something approaching criticism of the communist tyranny.

To its credit, China used its huge export dividend to build 21st-century infrastructure and to educate its people, creating a giant middle class. But the current Chinese leadership has not used this surging economic growth to also introduce gradual political reform. Corruption is as bad as ever, institutionalized transparency and rule of law remain weak and consensual politics nonexistent.

I love the phrase "consensual politics," such a dirty way of saying democracy. Friedman then quotes prime minister Wen Jiabao saying “it’s impossible for China to fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost, and new problems ... will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again in China.” Sobering stuff, especially to appear under Friedman's byline. Recall that back in 2009, Friedman was singing a very different tune:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.

Thinking about the relative advantages of autocracy led Friedman to daydream about being China for a day in his book The World is Flat:

Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved. . . . I cannot help but feel a tinge of jealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems and actually do things that are tough and require taking things away from people.

Friedman has also written entire columns bashing the United States from the point of view of an imaginary Chinese ambassador. It's the Screwtape Letters for liberal fascists:

They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind. Which is why we at the embassy find it funny that Americans are now fighting over how “exceptional” they are. Once again, we are not making this up. On the front page of The Washington Post on Monday there was an article noting that Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are denouncing Obama for denying “American exceptionalism.” The Americans have replaced working to be exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself “exceptional,” only others can bestow that adjective upon you.

To be fair, Friedman has worked some criticisms of China in amongst all the praise. In this ABC interview from 2010, he lists two things China is doing wrong. They are emitting far too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and they are depriving their people of human rights. Yes, he lists them in that order.

Looking again at his statement today, it seems that political freedom has moved up somewhat on Friedman's radar. It's about time.


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