Man Bites Dog: Tom Friedman Criticizes Chinese Autocracy

Something has happened to Thomas Friedman. After years spent praisingChina’s infrastructure and political efficiency, Friedman has come outtoday with something approaching criticism of the communist tyranny.

To its credit, China used its huge export dividend to build 21st-centuryinfrastructure and to educate its people, creating a giant middleclass. But the current Chinese leadership has not used this surgingeconomic growth to also introduce gradual political reform. Corruptionis as bad as ever, institutionalized transparency and rule of law remainweak 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 impossiblefor Chinato fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in theseareas may be lost, and new problems … will not be fundamentallyresolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution mayhappen again in China.” Sobering stuff, especially to appear underFriedman’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 ledby a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it canalso have great advantages. That one party can just impose thepolitically difficult but critically important policies needed to move asociety 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 theauthoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, justorder that problems be solved. . . . I cannot help but feel a tinge ofjealousy at China’s ability to be serious about its problems andactually do things that are tough and require taking things away frompeople.

Friedman has also written entire columnsbashing the United States from the point of view of an imaginary Chineseambassador. It’s the Screwtape Letters for liberal fascists:

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

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

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