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Watch This Westerner Explain Why Foreigners Should Practice Self-Censorship In China To Understand Why Liberal Democracy Is Under Attack

A street in Shenzhen, China (By Daniel Case [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Over the years I have met many Westerners who - to my surprise - praised dictatorships and engaged in moral equivalence. One American who visited Pyongyang told me that the Western media were not telling the truth about the country, and that North Korea was clean and modern. Westerners who live in China often parrot Communist propaganda and actively spread it, whether they are aware of it or not. 

We have seen the decline of our cities and communities while witnessing the rise of illiberal market economies that oftentimes make us envious of their rising living standards, optimism and advances in technology and infrastructure. 

The crisis of democracy which we are experiencing today is not a new phenomenon. It began 40 years ago with the rise of neoliberalism and the idea of a "free", unfettered market that would unite the world in one global ideology of money-making. Milton Friedman, the guru of neoliberalism,  said in Capitalism and Freedom that it is "clearly possible to have economic arrangements that are fundamentally capitalist and political arrangements that are not free."

To put it simply: capitalism does not require democracy. While democracy had triumphed in 1945 thanks to American supremacy and the post-war economic boom in the Western world, in the 1970s a new model of authoritarian capitalism emerged which combined state-led economic development with unfree political systems. Two examples of that model are Singapore and Taiwan under Guomindang one-party rule. 

In the late 1970s China launched its opening up and reform policy. Since then China has lifted an estimated 800 million people out of poverty, become the world's second largest economy, and created some of the most stunning infrastructure on the planet. 

By contrast, many Western countries have experienced decline and stagnation. The US middle class is in many respects worse off today than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The country has an outdated infrastructure, and some cities that used to be dynamic industrial hubs have turned into ruins, most notably Detroit, once a symbol of American economic prowess.    


It is therefore not all too surprising that many young people in the West have lost faith in the system. In 1958, 73% of Americans said they trusted the government. In 2011 the number was 17% and in 2017 it was 18%. 

There are certainly complex reasons - not always economic ones - that determine people's trust in government. However, the importance of economic performance can be seen when it comes to evaluating democracy. A 2017 Pew Research Center study shows that a large number of people were not satisfied with how democracy was working: 51% in the United States, 47% in the UK, 67% in Italy and a staggering 79% in Greece. The study concludes that people in rapidly growing economies are more satisfied with democracy than societies where that is not the case. 

The truth is that generations of people in the West who have seen their incomes stagnate, costs and inequality rise, social mobility and opportunities decrease, are fed up with the status quo. Yet politicians and intellectuals seem to have no clear answers and solutions, so that in the end demagogues exploit anger and frustration to promote their hateful nationalist rhetoric, blaming all problems on immigrants and multiculturalism.  

On the other hand, the idea of a "free market" has depoliticized trade and opened the door for Westerners to make money working in or with dictatorial states, regardless of human rights and workers' right. The result of this process of social and political erosion in the West is that more and more people sympathize with economically successful autocracies. 

On March 9, 2000, President Bill Clinton gave a speech about the economic and political benefits of China entering the World Trade Organization (WTO). Citing common neoliberal themes, he argued that trade liberalization with Beijing would be advantageous both economically and politically:

"We can work to pull China in the right direction, or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction. The W.T.O. agreement will move China in the right direction. It will advance the goals America has worked for in China for the past three decades.

And of course, it will advance our own economic interests. Economically, this agreement is the equivalent of a one-way street. It requires China to open its markets — with a fifth of the world's population, potentially the biggest markets in the world — to both our products and services in unprecedented new ways. All we do is to agree to maintain the present access which China enjoys ...

[M]ost of the critics of the China W.T.O. agreement do not seriously question its economic benefits. They're more likely to say things like this: China is a growing threat to Taiwan and its neighbors; we shouldn't strengthen it. Or, China violates labor rights and human rights; we shouldn't reward it. Or, China is a dangerous proliferator; we shouldn't empower it. These concerns are valid, but the conclusion of those who raise them as an argument against China W.T.O. isn't...

I believe the choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one. Membership in the W.T.O., of course, will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction, and certainly will do that more than rejection would."

Bill Clinton was wrong, and the critics were right. China has continued to pursue unfair trade practices, undermining US competition. China is now more autocratic than it was in 2000. And Beijing continues to threaten and bully Taiwan more and more brazenly. We've heard for the past 20 years that trading with China would be beneficial. When a theory or a prediction does not come true within a reasonable period of time - and two decades certainly is not reasonable - then it is definitely a wrong one. 

The outcome of China's development and the West's economic woes has been the loss of self-confidence within democratic societies, and the diminishing international prestige of the free world. By contrast, the ability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread its propaganda and influence all around the globe has increased.

A 2012 video by Serpentza, a famous YouTube vlogger living in China, illustrates how easily Western people can lose faith in their own system and embrace an economically successful autocracy. 

I am a fan of Serpentza's channel. The simplicity of his genius lies in the fact that he just talks to the camera and walks around or sits somewhere in the city where he lives - Shenzhen, in southern China - thus both sharing insights into culture and society, and allowing viewers to tour with him the bustling streets of the metropolis that was once a small fishing village. 

Serpentza comes from South Africa - not exactly a country known for its opportunities and economic development. The contrast between South Africa and China could not be starker. While the African nation democratized, China was cracking down on the students in Tiananmen Square and suppressing all forms of dissent to one-party rule. Yet China's state capitalism soon led to phenomenal economic development, whereas South Africa's economic performance has been disappointing, with uneven growth, high unemployment, extreme social inequality and lacking education and infrastructure. 

In the video Serpentza basically gives Westerners an instruction manual for self-censorship, reflecting many of the talking points of the CCP. 

"There are some topics that you should not bring up in conversation, in order to make your stay [in China] more pleasant," Serpentza says. "And, like any educated person would know ... if you are talking to strangers or people in general that you don't really know, there are topics that you should avoid." 

He argues that the three topics that should not be talked about are politics, religion and sex, adding that "China is no different" than any other place in the world where these topics should not be brought up with strangers.  


"Western people usually feel it necessary to be very vocal about our ethical beliefs," he continues. "I don't, personally, because I actually hate politics ... If you are a political person ... leave that stuff at home when you come to China. This is not going to do you any favours. All you're going to end up doing is getting yourself upset and other people upset and end up in a sticky situation."

Regarding Mao Zedong, he says that the Chinese people regard him as a hero and that he or the Cultural Revolution should not be discussed.

"Doesn't matter what you've been taught in school ... what we were taught in the West compared to what Chinese people are taught here - two different things. It's not really our place to say." 


Serpentza's video shows that he has internalized some of the basic CCP talking points and that he is so indifferent to politics that he doesn't care whether he lives in an autocracy or a democracy. Let's examine these talking points briefly. 

First of all, he frames the debate in cultural terms - China vs West. This is a typical CCP propaganda strategy to convince people that China is culturally predestined to have one-party rule. The absurdity of this argument is clear. To begin with, Communism and democracy are both originally Western ideologies. Many Western countries in the past were one-party states, either Communist or Fascist. Moreover, China has had notable advocates of democracy, such as Sun Yat-sen.  

The China vs West theme is a CCP rhetorical trick to frame debate about democracy or political reform as a false choice between loyalty to the nation under CCP rule on the one hand, and sedition and treason on the other. This concept is also used by other parties, such as the PAP in Singapore, which has framed its political doctrines in opposition to the West so as to stoke local nationalism. 

Second, Serpentza argues that China "is no different" than other countries. This is a falsehood propagated by the CCP. Of course, not every country is a one-party state where people are arrested or bullied for sending a picture or talking about something the government doesn't like. 

If you ignore the difference between having an unpleasant conversation with a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporter, and being forced to shut up by the thought police of a dictatorial state, then you are pushing a false narrative of moral equivalence, the same kind of moral equivalence  that a would-be dictator like Trump propagates when he says Nazis and anti-Nazis are the same, or his abuses of power are the same thing everyone has done before. It is a pure deflection and deception tactic. 

Third, Serpentza talks about the "Chinese people" as if the Chinese people were only those who support the CCP narrative. Tibetans, Uighurs or Hongkongers are not even considered. People who are not allowed to speak publicly, like writer Yan Lianke or emigres like Wang Dan, are also ignored. This is typical of the CCP tactic to defame and delegitimize as non-Chinese all those who do not bow to it and accept its propaganda as fact. 

Serpentza, of course, is right to say that foreigners should avoid talking about sensitive issues if they go to China if they want to avoid trouble. That is why I gave up on China long ago and preferred to live in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I could learn about Chinese culture without having to put up with the CCP (at least that was the case before Beijing began dismantling Hong Kong's freedoms).

What is noteworthy, however, is how he framed the topic and how easily and unapologetically he accepted the notion of self-censorship and of being apolitical. Indeed, in another post he also mentions that China saved him, because he started a career as a vlogger in the country. 

Democracy was created in the West, yet not all Westerners are democrats. It is indeed astounding how many Western people who grew up in democratic societies comfortably live in dictatorships - from China to Thailand, from Vietnam to Russia - and they couldn't care less about politics. Unless, at some point, politics come back to haunt them. 

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