Regina Saphier: The United States of China

Regina Saphier: The United States of China

I had my personal opinion, but I did not know that I had anything to say about China until I got an e-mail from Eric X. Li thanking me for my thoughtful writeup of his talk at TED Global 2013. That was the second when I realized that I need to say more, because my quick summary projected the impression that I agree with him. Well, mostly I don’t. I am able to see that he is a talented individual and I think it is true that new leadership models need to be introduced in the world, but I strongly disagree when it comes to the Chinese leadership model, as the right solution for China. Below I explain why. Hereby I present my critical, comparative essay in response to Eric X. Li‘s TED Global 2013 talk (talk published on July 1, 2013). He is an investor from Shanghai and a political scientist, also the Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Going from communism to capitalism, from groups to individualism… to understand the rotten political narratives of societies we need people like Eric with personal historic and political perspective and analytical insight. According to Eric democracy was also sold to nations as was communism, but China did not buy it this time (not that it is in any way perfect, he added)… China did not go from communism to capitalism, rather created a hybrid system that works in many ways for them and meta narratives are the Cancer that are killing democracies around the world, Eric told us. In his opinion this global meta narrative is boring, that all nations should become democratic. In my opinion witnessing a dictatorship redressing itself is what is boring. It is also just plain sad to see a western educated young man tell the world to promote pluralism and at the same time promoting the tragic fact that pluralism is forbidden in China. Eric! Face it: there is nothing exceptional about Hungarians, nothing exceptional about Americans, and nothing exceptional about Chines people. We are all from Earth. We were all born on Earth. Your economy has powerful spillover effects, for example Hungary’s textile industry is dead. Your pollution is all over the planet. I have seen people like you being enthusiastic about a dictatorship and 40 years later those people try to make people forget what they did, what they supported, what they were saying. 40 years from now your split narrative will be all over the web. Your old self might one day regret the words you repeated again and again today.

Let me add: It is interesting if you compare this with the narrative of a journalist, that Hungary is the Cancer in the EU… Perhaps the EU uses the wrong narrative? Some people in the EU do that, definitely. Also, never generalize. Hungary is full of people who do not agree with the state of things in Hungary and never voted for this government. If the EU can not push the government out of office, with all that international political and economic power, how do you expect the exhausted, severely traumatized citizens of Hungary to do the same? Let plurality of governing styles change the global, social, economic and political narratives. BUT:

In my humble opinion, China’s present leadership is not sustainable as it is in the long run. I come from a thankfully collapsed similar regime (meaning I grew up in Hungary) that attempted to make its citizens “happy” (politically speaking: making sure those people didn’t complain and accepted the state of things… for many people pretending was survival, and many others did not even know that there was anything else, that there were other choices). Among other things that system resulted in the collapse and in huge debt. What I however also see is that Hungary’s right wing nationalist government is now looking at China as a role model… and at Russia… Autocratic government… with 2/3 of the parliament and no inhibitions: happily draining EU money for their string pulling mini oligarchs (the local kleptocracy). Terribly worrisome. At the same time the so called old democracies are unable to handle this new EU member state called Hungary, and those “old” democracies (EU and US equally) are also struggling with huge problems of their own (like joblessness, and technology making more and more people jobless). Meanwhile African nations are more and more looking at China (a capitalist dictatorship where slavery-like conditions are still the norm) instead of the US (a federal presidential constitutional republic, a representative democracy)… Clearly the US has much more GDP per capita and much more per capita income, but China is growing fast economically, while suppressing individual interests in China and building infrastructure in Africa. And the average person in China and in Africa is more interested in having a road, as opposed to having a vote… and having both appears to be an unattainable dream to them.

Corruption Perceptions Index

Corruption Perceptions Index

What is bizarre is that China is regarded as the key economy in the world today, but when you look at the numbers, the US is a developed nation with a strong GDP and GNI per capita per year (despite their democracy), similar to Sweden. Their GNI per capita is around 50,000 USD (note: there is income inequality so remember, this is only an average number, many earn much less, and some earn much more). China on the other hand is only a developing country still below the 6,000 USD per capita income per year level (above which a country is able to sustain democracy indefinitely, according to Dambisa Moyo‘s TED Global 2013 talk… another PR talk supporting China’s activities in Africa… interestingly she did not take any questions after her talk…). And Hungary is above the 12,000 USD margin so it is regarded as a developed country, but come on… democracy in Hungary is fading already (so perhaps Hungary’s budget and statistics are also questionable)… and Greece had twice that per capita income (over 24,000 USD) and it was just removed from the list of developed countries (the birth place of democracy with an imaginary budget)… Nothing that appears to be true based on old school economics is really true.  This is where we agree with Eric: New thinking is required.

However, keeping an open mind about how nations govern themselves does not mean that I would accept Orbán’s attempt to return to the rotten communist populism that Orbán himself (supposedly) hated and publicly protested against as a young democrat and that era was represented by Kádár, the authoritarian “happy-maker” of Hungary before 1989. When the so called “system change” happened, I was a teenager and the first thing I did, I went to Austria to learn German. The twenty something years that passed since were really traumatic on many levels and I don’t want to go backwards in time. At the same time the present situation in Hungary is not a sustainable one. Not politically, not economically and not in social terms. Low pay, high cost of living, enormous bureaucracy, political impotence and arrogance, manipulated state media (not as bad as in China… yet…), corruption, stagnating economy, plus mostly exhausted citizens. The open minded, constructive and independently thinking elite and the middle class is missing…

Meanwhile in Denmark: very low corruption, very high income, high levels of education and health care, low CO2 emission, long and increasing life expectancy. “The Kingdom of Denmark is a unitary constitutional monarchy, organized in a parliamentary democracy.” So, if Eric X. Li is telling us that the western world should look for some other ways instead of the way of democracy, I am asking EXL to consider this: China should urgently look for a way that permits plurality in a huge country with lots of regional diversity instead of the forced centralized dictatorship. Because perhaps there are hidden possibilities for Denmark-like regions in China, but right now you are forcing them too to look like Hungary… Just think about that… I suggest you adopt your own suggestions for your own country before you go out and tell the world how to progress. I suggest when you soon reach the 6,000 USD GNI per capita per year goal (above which China could indefinitely maintain democracy and democracies) you name your country “The United States of China” after turning all the autonomous regions and provinces into independent countries. (If that does not happen soon, some people definitely are artificially holding onto a questionable amount of power…)  Of course with all that growth and development in China, you will be able to be creative and invent the most marvelous technologically supported democracy where everything works like a dream. Right? Well, that is when I will look at China and say: the Chinese system might become the most superior one. How about that? When that happens and you become known as the investor from the USC, people of The West might be more likely to listen to your narrative. But as of today you come from China the land of modern day slavery and oppression (don’t you try to tell me that your polls are reflective of the truth, I know what dictatorships are doing to look good). Look forward, instead of looking backward.

Note: I just discovered thanks to WordPress’s “Recommended Links” that indeed I am not the first one to suggest a United States of China. Very interesting to immediately know that my idea is valid. And perhaps now is the time for the USC to be created. If China’s leaders are as effective as you say, we could celebrate a USC by 2020.

James O’Toole: Leading Change


Finally, let me quote James O’Toole from a book that I read over ten years ago while studying among other things the subject of Leadership at Columbia University in New York. (O’Toole: Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom, p. 10-12): “Clearly, the leadership of change does not depend on circumstances: it depends on the attitudes, values, and actions of leaders.” … “To be effective, leaders must change their attitude about followers forever and under all conditions. Moral leadership, by definition, can not be situational or contingent. The reason is simple: if ever leaders revert to paternalistic behavior…, in doing so they will break trust with followers.” From 1994-1997 James O’Toole was Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute, where you Eric X. Li are the Henry Crown Fellow.


Written by Regina Saphier, June 18, 2013 (

This entry was updated on June 20, 2013

New GNI data for 2012 added on July 10, 2013.

Additional data reported in the Hungarian media on July 09, 2013: The World Bank GNIPC in 2012 for Hungary is 12,390 USD. Most of the regional economies are doing significantly better, while Hungary is obviously going down. Here are the numbers between 2008 and 2011: 12,890 USD, 12,980 USD, 12,860 USD,12,730 USD. Here is what I wrote about this in January of 2013 on My Coursera Blog: “I am not pretending to know enough about developing countries, but in a way I feel that even though Hungary is regarded as a developed country, we have many issues that are similar to developing nations. In fact I strongly believe that statistics are powerfully distorted, because living standards are very different within Hungary, and it still feels like a developing nation.” Before we joined the EU Hungary was forced into pretending that it fits the EU. Well, even before I graduated from Columbia, I warned that Hungary is not ready for the EU, and that even EU officials are willfully blind to this fact. However, nobody was listening to a graduate student, obviously…

Eric X. Li’s TED Global 2013 talk was published on July 1, 2013




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  1. To anyone who enjoyed the post… you might also like this post on another blog of mine:
    Regina Saphier: Corrupt Dictatorships Kidnap Societies

  2. I’m sorry, but as someone who has lived and worked in China for 8 years now, it’s hard for me to take your post seriously when you suggest that China is a “land of modern day slavery and oppression.”

    Yes, there is a lot of room for improvement. And there are factories that are exploiting people, but to suggest that’s the only thing China offers is ridiculous.

    My husband came from a poor rural family in China. His mother still tells him stories about neighbors starving to death when she was a little girl.

    And in less than 1 generation, they were able to raise themselves to the middle class. And he was the first to ever travel outside of the China, to the US, for school.

    Now he even had the chance to stay in the States and become a US citizen, but it was because of all the opportunities that he saw in his homeland that we decided to move to China.

    I realize this is just my own experience and that there are many Chinese who are not as lucky. But the fact is that I don’t need a survey to tell me the people here are optimistic… I just need to look at their faces and see how their lives have improved.

    • What makes you think that (in your words) I: “suggest that’s the only thing China offers”? Where did you see me write that? I wrote two posts about China, and nowhere do I say so. China has a lot to offer, but it is limited and distorted by its own leading party. Of course people are optimistic in your environment. When deadly becomes survivable, and when some start making money, it is cause for optimism for many. If this is the level of your understanding of my writing, economics and China, I do not see a reason to say much more. I took the time to explore the topic already. You see what you wish to see, obviously. You are in one particular social strata and network and that you believe is China, but it is not. How would you feel if you could not communicate freely with anyone on the web globally from the US and Canada? Would you say things are going really well for people in the US and in Canada, with one tenth of the present day US GNI? You are trying to argue with macro issues from a micro perspective…

  3. As a Chinese, we are more concern about the future. We think about “where to go from here” instead of “whether if would be better if I had taken another path”.

    If you know more about the history of China, you might understand why we are in this situation. About 100 years ago we tried democracy, but the elected leader claimed the power and started up dictatorship (Yuan Shikai). And then we had social movements and turmoils. The Chinese government grew so weak that it couldn’t stop China from breaking apart, some situation you can find in some African countries nowadays. We tried democracy. It failed. We ended up with the communist party.

    It is always easy question to ask whether democracy is better than authoritarianism. Here are the hard ones:
    1. How to make the CCP to give up their power in a peaceful way, so that there is minimal bloodshed?
    2. How to redistribute the power and social resources in a relatively fair way, when the society goes unstable as the central government becomes dysfunctional? If this problem is not handled properly, it is guaranteed to be a disaster for the lowest level of the society.
    3. How to make sure the elected leader is competent, that s/he will help improving most of the Chinese’s life like we are having now?
    I can continue to list all these problems. But I think you have seen my point.

    And finally, I would like to point out that your condemnation of China’s modern slavery and oppression is ironic. Without the massive deprivation (slavery, colonization, you name it) of the third world countries in the past, the western countries wouldn’t have accumulated the massive fortune they have now. And they are still doing that nowadays in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Li named it: huris.

    • Thank you for your comment and valid questions. I only have one thing to add: I am equally condemning slavery and colonization by western countries. Let me remind you that I am maintaining an outsider position because I am kind of in the middle between China and the US, and because it is my nature to do so. By the way, Hungary is not a rich country. Neither was it involved historically in classical slavery (like the US), nor in international colonization (like the UK). But just to be correct the Austro-Hungarian concession zone in Tianjin, China lasted 16 years (1901-1917). Not one consul there had a Hungarian name. Here is the size of the “colony”: 150 acres (0.61 km2).

    • I find it funny that you would claim that the author’s condemnation of China is “ironic” due to the sins of Western colonialism, when she is Hungarian. Hungary was never involved in colonialism. Quite frankly, I think this is just the common Chinese misconception of thinking all “Westerners” and “white people” are the same.

      Another thing: the elections which brought Yuan Shikai to power in 1913 saw the participation of less than 1% of the Chinese population. China at the time was a mess, and divided up among foreign powers. There were no institutional constraints preventing the winner from establishing a dictatorship.

      The idea that democracy in China couldn’t work now just because it didn’t work in 1913 is quite fanciful. The situation is completely different. I think China could become a stable democracy at present.

  4. I didn’t check back to see your response. At this point in my life and career, I am not concerned about business interests and the possible loss thereof.

    • Would be nice if others felt like you and me. If all people felt free to speak their minds regarding China. The time will come.

  5. Very good piece on EXL. As you saw, I am deeply opposed to Moyo’s view of China’s support for Africa. Having lived in China and worked extensively in development work in Africa, I can see that China Inc. is entirely focused on what it can buy, take home, and help China. China cannot open itself up to introspective thought for fear that there will be another Tienamen Square outbreak. China lives in fear of their own Arab Spring. I should point out that I love China and its people, but its government is the problem. Thank you for your piece.

    • Thank you for your comment! Especially meaningful from someone who attended the conference. Also, as it turns out you are courageous too, because people rather e-mailed me their supportive opinion, they did not post here… out of fear or out of business interest…

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