Dear Access member,
Well, well: Chinese short video app TikTok has hired a rock star businessman from The Walt Disney Company: see our first story for an early look at how Beijing-based ByteDance is about to massively up its international profile. The question is: will an all-American frat boy from Disney cut it at a Chinese company like TikTok? Previous examples of Westerners in similar positions, like ex-Googler Hugo Barra who joined Chinese mobile phone company Xiaomi for a short time, suggest that Kevin Mayer’s employment at TikTok and its parent company ByteDance may be a short-term phenomenon.
More broadly, the United States and other liberal democracies need to begin a gradual economic disengagement from China. The pandemic has demonstrated how both Europe and North America have become dangerously dependent on the manufacturing capabilities of a hostile power. There are today plenty of other places around the world where supply chains can be located. Squeezing every drop of efficiency out of them needs to give way to consideration of resilience, diversity of inputs, and regard for capabilities that are better kept under the control of countries that share democratic values. The atrophy of Western providers of end-to-end 5G infrastructure is something that should never have been allowed to happen…
…But while we need to understand that Xi’s China is a totalitarian power, we should temper that understanding with the realization that this is not a necessary or inevitable future for China. The regime is totalitarian in aspiration, but not necessarily in reality. We do not know how effective the new technological methods of control like the social credit system will ultimately be. Chinese citizens still have more personal freedom today than citizens of North Korea. Earlier dalliances with totalitarian control proved self-defeating: The Qin Dynasty lasted only for 16 years, and the Cultural Revolution exhausted itself within a decade. Compliance with the CCP’s rules is today often voluntary rather than the product [of] sheer terror, but as the Chinese economy slows or even goes into reverse, the regime’s room for using positive incentives for cooptation will decrease. And unlike Mao, Xi does not have a strong ideology to give him legitimacy; “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or “Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 thought” are not ideas that many people will want to die for.
- American essayist Tanner Greer is making the argument that the Chinese Communist Party’s goal is not just to “rejuvenate China,” but to build a world in which “democratization, free markets, and universal human rights would no longer be enshrined as the bedrock of the world’s most important international institutions or be seen as the default standards of good governance.”
- A world safe for autocracy?, Jessica Chen Weiss’s argument last year in Foreign Affairs, which covers a lot of similar ground about ideological competition, but comes to a slightly different conclusion that “democratic backsliding does not reflect a grand strategic plan in Beijing.” Chen Weiss says that “the CCP is fighting a defensive ideological battle against liberal norms of democracy and human rights, but so far at least, it is not engaged in a determined effort to spread autocracy.”
Our word of the day is Kevin Mayer, the new CEO of TikTok, whose name Chinese news websites are currently rendering as 凯文梅耶尔 kǎiwén méiyé’ěr. See our first story below for details.
—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief