China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, got uncomfortably close to the truth when he lectured American officials about creating turmoil by invading other countries

A head shot of a bespectacled man in a dark suit shows him talking.

China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, got uncomfortably close to the truth when he lectured American officials about creating turmoil by invading other countries, having a “Cold War mentality” and trying to impose its democracy on the world.

Of course, Yang would not admit to China’s appalling human rights record, crushing of dissent, or flouting international rules and claiming disputed territory.

But when he sat down with his American counterparts in Alaska, he made it clear that there is another big voice in the world — and the American led so-called “global liberal order” does not run the game.

Perhaps his most telling comment, though, was that far from being a model of democracy, “many people in the United States have little confidence” in their own government.

America —and by extension, the West — is going through a period of soul searching where it appears exhausted, unsure of itself, and hypocritical.

US China talks Alaska diplomats at table

US China talks Alaska diplomats at tableThe opening session of US-China talks in Alaska last week.(Reuters: Frederic J. Brown/Pool

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Many people no longer believe in the “promise of democracy”. Freedom House — an organisation that measures the health of democratic nations globally — now counts 15 years of declining democracy.

Democracy is rotting from the inside: deformed by weak institutions, tribalism, the tyranny of the rich and an elite who dominate positions of power, racism, sexism, and crippling inequality.

The growing gap between rich and poor is a cancer that is eating democracy.

Rising inequality, fading dreams

Take the US: there, the wealth of someone in the top 1 per cent of society is 950 times greater than a member of the bottom 50 per cent.

The poor have seen their factories close down, their neighbourhoods trashed; they have lost their homes while the rich have grown richer.

They have still not recovered from the global financial crash of 2007/08, while the bankers who caused the disaster are back receiving their bonuses.

The rich in America pay lower taxes today than they did before the crash.

In his new book, Capital and Ideology, French economist Thomas Picketty says inequality has less to do with the economy than the political choices governments make.

In 2008 US President Barack Obama sided with the bankers over the people.

As Picketty writes: “Every human society must justify its inequalities; unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.”

US President Joe Biden gestures while giving a speech

US President Joe Biden gestures while giving a speech74 million people voted for Trump: the election of Joe Biden and his appeals to decency will not bridge that divide.(AP: Evan Vucci

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How does America justify such gross inequality? And the entire political edifice is in danger of collapse. Do we need any more evidence than four years of Donald Trump in the White House and the storming of the Capitol Building?

74 million people voted for Trump: the election of Joe Biden and his appeals to decency will not bridge that divide.

The Democrats — champions of neoliberalism that put the market ahead of people — have been part of the problem.

In country where life expectancy among the poor has been decreasing and many feel abandoned by Washington, democracy, in the words of economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, looks like a “scam”.

The wealth gap has played into a culture war which, combined with racism, has been rich pickings for demagogues and political populists who feed on fear and anxiety.

In America it helped put Trump in the White House, while in Europe it has inspired a revival of the far right, contributed in no small part to Brexit, and has fuelled a backlash against immigration and refugees.

What of Australia?

In Australia, we have largely avoided the worst of political extremism and even the most egregious inequality. But there are worrying signs.

In recent years the wealth gap has widened. Research from the University of New South Wales and the Australian Council of Social Services last year showed that the average wealth of the top 20 per cent of income earners is 90 times that of the lowest 20 per cent.

This was based on pre-COVID figures; after the pandemic the situation may worsen.

Large numbers of Australians now need help from Centrelink.

Large numbers of Australians now need help from Centrelink.The COVID pandemic may worsen Australia’s economic inequality.(AAP: James Gourley

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Picketty has pointed out that inequality is built into our societies, predating the Industrial Revolution and the technology age. We keep finding new ways to justify it.

The times when inequality decreased were during periods of war or upheaval or long stages of economic growth like the decades following World War II.

Reducing inequality, Picketty argues, depends on the decisions made by governments and is not possible without increasing taxes on the rich.

But where is the appetite for that type of reform? Politicians who take a high-taxing agenda to an election inevitably lose. People vote for their own interests and the poor get poorer and angrier and our politics becomes more divided and toxic.

Democracies die. We are seeing that around the world. Often they’re killed by the people we elect.

Harvard University Professors in Government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, say democracies die in war, but they also die at the hands of elected leaders: “Presidents or Prime Ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”

Leaders who have presided over shocking inequality and others who exploit it for their own gain. As the poet William Blake wrote: “A dog starved at his master’s gate predicts the ruin of the state.”

We should heed those words today.

China’s Yang Jiechi certainly knows America’s weakness, and perversely it is what has been America’s strength: its democracy.

He might also have reminded them that while the poor in America get poorer, China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty.

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