BEIJING–Just down the street from a faded Communist billboard declaring “art, harmony, joy, justice, peace,” dissident artist Ai Weiwei is trapped in a state-of-the-art authoritarian labyrinth.

To avoid prison time, the democracy-advocate known for his work on Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium can pay $2.4 million in back taxes and fines that he insists he does not owe. Or he can face a repeat of the 81-day secret detention he endured earlier this year. Either way, China’s all-powerful Communist party succeeds at smearing him.

“The police told me yesterday ‘if you pay, that means you admit the crime,” Ai said in an interview in his Beijing home and art studio. “It will justify that they arrest me.”

Ai’s position – and the charges against him – is cutting-edge repression. For Chinese who do not challenge one-party rule, Western-style consumerism beckons. Police do not line Beijing streets. Starbucks cafes, Calvin Klein ads and Porsches do. The internet is freely available, with references to corruption, environmental degradation and protests in China removed. The suppression here is surgical.

Most chillingly, the financial crisis and political sclerosis in Washington may have convinced China’s ruling elite that Western democracy has failed. A fractured west is in disarray and decline. China’s economic growth and three trillion in foreign currency reserves justifies one-party rule.