Monday, February 19, 2007

The place of China in the world...

A Sydney Morning Herald John Gray op-ed that caught the eye this morning draws a bead upon a matter that I have prated on about in various comments left in odd corners of the blogiverse (usually in response to extremely uppitty Americans ;D )

A decade ago policymakers and opinion formers were supremely confident that globalisation meant the spread of Western institutions and values throughout the world. Political leaders and international institutions looked forward to a time when "democratic capitalism" would be accepted everywhere.

This confidence was not based on any rational assessment of facts. The mania surrounding globalisation was the latest incarnation of the Enlightenment faith that the advance of science and technology would create a universal civilisation, and predictably it was not long before it gave way to anxiety and foreboding. Islamist terrorism and the emergence of Russia as an authoritarian great power, together with American troubles in Iraq, have shattered the certainties of the 1990s. Yet the faith they expressed has not been destroyed. If anything, it is more fervent than before. For many people the Enlightenment has become a magic amulet clutched to the heart as a talisman against fear. In its most influential forms the Enlightenment has always been an ersatz religion - think of Marxism, for example - and in response to the shocks of the past years it has undergone a fundamentalist revival in much the same way that other faiths have done.


The other end of that particular observation is - of course - the sight of some very strange bed-fellows at anti-globalisation demonstrations. It also gives rise to fervour of the religious right singing the same hymnal as the corporate capitalist.

But enough already because Gray makes some important points in here which are expressed far better than I could ever have assembled...
Will Hutton in The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century asks: "Is the baton of global leadership going to pass from Anglo-Saxon hands, which held so many values in common, to Chinese hands? If so, the implications could not be more profound. The world would have to accommodate a wholly different civilisation and values; the character of global institutions, our culture and the primacy of our English language would be challenged.

"If the next century is going to be Chinese, it will only be because China embraces the economic and political pluralism of the West in general, and our Enlightenment institutions in particular, modified … for the Chinese experience." The caveat is worth noting. There is nothing about accepting China on equal terms with the West; rather, "our" Enlightenment inheritance must be modified to ensure that China becomes Western.

Regular visitors will be aware of my apposition of Dave Justus with the "consoling illusion" and I respectfully submit this quote from Hutton as another instance; another case in point.
If China tries harder it can achieve what Hutton sees as the supreme prize - it can become like us. Instead China has renounced Maoism without becoming like us, and its astonishing record of economic growth over the past quarter of a century is a result of that. The largest economic expansion in history has occurred without any of the institutions many would argue to be universally necessary - such as the rule of law and property rights. Can China's economic success be maintained without the freedoms supposedly integral to the "knowledge economy"?

Now there is the opening here for the argument that, in fact, China is starting to follow the Capitalist model. I agree, that does seem to be so. But at the same time there are very important differences that must be borne in mind.

The first is the obvious role of the State, and the implementation of their command economy. That that is still an imperative is beyond question - one need look no further than the Three Gorges Hydro scheme for immediate confirmation. It is not just in that macro decision to proceed, the State is in full control at the micro level as well with the "distribution" of labour from the cities now under the Three Gorges Lake being moved to other industrial areas.

The second is the current development of the all-important "middle class"; the consumers of national production. This is perhaps the strongest prop for the "China is Changing" supporters. To have such a "middle class" is (to them at least) a strong signal that China is change "to western ways".

And that is where Gray's conclusion comes in...
Behind the stale debates about human rights and cultural relativism looms the fact that Western power is in decline. No longer backed up by invincible military might or unchallengeable economic primacy, Western institutions are now only one way of realising universal human values. Having rejected Maoism and retaining Marxism only in name, China has set out on a path of development that owes few of its ruling ideas to the West. The outcome is uncertain, but in the end what Hutton and others like him fear most is not that the Chinese experiment will fail. It is that China will succeed.

3 comments:

Dave said...

I tend to be pretty skeptical of a Chinese dominated 21th century. Predominately, I think Chinese demographics, both the rapid aging of the population and the unfortunate male to female ratio of their young people is going to cause a great deal of instability and that they won't have aquired the necessary recources to whether that storm. I don't pretend to be able to predict precisely what will happen in China over the next 20 years, but it will be, I think, nothing good.

The larger point though, the question of whether an autocratic government is better for developing countries then a democratic one is, I think, a very interesting question, and one that isn't yet solved.

We have seen some pretty good evidence that a communist style populist government is fairly poor at advancing a third world nation, but facist governments (and the Chinese abandonment of Maoism has made them for all intents and purposes facist, rather than communist) have had some successes.

It is also encouraging that their seems to be some success with moving a facist state in a more democratic direction.

I myself though am loath to support such a strategy. I think that while facism can at times be successful, it is also perilous in the extreme and I don't believe it necessary for third world economic growth.

The probligo said...

OK. So we have a label for it... "Fascism". Yeah, that might not be entirely inappropriate when you consider the opening to the Wikipedia definition of the term. I guess that helps as long as we can stay away from the pejorative that seems to go with its use.

I don't think that I have suggested that "autocratic" is better than "democratic". I have recorded that to be a (VERY OBVIOUS) difference between China and the west.

There is a point which I think is missed here. I do not think that you can automatically ascribe the same "communist" attributes to China as those that led to the collapse of the Russian states. That, I believe, would be a mistake. With the Russian experiences before them, there is nothing surer than the Chinese Politburo will be very conscious of the mistakes made. There is nothing surer than the Politburo will be (IS) working hard to avoid the same mistakes.

If you wish to see how that is being achieved perhaps the Three Gorges Dam is a good starting point as it uses all of the features of their political system... autocracy (do it), command economy (fund it, resource it). Similarly the industrialisation of the east and south has placed major demands there for labour - it is coming; from the sexual imbalance you have identified, from people displaced by government decree or other activities such as TGD, and from increasing urbanisation.

Personally I believe that China is at risk, but not for the same reasons as you. The biggest difficulties that I see facing China are first to retain unpolluted potable water supplies followed closely by food production. Neither of those can entirely be resolved from obtaining new resources. That future demand creates a risk for both China and the rest of the world. That China has attacked the problem (from one side, and in the process inadvertently creating the imbalance of male/female that you refer to) is to their credit.

I do not believe that the male/female ratio is of any consequence unless you fear the possibility of Chinese males taking all of the good-looking American girls. Not a possible I suspect.

There is one final aspect that you should bear in mind, and it really does come at the point of Gray's article. Specifically his statement that "...China has renounced Maoism without becoming like us, and its astonishing record of economic growth over the past quarter of a century is a result of that..." is right on the mark. The difficulty in understanding that is not something that I would criticise anyone for; it is difficult for me to get my head around as well.

That difficulty comes in my case from being unable to fully appreciate the cultural difference between myself and the Chinese people. I catch the occasional glimpse of the difference from time to time but not to the extent that I can say "I know...". I think that I must add China to my list of "places to visit".

Dave said...

I don't actually find the concept that China has achieved great economic growth while having an authoritarian government and not embracing liberal reforms to be surprising or puzzling at all. Indeed, that is the story of most of the 'asian tigers' and we have seen it in some South American countries as well, Chile in particular. And of course both Italy and Germany had pretty good economic success with this method for a while as well, until their militarism led them down a very unfortunate road.

The good news as that as these countries grow in wealth, they have tended to become more liberal as well, wether or not that will hold true for China is of course questionable.

I find it highly unlikely that either food or water will be signifigant problems for China.

I also think you underestimate the effect of the male-female imbalance. While it is hard to predict exactly what will happen, it seems fairly clear to me that stability, long China's greatest asset (and also their greatest weakness) can be maintained in such an environment. While I am not particularly concerned about the chinese taking the good American girls, it seems pretty obvious to me that Chinese men are going to want girls from somewhere. How that will play out in specific is, again, hard to predict.

I note that you completely ignore the aging demographic, which is a much more serious problem.

China is aging faster then just about anywhere else, and other places that are seeing similar aging problems have much more resources per capita to deal with the issues that a rapidly aging demographic will cause. Despite their remarkable economic growth, it doesn't appear that they will get anywhere near the level of prosperity that we accept in most western nations before the demographic time bomb goes off. Maintaining growth, even maintaining a coherent society, will be quite difficult in that environment.