China Envy

18 January 2011


How could anyone not write about China today? China is everywhere you look. The BBC had several stories on Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the US (Obama hosts China’s Hu at rare private White House meal) and a commentary piece on China by Joseph Nye (of “soft power” fame) called Viewpoint: China’s hubris colours US relations. The Financial Times devoted three entire pages to China in today’s edition, with a top story that China now loans more money than the World Bank (China’s lending hits new heights), and an opinion piece of Francis Fukuyama (of post-Cold War “End of History” fame) on why US democracy has little to teach China. The Financial Times also launched a new in-depth series, China Shapes the World. I’m sure that if I watched the news on television, there would be endless coverage. This is, as we would say today, lots of information, but we must pass from information to understanding if we are to make sense of the world. And this is my objective: to make sense of the world.

Foreign Policy’s “FP Morning Brief” for today characterized Hu’s visit as, “…a crucial barometer of the U.S-Chinese relationship” and went on to detail several recent, high-profile criticisms of Chinese policies by administration figures. Foreign Policy then noted, “…statements over the past week have signaled the Obama administration’s intention not to back down on the major issues affecting the U.S.-China relations. However, analysts suggest, they could also make Hu’s state visit a tense affair.” This makes the visit sound important, and it is symbolically important that the visit should occur, but we all know that nothing of substance happens at summits and major state visits that include (as this is to include, according to the BBC) “an opulent state dinner.”

In the midst of all this commentary and showmanship, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by symbolic (and symbolically necessary) photo opportunities. If we are to understand what is happening in the world, we must stay focused on the substance and the content. However, substance and content need not be swallowed like a distasteful medicine, but can be made to go down a little easier with the spoonful of sugar supplied by narrative. Therefore I will recount four narratives that presume to address substantive, long-term issues regarding China, especially in relation to Western interests.

There are several narratives currently circulating in the public sphere, both in China and the US, that attempt to explain the significance of current US-China relationships. One term that we now hear with great frequency is “relative decline.” This irritates me a lot, because it is the old “jealousy of trade” argument that Hume dismissed two hundred years ago. In the eyes of some commentators, the world outside the US becoming richer is a sign of US “relative decline.” it does not seem to have occurred to these commentators that wealthy countries are also generally peaceful countries, and that wealthy countries can afford the kind of goods and services that are produced by the advanced industrialized economies of North America and Western Europe.

Another narrative, more common in China that the US, but not without its hand-wringing advocates in the US as well, is the narrative of absolute decline. This is addressed by Joseph Nye in his piece on the BBC mentioned above, China’s hubris colours US relations. In this narrative, the US has not experienced a mere relative decline due to the material increases outside the US, but the US has actually entered into a long-term protracted decline from which it will not recover, and of which China will be the major beneficiary, eventually taking the sole superpower crown from the US. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times has lent credence to this narrative with his piece in Foreign Policy, Think Again: American Decline.

Another common narrative, most familiar from Thomas Friedman’s adulatory pieces on China, is that of Chinese efficiency, discipline, execution, and thoroughness. The quick and nasty version is that the Chinese are simply better at everything, and now that they have thrown off the self-limiting yoke of communist economic policies this natural excellence will out and it is only a matter of time before the Chinese rule the world. In this narrative, China’s success is not based upon anything uniquely Chinese, but rather upon the Chinese ability to exploit the economic model of other nation-states with its superior numbers.

The only other narrative I will mention today (there are many, so one must be selective) is that of The Chinese Model. The narrative of the Chinese Model is that what the Chinese have achieved over the past few decades is the result of a uniquely novel synthesis of political and economic levers. In this narrative, China has not succeeded because they have Westernized their economy, but because they really do have something that corresponds to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” and that this Chinese model that includes state-owned enterprises, heavy-handed centralized regulation, and autocratic one-party rule might well be a Chinese Model that could be profitably copied by other nation-states. Whether or not other nation-states would also like to copy the endemic corruption, cronyism, and nepotism is another question. I regard the narrative of the Chinese Model as the newest variant of what The Economist some fifteen years ago called “Asian Values.”

Just for the record, relative decline is a misleading misnomer, absolute decline is a fiction, the Chinese will not rule the world any time soon due to Chinese Efficiency, and the Chinese Model is not about to be adopted by Chinese client states throughout the Third World (or any other place, for that matter).

If I reject these narratives, how will I then make sense of China’s place in the world today? I have argued in several posts for the simple fact that China is experiencing its industrial revolution, which is a one-time historical event. When a large nation-state experiences a one-time historical event, it appears to embody all kinds of exceptions to all kinds of political and economic conventional wisdom. Once China is industrialized and it not only faces perennial Chinese problems of geographical isolation and the conflict between the wealthy coast and the impoverished interior, it will also face all the challenges faced by all industrialized economies around the world today. If China, by the time of its consolidation of industrialization, is able to have intelligent institutions in place, it will be able to benefit from the experience of Western countries in industrialization. However, given the elephant-in-the-room fact of Chinese one-party rule by the communists — a flagrantly unintelligent institution — I don’t have much hope for this.

Perhaps the best way to make China comprehensible to Westerners, as well as to highlight its unique strengths and weaknesses, is to take on face value the testimony of a Chinese-American academic, Amy Chua. I wrote about professor Chua previously in Democratic Institutions, where I mentioned her well known book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Now professor Chua is set to become even more famous by the recent publication of her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. To give the quick and nasty version again, World on Fire tells us that democracy just won’t work in most places in the world, while Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother tells us that helicopter parenting on steroids (which I would prefer to call nonsense on stilts) will make your children into successful widgets of the establishment.

I encourage Westerners not to take my word for it, but to read these two books and the trust your gut response. Maybe you will admire these tomes, and like Thomas Friedman you will become a China booster and argue that the other nation-states ought to follow the Chinese Model and eventually usher in the Millennium. Or maybe you will visibly blanch, and you will go tell your kids to waste some time playing marbles and getting into a few good fistfights over the game. This, after all, is the Western way.

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