Michael Wolraich's picture

    China: Tiger on a Leash

    As the U.S. sinks deeper into recession and China gorges itself on ever greater quantities of American debt, you will start to hear about the "Chinese model" and the end of American hegemony. Yet China remains tethered by a stiff leash which will ultimately choke the charging tiger once it runs out slack: its government. As Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), declared last week, the government has no plans nor desire to institute Western-style democracy:

    We must more fully recognize the essential differences between the system of people's congresses and Western capitalist countries' system of political power...China's system of political parties is a system of multiparty cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), not a Western-style multiparty system...The NPC Standing Committee must draw on the achievements of all cultures, including their political achievements, but will never simply copy the system of Western countries or introduce a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation, a system with the separation of the three powers or a bicameral system.

    Americans take great pride in our freedom, and many imagine that freedom is the root of our economic power. But lack of freedom is not the leash that holds the tiger. While industry must have some latitude in order to grow, China has demonstrated that rapid growth is consistent with totalitarianism, and history contains many examples of dynamic economies under despotic regimes. Most notably, Germany suffered from 30% unemployment under the Weimar Republic, while the Nazis achieved essentially full employment, producing "the most rapid decline in unemployment in any country during the Great Depression."

    But there is one critical attribute of Western democracy that China will never be able to replicate without meaningful political reform: change. Institutions inherently trend towards calcification. It happens to nations, corporations, organized religions, and other large organizations. A class of leaders embeds itself in the structure of the organization. Their ideas become outdated, they stop responding effectively to external changes, they protect their own from scandal, and they focus on retaining their own power rather than leading their organization forward.

    What true democracy offers is the opportunity every once in a while to throw the bums out, as so fortuitously occurred early this year in the U.S. New blood and new ideas spill into the empty halls. Failed policies and useless personnel get dumped. Political criminals face prosecution. The nation moves on to a brighter future.

    But Wu made clear that China is not interested in change, and the Chinese government has often proclaimed that stability and social harmony are its greatest priorities. Under an effective, dynamic government, stability and social harmony are worthy objectives, but under dysfunctional leadership, they become euphemisms for stagnation. A case in point is Japan, another Asian nation that stresses stability and social harmony. Japan is a democracy in name and form, but in practice, it has been led by the same party for half a century. As I've written previously, Japan enjoyed incredible growth for three decades, but now Japan's zombie banks are mirrored by zombie leaders whom the Japanese people stubborn refuse to oust.

    Without political reform, China will eventually suffer an even worse fate. The roots of China's eventual deterioration have already set in a culture of corruption so endemic that there is a national sales spike in luxury goods before national party congresses. Over time, the politicians will become fatter and corruption more entrenched. Merit will cease to be rewarded, and ineffective leaders will mulishly pursue policies that promote their own hold on power at the expense of their peoples' well-being. Without democratic elections, the people will be unable to throw their bums out, and the tiger will choke on its rope.


    For a country supposedly resistant to change, China has managed an incredible amount of the economic and social kind. The only change its leaders seem to be ruling out specifically is Western-style multi-party democracy.

    It's true that corruption reached intolerable levels as the aging revolutionary elite (and their slightly younger acolytes) clung to power. In fact, I'd suggest Tienanmen Square was as much an anti-corruption protest as it was a pro-democracy one. Since then, however, a less ossified, more pragmatic leadership has emerged. Chinese political culture has evolved, is evolving, and will continue to evolve.

    Comparing modern China to Nazi Germany is quite a leap. The government may be single-party, but it's neither despotic nor totalitarian. The majority of the people are not ruled by fear, and the Communist Party has long dumped its ideological rigidity. Sure, I'd like to see more generous treatment of minorities and a more independent judiciary. But we North Americans don't have unblemished records on those scores.

    China has been going through a period of dynamic change. They have had a series of strong leaders with bold ideas, particularly Jiang Zemin. Perhaps they will continue to do so and prove the exception, but I don't know of any examples of single-party regimes that proved capable of remaining dynamic for more than a few decades.

    PS I wasn't comparing China to Nazi Germany, just using them both as examples to demonstrate the point that non-democracies are capable of rapid economic growth. At least for a time.

    Understood that you were comparing them only economically. Nazi Germany is a problematic yardstick to use even for that, since its six years of "peace" were entirely devoted to girding up for war. Odd the way that always seems to give the economy a jolt.

    the only change its leaders are ruling out is western style, multi-party democracy?!? a) that's a pretty big one B) there are others, like free speech and free press. don't be fooled - china may not have the one, all-powerful leader to call its system despotic or totalitarian but it still is ruled with an iron fist, or at least a steel one.

    anyway, nice post, g. the big question is how will the system evolve? it's very unlikely that an economically capitalistic and politically communistic system will be able to live peacefully together forever. the success of the experiment so far has certainly postponed the day of reckoning, but at some point, the economy will go bad, and one of them will be compromised, either by popular demand or government force. the questions are - how long will it take, which one will win out, and how much violence will occur in the process?

    I'd bet on China surpassing the Soviet Union as the longest-running nominally Marxist economy. I happen to like multi-party democracy, with all its inefficiencies, but there's no way it's the only possible method of organizing a society. And it's a bit ironic for North Americans to predict that at some point the Chinese economy will go bad.

    Of course democracy is not the only possible method of organizing society; it's not even the prevalent method of organizing society. It's simply the best method (that we've found) for ensuring consistent change. And change, I've argued, is necessary to avoid ossification and stagnation. The "Marxist" party mechanism isn't horrible in this regard. China has been able to ensure a new premiere every decade or so, as the Soviet Union once did. But like the USSR, China also has an entrenched political hierarchy and a culture of corruption which I'm willing to guarantee will eventually hobble its leadership if they don't reform.

    All economies go bad. You don't need a crystal ball to predict that. The question is what happens to the leadership when the economy goes bad. In the U.S., we boot the bastards out and get ourselves some new bastards with new ideas. In China, they won't boot the bastards out because their political system, as it stands, will prevent them from doing so. (Or else, as Deadman suggests, they'll boot them out in a violent conflaguration.)

    As I come from China, I should say thay our country maybe have some limitation at freedom. But It's a must by some means. China is so large, has so many people that hold different opinions, we must focus our effort on one point. If we don't do this, we maybe come back to the time when western countris establish colony on our country!

    At last, what I want to say is that we are not so foolish as you thought!

    Be friendly, with the devolopment, all difficulty will be solved and the earth will finally be harmoniousTongue out

    I'm less optimistic than you about the earth ever becoming harmonious, but I expect that the U.S. and China can get along for the most part.

    I think that you've misunderstood my point though. I'm not writing about freedom. I even argued that freedom is not necessary for a robust economy. I'm writing about democracy. Your leaders today are managing the country well, and the people are content. But one day in the future, the leaders will be less effective, and the people will have no way to replace them.

    Congratulations! You have been invaded by Chinese "leftist angry (shitty) young man"! (In Chinese, the characters for "angry" 愤 and "shitty" 粪 sound the same.)

    Either you've got a huge following in China by now, or they have bots that scour the blogospere for any mentioning of China.

    I have a somewhat simplistic pet theory to explain China's explosive growth in the last 30 years, and why it will crash and burn very badly. It's too long for a comment, so I'll write a blog piece and link it back here (don't hold your breath).

    While I love the idea of dagblog invading the China market, I'm going with bots. We're google-news indexed, so it probably came from there.

    I look forward to your post which I'm sure will be more informed than my highminded ass-blathering. I encourage you to cross-post it as a reader blog.

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