China: Is it the future of world politics – or not?

Colonel Sanders is looking young - and Chinese - at the opening of a new KFC outlet in Beijing.

It’s well past time that people woke up to China’s role in the world and I don’t just mean noticing “Made in China” on the base of that thing you’ve just bought. (It’s probably from Vietnam or the Philippines these days anyway – or perhaps Madagascar if it’s clothing.) And eating Chinese doesn’t count either.

It’s crazy how tightly schools cling to European languages to the exclusion of Chinese. Sure, Spanish can be number one – it’s on the doorstep, good weather, world language, beautiful songs. But why should Chinese be relegated below French, German, Russian (!), Italian, Latin, Greek, etc?

Then again, there are some people who are in a constant tizzy about the spread of Chinese influence – soft power, economic investment, military infiltration. The panic has reached such intensity in parts of the blogosphere that it reminds me of that old cartoon (anyone know it?) that had Americans imagining that it was Vietnam bordering Texas instead of Mexico. (Though with the low intensity warfare going on in Mexico these days…)

So is China really the future? Is western democracy tired and doomed to go down with the listing economic ship? Have the Chinese actually got it right in terms of development and never mind the niceties of freedom?

Two experts have recently been making predictions – Francis “end of history” Fukuyama and Dambiso “Dead Aid” Moyo. According to Frankie, China’s high quality authoritarian government could give liberal democracy a run for its money – though he still bets on the western system. Moyo, albeit with caveats, feels we are watching the decline of Western supremacy and the Eastern ascendancy.

Here’s a small flavour of each. Dambiso Moyo is quoted from the excellent Five Books interview.

You have to remember it’s not the first time places like China and India have been the largest economies in the world. This was the case in the 1820s. …. Why should it be different for China this time? What mistakes did they make last time? …  About 20 years ago everyone was talking about Japan taking over as the lead global economic powerhouse. Why is that we think China can do better than Japan did?

Speaking about Ian Bremmer‘s book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? she says this:

Bremmer looks at the East-West theme largely through a political lens. One of his quips encapsulates his fundamental view: “In the Rest the state controls the corporations whereas in the West the corporations control the state.” My reading of his work is that in the West, the influence of the corporations has led to an erosion of political culture: they’ve infiltrated the political discourse. On some level, Ian is quite enamoured of China’s state capitalism, of the role of the Sovereign Wealth Funds, of the implications of the state controlling the corporations.

I would say it’s pretty clear that governments like China are not obsessed with profit maximisation per se, they’re obsessed with volume maximisation. In that sense they have a bigger utility function – one with a longer term horizon (instead of a myopic view). It’s not just “we’ve got to make profits”. It’s about China, the grand society. I found this type of perspective very interesting….

To give you a specific example…  one of the key reasons that China has done extremely well is because her wages have been very low. A confluence of factors – low wages, a large population and state-controlled capitalism – have worked well for China. At very minimum, these three factors have made it possible for China to perform phenomenally. The problem is that we’re now seeing wages rising. And even though you have state capitalism, there is still a risk that the whole thing falls apart. In an environment where wages are rising fast, you end up not only with inflationary pressure but widening income inequalities, and this can be very problematic for the state capitalism model. I think…  China is not out of the woods.

Do you sympathise with his idea that state authoritarianism has advantages?

Yes… If you’re asking me if democracy is a prerequisite for economic development, clearly it’s not. China is not democratic, nor is Singapore, nor was Chile in the manner in which we define democratic process. There are numerous countries around the world that have achieved long-term, sustained economic growth and lifted millions of people out of poverty without living in a classical democracy. So that’s not up for debate. The question is, as a long-term strategy is it possible for countries to have sustained economic growth with a large role for the state? Also, what happens when you have a large, critical middle class who demand greater political franchise? We don’t know what the answer to that is. I would say that the larger the middle class becomes in China, the more demands they will make for democracy, and the political transition will always be tricky. However, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

And if you ask me if having elections so often actually hampers the ability of policymakers in the US, and across democratic countries, to implement more long term, strategic policies that are important to avert long-term decline, then my answer is yes. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw out democracy. In fact, there are different things you can do within a democratic society that can get around this problem of hyper-politicisation. For example, you could have longer political terms. You don’t have to have elections every two years, you could have them every six years as Mexico does. Such a system just might give policymakers a little more wiggle room to focus on the more structural or longer term issues, such as (in the case of the US) education reform, energy and infrastructure build-outs which tend to fall by the wayside in short-term politics.

Francis Fukuyama in his new book The Origins of Political Order looks at China past and present and considers how well it fits into the harmonious trinity of a functioning state, the rule of law and accountable government. He argues China’s problem in the past was an over mighty state. Here’s an excerpt from David Runciman’s (critical) review:

Ancient China arrived at a strong centralised state far earlier than the west, in order to combat the problem of endemic civil war. But the Chinese state that emerged was too strong: it crushed the warlords but also crushed any incipient civil society or ideas of accountability. Thus China enjoyed an early advantage on the path to political order, but it was this advantage that set it back, because too much power was concentrated too soon. It is this fact, Fukuyama believes, that explains the autocratic condition of Chinese politics to this day.

So let’s come up to date and dip into Stephen Moss’s recent interview with Fukuyama. Is liberal democracy ripe to be replaced with something more like the Chinese model today?

He sees China as a “really interesting challenge – a very high-quality authoritarian government”. Can it challenge the liberal democratic model? “It’s theoretically possible,” he admits, “but it’s such a hard system to duplicate, and I don’t think the Chinese believe that anyone can duplicate it, and therefore they’re not proselytising other countries to adopt it.” For all the qualifications and the new mood of pessimism over the immediate prospects for countries caught up in the crash, he still holds to his belief that liberal democracy is the endpoint of political evolution and the system to which countries will continue to aspire. China, the only current viable alternative, “lacks a basic legitimacy in the same way that these Arab regimes do, because it doesn’t respect the rights of ordinary Chinese; it tramples on them all the time. There are lots of violent social protests that we never get to hear about, and the economic model is going to run out of steam because you cannot keep growing at 10% a year based on exporting all this stuff to people who can’t afford it any more.” There is no immediate threat to the Chinese system, he says, but in 20 or 30 years it will come under severe pressure. Liberal democracy is likely to win again…

So on the one hand we could learn from the Chinese approach – on the other, it’s due to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions a bit further down the road. Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring. Chinese food for thought. Which reminds me, if this has put you in the mood for Chinese food to eat, this is the woman you should read, the expert and delightful Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “China: Is it the future of world politics – or not?

  1. Yes, (I surprise myself) Bremmer’s Arguement Is Persuasive .Rather A Strong State than Dominant Corperations Me’Thinks.

  2. It amuses me that US leaders from Obama downwards still make out they’re the world’s superpower, while they owe China around $1½ trillion and are on the verge of bankruptcy. Of course if they slashed their astronomical military budget (equal to every other departmental budget put together), they could be completely solvent and the superpower claim might actually be convincing.
    China may be an up and coming country economically but surely it has little influence in terms of politics and culture. Who would want to copy China’s record on human rights or dictatorship or land appropriation?

  3. State – controlled capitalism? Sounds like an oxymoron, more like communism.

  4. Since I come from India, my take is likely to be influenced by the so called rivalry between India and China. I think that it is a lot of hogwash. Both countries woke up too late to modernity and their sudden appearance has caused this great debate. I certainly would not like to live in a totalitarian state and achieve what China has achieved, but India in its own bumbling way can do much better and faster, with some inspired leadership which is lacking due to our peculiar politics. We are really many countries within a federal structure and that makes for a great deal of inefficiency in our politics and economics. Both will be great economies, but there is no need to think that because of this all kinds of dire things will happen.

  5. TaylorGooderham

    The reasons why I can think they don’t teach Chinese in school is that there isn’t enough demand for it, or other reasons. In Canada, we have to learn English and French in school (up until a certain grade), as well as there being a French-immersion program (which my Chinese girlfriend is in) and French-only schools. I’m guessing that since it’s not an official language for Canada, and there isn’t a tie to the language (i.e. Latin being a large root for English), is why it isn’t taught in school, as well as there probably not being enough demand for it to devote resources to it.

  6. The stuff they make is crap. We got a small bicycle for kids and when tried to assemble the heads of the bolts twisted off when tightening, plastic assembly for handle bar breaks crumbled. holes for attaching fenders not in right place, fenders twisted and so on. The problem is that there is hardly anything in the stores not made in China. They have no quality control nor a desire to institute it. If I need particular items I go on line and pay the extra money for quality made USA, Germany or Japan. They will punish themselves because I predict all those high rise buildings going up in key cities will start to collapse in 20 years. They probably have increased the sand to cement ratio for concrete and reduced the amount of steel rebar for columns and lentils. Its all for max and quick profit. Consumers world wide will hopefully get angry enough to boycott their goods.

  7. What a great post! It got me curious to know what’s offered language-wise in my neck of the woods. Crystal Lake, Illinois is about an hour north of Chicago and 1/2-hour south of the Wisconsin border. We have three high schools in town. I’m tickled to say that two of them offer Chinese. Our community college (McHenry Country College) offers it, and two of our middle schools (Coventry and Lundahl) offer it. How cool is that?!

  8. I like the idea of longer political terms. Ours are three years and since the GFC that’s barely enough time to dip a toe in the water let alone legislate for economic recovery. China is our largest trading partner so we’re highly dependent, especially in the resource sector and whilst the rise of capitalism is evident, people forget that china has the most border disputes than any other country in the world. It’s far from united, far from developed in many places and along way from becoming a world political player.

  9. Interesting article. I have done a vid discussing alleged “End of history” also it is a total hoax (in my opinion). Vid is on my blog, its Vid named “Neoliberalism 1/2” http://weltschmerz.posterous.com/

  10. Isabella

    Valuable post.
    Keep up the good work!
    You’ve got one more reader of your great blog:)
    Isabella S.

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