The Chinese debate – Part 2: Democracy and the economy
I also want to send a few sentences to Mr. Wahaha: please do not so easily “represent” the Chinese or the Chinese government. I don’t know if you’re an oversea student or overseas Chinese, but regardless of China is strong or small, it doesn’t have anything to do with you having greater face and authority in the face of Westerners. Furthermore, China’s economic growth is the result of hard work by Chinese citizens, and not the government’s charity; our lives are improving, because these are the returns from our own work, not because of a government or certain political party has bestowed them on us.
Now, we get to a topic that has nothing to do with Western media and being overseas. Now we get to a topic that has to do only with being “left” or “right”, being a supporter or opponent of the current Chinese government. This topic should be kept separate from the topic above.
Let me start by sending a few sentences to you, Traveler: please do not so easily assume that we hope for a strong China because we need “face”. I will not speak for Wahaha, but many of us are extremely successful, and do not need to borrow face from anyone. We can silence ourselves on China tomorrow, and we will not suffer for it. We can cut ourselves off from China tomorrow, and no one in the United States will force us back. Here’s a bit of advice for you if you ever come to the West, and are embarrassed by an association with the Chinese: if nothing else, we can always pretend to be Japanese. No one in the West could possibly know the difference
If Wahaha cares, if any of us care, it’s because we actually care out of true compassion and love, not because we’re forced into it by a hostile West. We have numerous relatives, friends in China. Many of us.. first, second, even third generation.. feel our Chinese identity strongly, and we care about the interests of our Chinese brothers and sisters. I admit it, I am a truly selfish 真小人: I have not been able to give up my salary in order to go back to China and work directly for my country and my people. But beyond that, my conscience tells me to love my country, and to care for my country. This is the simple truth for many Chinese overseas.
In contrast, we feed the government. In terms of the government designing policies that advance the economy, that’s its job. If you can’t do it, then get out. Do you really want us to feel gratitude? As far as Russia and India’s poor economy, what does that have to do with China? What does that have to do with democracy? Why don’t you compare to North Korea and Cuba as examples? Besides, you don’t have a good grasp of Chinese history, and hope you can keep making an effort in trying to better understand China.
You are not the only one making this point. Many Chinese overseas, the same ones who care about China because their conscience demands it, ask the same question. This is more or less a divide between “left” and “right”. I will give you my personal explanation, as someone who stands more on the “left” side of the political line. I can’t stress enough that I’m not speaking for the Chinese, for the community, for anyone but myself.
The world changed dramatically in 1945; it was the end of the imperial era, and the beginning of a new, globalized world. If you look at the history of the world since 1945, you would notice a few things. Since 1945, there have been numerous democracies, rich and poor. But there has not been any successful poor democracies that can act as a model for China’s future development.
This is one reason why the example of India is interesting; India has been an open democracy for 60 years, but its democracy hasn’t solved many of the problems some activists in China naively point to. But many Chinese look down on India, and insist that there are other cultural factors at play here. If you were to study the numbers, you will see that India is not alone. Any democracy that was extremely poor in 1945 remains poor today… (unless they won the lottery, by being located on an oil well.)
We can talk about any poor democracy you’d like: Brazil? Mexico? Go find a reference book, and we can look at any poor democracy you would like. China’s GDP per capita today is about $2500 (US dollars)… find me a successful country that was a democracy with the same economic level, find me a country that can be a positive model for China’s future development.
Let me talk about two common problems that many believe exists in China, and talk about them in the context of poor developing democracies:
– Corruption: The theory is simple: if one political party is corrupt, then you elected in a different political party that is (or promises) to be clean. But what if both political parties are equally corrupt? What if both political parties can’t win office, and can’t rule without the help of corrupt elements in society? What if the media itself is corrupt? In India (and any other poor democracy), corruption is absolutely pervasive: you can buy legal decisions, business licenses, and government support. Look at the Corruption Perceptions Index published by the Western group Transparency International. Corruption in India, after 60 years, remains as bad if not worse than corruption in China.
– Economic growth: The theory here is also simple: democracy shouldn’t hurt economic growth, and might even help it by improving governance, by eliminating corruption. Simple, but again, naive. The statistics on this are obvious; no developing country in the last 5 decades has managed to transition into a democracy without showing a slow-down in its GDP growth rate. Not a single one.
I think there are many possible explanations for this. When you look at the example in India (and any other poor democracy), it has been incapable of long-term capital investment. India, Brazil, and Mexico has been unable to build the physical infrastructure that you take for granted in China. Railways and bridges often take many years to build, and then many decades before they repay their investment. For a democracy in which election campaigns are run on 4 year cycles, that doesn’t calculate. A local official is better off taking construction money and turning it into short-term subsidies for the poor, even if the consequences of this missing infrastructure is that the poor will stay poor, for longer.
Let me talk instead about the positive examples, and there are some.
Many of the “rightists” in China immediately point to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Why should we compare ourselves to India, Brazil, and Mexico? Why can’t we be like the other east Asian countries that we’re so culturally similar to? But this is all wishful, selective thinking, and not supported by the numbers. Let’s talk about each of these countries briefly. Because I don’t have a better way of describing “poor” versus “rich”, we will look at GDP per capita:
– Japan: Japan was devastated after World War II, of course. But it had been a modern nation since the Meiji Reforms of the 1860s, and this software infrastructure was never destroyed. By 1955, only 10 years after the end of the war, Japan’s GDP per capita was already at $6000 USD, more than double China’s current level.
– South Korea: South Korea wasn’t a democracy until approximately 1990. Its GDP per capita at the time was about $6000 USD, more than double China’s current level. Under authoritarian rule, it had an extremely high growth rate. After becoming a democracy, its economic growth rate immediately slowed.
– Taiwan: Taiwan also wasn’t a democracy until approximately 1996 (first presidential elections). In 1996, Taiwan’s GDP per capita was about $12000 USD, more than 5 times mainland China’s current level. Under authoritarian rule, it had an extremely high growth rate. After becoming a democracy, its economic growth rate immediately slowed.
– Spain: Spain was not a democracy until the late ’70s; its first presidential elections were in 1982. At the time, its GDP per capita was about $6000 USD, almost three times China’s current level. Under authoritarian rule, it had an extremely high growth rate (“Spanish Miracle”). After becoming a democracy, its economic growth rate immediately slowed.
I am hopeful for China, but I’m also realistic. I am not convinced that China will rewrite the history books, and do something that has never been accomplished by any previous poor democracy. I am not convinced that China would become like South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, or Japan. I fear that China would instead look like Brazil, India, or Mexico, stuck in a persistent state of (relatively) low economic growth, forever lagging behind as the developed world leaps ahead to the next generation. For those who disagree, I don’t understand your blind faith. What, in your mind, makes China unique amongst all nations? Why will China be able to break free of the force of gravity?
On the other hand, what will happen in 15 or 25 years if we continue with the present path, if we maintain our current growth, if we stay on our road-map for economic expansion? What will happen when China is 4 times as wealthy as it is today? What will happen when China’s GDP per capita crosses the $10000 (USD) boundary? A look at the history books, a look around the world tells us that amongst the wealthy nations of the world, there are no poorly run or corrupt nations. Most wealthy economies have become democratic, with a few exceptions in Hong Kong and Singapore. I can only assume that at that point, like every other society which has come before it, China will follow in South Korea and Taiwan’s footsteps at that point, taking a huge step forward towards an open, fair, law-based society.
15 or 25 years is a long time to wait. And I understand that I, very hypocritically, am living outside China’s borders even while I prescribe that bitter medicine. If there’s a better option for China, I would love to hear it. I have no blind love or loyalty for the Communist Party, but nor do I have blind love for the seductive, misleading words of naive idealists.
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