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China is no model

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a luncheon with a group of distinguished gentlemen in Little Rock. We chatted about an array of topics, but the conversation seemed to always circle back to China, which some in the group had visited and been impressed by.

To prompt our conversation, our luncheon host had circulated an essay from The Wall Street Journal by David Runciman, in which China's "pragmatic authoritarian" model was presented as an increasingly serious challenger to liberal democracy.

China's incongruous combination of explosive economic growth and continuing authoritarianism does indeed threaten some of our bedrock assumptions regarding political development, but there are probably also, Runciman's claims notwithstanding, good reasons to be skeptical about it as a long-term ideological alternative.

First, and perhaps most obviously, it is always risky to assume that the future will represent an extrapolation of the past.

In 1987, Yale historian Paul Kennedy made quite a splash with "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," the cover of which provocatively depicted Uncle Sam stepping off the top step and a Japanese businessman stepping onto it. That was, lest we forget, the pervasive sentiment of the times, with many predicting that Japan Inc., after decades of impressive growth, was fated to surpass the U.S. in GDP.

But it didn't happen; just a few years after Kennedy's book was published the Japanese economy went bust and the "industrial policy" model thought responsible for its success with it. Now, after a quarter-century of stagnation, the Japanese GDP is under $5 trillion, while the U.S. figure is $19.4 trillion.

China's boom will undoubtedly continue for some time to come, but the growth rates of the past 35 years also reflect the kind that only bottom-dwelling developing states typically can muster. Deng Xiaoping inherited one of the poorest countries on earth, made still poorer (and bloodier) by Chairman Mao's madcap "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution." There was nowhere to go after a belated embrace of capitalism but up, a long way and for a long time.

But squeezing out 8-10 percent annual growth becomes exceedingly difficult, nay, historically impossible, once economies reach the level of development that China's is fast approaching. The principle of "diminishing returns" inevitably applies.

On a political level, any slowdown of Chinese growth (again, almost certain to happen) can pose a special threat to regimes endowed with what political scientists call "performance legitimacy," defined as public acceptance of authoritarianism in return for rising living standards. Such regimes lack the deep reservoir of legitimacy that liberal democracies possess. In America or Britain, we don't throw out the system when things go wrong; we instead use the system to throw out the rascals in power and put other rascals in their place.

But performance legitimacy contains an implicit bargain between dictators and those dictated to in which the former are tolerated by the latter only to the extent that they continue to deliver the goods. Under such circumstances, even a modest reduction in growth could spark public discontent and even a systemic crisis.

Then there is the problem of generational succession -- performance legitimacy not only requires continued performance but also the willingness of older generations to give their authoritarian leaders a pass because of how their lives have improved over time.

Those in China who survived mass starvation to join what is now the world's largest middle class might therefore be grateful to their nation's leaders, but what about their children and grandchildren, who will have been born into affluence rather than poverty? Will they prove as obedient to authority and willing to go without the kinds of rights enjoyed by their counterparts in other affluent societies?

Put differently, the next generation will likely measure their quality of life, and assess China's rulers accordingly, by a vastly different yardstick.

Finally, there remains that persistent vulnerability in the decision-making of dictatorships -- the lack of quality control and mechanisms for course correction due to the broader lack of freedom of speech and press and institutionalized opposition.

China's dictators don't have to suffer the messy disputes and gridlock and inefficiencies characteristic of democracy; their wish becomes their command. But then they also have no way of knowing that they've just driven the bus over the cliff, either.

The principle that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely applies as readily to the way decisions are made as to the people making them. As such, it is possible that democracy is not just an inevitable result of the developmental process, as modernization theory suggests, but also necessary for continued postindustrial development.

It wasn't too long ago that about the only place in the world you could find poor Chinese was inside China, a stunning testament to the damage that can be done by tyrants with nutty ideas. So yes, things have definitely gotten better, and many in China are undoubtedly grateful for it.

But the history of political thought is essentially the story of a string of failed challengers to self-government: monarchy, fascism, communism, and Islamism included.

The hunch is that China's "pragmatic authoritarianism" will someday be added to that list.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 05/14/2018

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