Why political reform in China is inevitable

Tom Friedman, one of my least favorite columnists, has a worthy enough (if typically simplistic) column today about the need for China to embrace political change. It all boils down to economics. The country simply can’t prosper until it’s instituted meaningful political reform.

Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?

I don’t think so. To be sure, China has thrived up to now — impressively — by permitting its people only economic liberty. This may have been the sole way to quickly take a vast country of 1.3 billion people from massive poverty to much-improved standards of living, basic education for all, modernized infrastructure and even riches for some urbanites.

But the Nobel committee did China a favor in sending the tacit message with its peace prize: Don’t get too cocky and think that you have rewritten the laws of gravity. The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level. So this might actually be a good time for Beijing to engage peaceful democracy advocates like Liu [Xiaobo], who is now serving an 11-year sentence, or the 23 retired Chinese Communist Party officials who last week published an open letter challenging the government to improve speech and press freedoms.

As China ages, Friedman contends, it has to move from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more “knowledge- and service-based jobs.” Has to. So you have the usual conflict: a government that wants to control everything and shape its people’s thinking, countered by market forces – China’s growth can only go so far without a problem-solving, innovative workforce.

Dovetailing with this column today is this new piece by my friend and fellow blogger Paul Denlinger on why Wen Jiaobao is thinking along the same lines, and why he will push for more political reform. Denlinger argues that you can’t balance so much social change with so little political change. I’ll just snip two of his seven reasons as to why this is so.

4. China’s president, Hu Jintao, is obsessed with social harmony and stability as his legacy, but Wen thinks that this is a pipe dream. Wen thinks that social change is happening faster than the party, government leadership understand.

5. Wen feels that the current leadership continues to think that economic growth is the answer to China’s problems when past growth rates are no longer possible.

This topic seems to be taking on a life of its own. I think that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize will continue to fan the flames, and that those who said Oslo’s choice would have no ramifications in China are dead wrong. China’s fate depends on more liberty. Wen knows it, Liu knows it, I know it. Manufacturing can’t and won’t soar forever. What’s next? China has to prepare for the inevitable.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 59 Comments

FOARP
1) Any *people* (as you put it) is made up of individuals. If individual Japanese generally lose out due to a lack of competition, then the Japanese *people* also lose out. Grouping losers together only gives you a group of losers.

Nonsense. Are you implying that Japanese people are a hive mind? Short-term individual interests (oh wow, a few bucks on the phone bill) do not supersede national interests (destruction of domestic companies), and they often conflict with each other.

2) The only way in which Japanese companies could get “steamrolled” by the introduction of foreign competitors due to the removal of barriers to competition using competition law is if they are not competitive in comparison to foreign companies.

Are you seriously implying that Japanese businesses have just as much access to markets and natural resources as American uber monopolies? Why hasn’t a giant MNC emerged from Luxembourg to destroy my beloved Wal-Mart then?

Smaller markets need to be insulated unless they want to be hollowed out and eaten alive; Japan is successful precisely because of all the barriers it has created against Anglo-American monopolies. There would be no Toyota, Nintendo or Sony otherwise.

And just why is a domestic oligopoly desirable as compared to a foreign one?

Because foreign businesses are controlled by foreigners, who care even less about Japan than Japanese companies.

November 6, 2010 @ 9:01 am | Comment

Why can’t westerner have a more imaginative mind?

Why can’t they see that a society can also prosper without adopting the western liberal mindset? It is not inevitable that everyone will eventually realize the same ideology and think in the same liberal way as most of the westerners.

It is extremely arrogant to think that the only reason Chinese have not adopt the same liberal democracy is because CCP is putting their minds under total control, and also once Chinese people becomes smart, they will finally think in the “right” way. Please realize this kind of mindset is extremely arrogant/annoying.

Whatever. It is almost impossible to convince someone out of their fanatical belief in the liberal ideology. We will just wait and see who is “dead wrong”.

PS. most Chinese people don’t know who Liu XiaoBo is. Nobel peace prize could have a bigger effect if it’s given to somebody like AiWeiWei. But this kind of thing is typical for the western liberals crowd. The people who contributed the most to “good”, are the ones who are the loudest in THEIR OWN western media, not the ones more people from other societies would recognize.

November 7, 2010 @ 11:01 am | Comment

I don’t think anyone here believes China should adopt “the Western liberal mindset.” Literally no one.

There is certainly a fear among the Chinese leadership of the people learning too much and asking too many questions. Thus we see the heavily censored media with its deification of Lei Feng and the constant allegations of colonialism and “anti-Chinese” thinking from the West (a total fallacy, but hey, it keeps people in power). Opening people’s minds and teaching them the benefits of asking questions and to solve problems and think critically is not the same as asking them to adopt liberal attitudes. But China is afraid of too much critical thinking because it eventually will lead to questions such as, Why do I live with censorship when other nations don’t, and why do we have a one-party system that remains accountable to no one? This sort of freeing of the mind poses a direct threat to the CCP. If it didn’t, there would be no censorship or heavy-handed propagandized education that gives birth to fenqing like yourself.

November 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am | Comment

To WI:
what “westerners” may or may not think is best for the continued prosperity of Chinese society is hardly the point. The point is what Chinese people in China think about the topic. The problem in China is that her people aren’t allowed to nurture such thoughts. Or if they are, they aren’t allowed to express them. Or if they are, they aren’t permitted to act upon them.

Chinese people are already “smart” enough to think for themselves. They simply require the CCP to allow them to do so. “westerners” have nothing to do with it.

November 7, 2010 @ 1:31 pm | Comment

@Roflcopter – Thank you for totally missing the point –

“Are you implying that Japanese people are a hive mind? “

No. Show me where I said anything even close to this. What I was saying is that a victory for a cartel of Japanese businesses is not a victory for the Japanese people – it was you who said the opposite.

“Are you seriously implying that Japanese businesses have just as much access to markets and natural resources as American uber monopolies?”

Yes. Yes, I am. This is the reason why everyone I know drives a Honda, Nissan, or Suzuki. Look, you don’t even seem to have worked out that I wasn’t saying anything about foreign/domestic companies, or about barriers designed specifically to keep foreign competitors out, only about the lack of a strong competition law regime in Japan preventing competition in general.

“Anglo-American monopolies”

With the possible exception of British-American Tobacco, with a market share of ~15%, I cannot think of any explicitly Anglo-American companies, let alone ‘monopolies’. If you want to talk about American firms, then Intel and Microsoft would be the most well-known examples – but both have been the subject of long running competition-law actions in both the US and the EU.

“Because foreign businesses are controlled by foreigners, who care even less about Japan than Japanese companies.”

The entire point of business is profit. Companies like Sony, BAT, Lenovo, Innolux, Arriva, IBM etc. don’t care where they make their money, they only care that it is made. Talking about which business ‘cares’ more is pointless.

“Japan is successful precisely because of all the barriers it has created”

And has flopped in recent years because, at least in part, of the anti-competitive practices of businesses there which favours groups of companies there but not the economy as a whole. At any rate, once again, I was not discussing barriers against foreign competition, but against competition in general.

November 7, 2010 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

WI
“Nobel peace prize could have a bigger effect if it’s given to somebody like AiWeiWei.”

This being the same AiWeiWEi that is under arrest?

And may I ask what western liberal mindset you are referring to? Why do you think China is better under the western communist mindset (as written about by a German in a library in London…)? Why can’t China prosper under an eastern liberal mindset? How is a liberal mindset western or eastern? Surely it is just….a universal human mindset?

November 8, 2010 @ 7:52 am | Comment

“PS. most Chinese people don’t know who Liu XiaoBo is. Nobel peace prize could have a bigger effect if it’s given to somebody like AiWeiWei. But this kind of thing is typical for the western liberals crowd. The people who contributed the most to “good”, are the ones who are the loudest in THEIR OWN western media, not the ones more people from other societies would recognize.”

I think Ai WeiWei will soon be harmonised….
“Cameron should ask the Chinese government not to make people ‘disappear’ or to jail them merely because they have different opinions … Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn’t change its own behaviour,”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/07/china-beijing-ai-weiwei-human-rights

November 8, 2010 @ 9:38 am | Comment

Richard raises an important point–the importance of critical thinking. The CCP’s “patriotic education” drive has been the exact opposite of encouraging critical thinking; this sort of xenophobic indoctrination has misled countless fènqing into believing that China’s problems stem mainly from foreign imperialist bullying not from something like an unaccountable one-party authoritarian government founded by military conquest).

November 10, 2010 @ 2:11 pm | Comment

There is another aspect of PRCs education system, this one coming from its own media. Bossism starts at kindergarten.

http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-11/14/c_13606123.htm

November 15, 2010 @ 7:46 am | Comment

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