Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Democracy and China

I was trolling around for interesting articles today and stumbled upon this piece about China and the prospects for democracy (or lack thereof). The author's a bit strident, and underplays the importance of economic factors in the relationship between China and the U.S., but she provides an interesting argument nevertheless. And it's additional fodder for an article I hope to write on the relationship between democracy and economic prosperity.

I think one of the major tragedies of the post-Soviet, or post-9/11, world is that authoritarian regimes are increasingly able to argue that democratic practice is fundamentally destablizing and jeopardizes economic development. Russia during the 90s, the color revolutions throughout Eurasia, the backsliding of democratic institutions in Latin America, and the halting steps in Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan allow authoritarian governments in Russia, China, and Venezuela to maintain tight political controls by terrifying their citizens with the idea of "chaos." It's stability and security over democracy, and that's a hard argument to crack.

But, I think the reasons why it must crack are the ones the author misses. She argues that,

"...the availability of coordination goods [free speech and the right to organize and protest; general human rights, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest; press freedom, etc.] affects democratization because they drastically influence the ability of political opponents to coordinate and mobilize but have little impact on the continued economic growth that is crucial for sustaining an authoritarian regime’s legitimacy."

I don't think that's correct. Press freedom is a principal channel for business intelligence (which is notably lacking in China - an important factor in the lack of large, genuinely international firms). The right to organize and protest is critical in providing the government with the necessary "input" and awareness of social concerns. At the moment, the CCP is very good at recognizing the problems out there and trying to respond to them. But that is because the government is unified behind a single vision and strategy of where it wants to go. If its intelligence channels breakdown, however, you will increasingly see a mismatch in terms of the priorities that the CCP assigns and those that the public wants. There is also the problem of externalities. Labor and the environment are in many ways sacrificed for the sake of productivity, and the problems that emerge because of that are put on either Chinese citizens or other countries. And in the end, the CCP system is simply inefficient. Why have the proactive monitoring, preventive measures, and bureaucracy if people can simply tell you what they want?

The answer, of course, is power. But to me, there is a deeper question here. Is it possible that capitalism and economic growth benefit from authoritarian regimes? Is there a positive correlation between the two? I think, academically, the jury is still out over this question. For every China, you have an India. For every Burma, you have a Bangladesh.

I think the issue fundamentally comes down to innovation. While China has avoided the post-Soviet Russia economic collapse, it's because its economy never had the cripplingly inefficient state industries that the latter had (although its banks are close), or they took measures to dismantle them. But to be a genuine world leader in the marketplace requires innovation, not just education. It requires the ability to risk capital on a grand scale and have the open space economically (and to a certain extent, therefore politically) to promote or shoot down interesting ideas. But the CCP has been very good about splitting off the economic lines of open dialogue from the political ones. They could do so with a wider space for innovation, but I am not certain.



HoBs said...

"The right to organize and protest is critical in providing the government with the necessary "input" and awareness of social concerns"

A friend of mine, Peter Lorentzen, has a paper that explores that subject. The Central government in China is actually quite friendly toward most protests, often rewarding protesters, because (in his theory) it serves as a way to keep corrupt local officials in check. If you follow the news, you find that such protests are quite common, and encouraged in China so long as they aren't big enough to threaten the central party's interests (e.g. Tienanmen or Falun Gong)

Ah democracy and economic prosperity. One of my favorite topics for a while. Heck, perhaps that was one of the main questions that motivated me to go to Grad school. Until I realized there was a massive literature on the subject, and very little agreement/progress. People can't even agree on what Democracy means.

"an important factor in the lack of large, genuinely international firms"

And the ranks of Chinese firms amongs the world's largest is increasing, impeded by protectionism in US that blocked the sale of Maytag and that oil company, but not impeded by the massive investment in Africa:

I think the government has been good at selective censoring. As you said, separating the economic from the political.

Chengora said...

Thanks for the paper recommendation. I'll definitely check it out. Although I would say that the CCP goes both ways with protests. They've used a combination of methods to eliminate dissent, whether that is providing payments to protestors (which, of course, isn't exactly an effective or socially positive response) or beating them. I don't know if I'd say that protests were quite common either, mostly because the government has only recently admitted to there actually being protests. To me (and I think you'd agree with this), there's still a large problem in disaggregating and splicing information that comes out of there.

Hmm...can't access the link to the People's Daily for some reason, but while the ranks are growing, I think it's rather surprising that, given China's manufacturing base, there aren't more firms there. That's partly because manufacturing is done under foreign companies. While I have no doubt that China steals lots of technology from them (did you ever see the Cherry? It's a complete rip-off of a Ford compact), that hasn't really allowed them to innovate or establish their own large-scale manufacturing firms, and that's where I think the issues of wider political liberties with knock-on effects for economics and business comes in. And, as you said, the blockage of deals by the U.S.

hcduvall said...

You folks should ask Mr. America about protests in China from a more ground perspective. Though I think it's pretty commonly known that China does support protests, and unfiltered discussions, so long as they aren't focused on the gov't regime. It's not most protests though, it's those that are innoucuous or sometimes beneficial to party interests, and unthreatening to the central party, as Hobs said. Those conviniently organized anti-Japanese protests from a couple years back during a China-Japan soccer friendly, for example. Focused on local issues, the country's governance as a whole is rarely cast in doubt.

It is interesting how far the corruption purges are reaching now, or appearing to reach, as a good chunk of the Shanghai poiltical machine (fairly high up) has felt rumbles of policing. Mostly og the internal party, back post sort, though).

AS to manufacturing and companies, there's no doubt that certain Chinese companies are of great size and breath, but I wouldn't say that any of them are geunine international firms...not that they coulden't, but simply the transparency and governance of them is so different that one can't equivocably say yes, so for now it's best set at no.

Jonny America said...

"We implore everyone to vote. Please excercise your democratic duty and select your leaders." Believe it or not, these were messages on the Communist Party's propoganda posters a month or two before I left the country. Of course the elections in question were for the impotent local People's Congress representatives, and as far as I know only a small fraction of the Beijing population gave a damn. Nevertheless, this shows that the central government does not shy from using the sensitive language of democracy in its propoganda.

This propoganda poster brings up interesting questions about how the Chinese government views itself, and the shaping of the popular Chinese conciousness. Of course all this has to be weighed in the context of media crackdowns, killing of journalists, and continuing lack of transparency. Sure Democracy in China is a hard read, but I think the general trend is that things are really opening up. To say that the central government is solidifying its grip during this period of economic growth is a pure fallacy.

As the Hoover Institute writer suggested in her article, the greatest motion for democratic change is at the grassroots level. Compared to even 5 years ago, the current Chinese media landscape is almost unrecongnisable. Now you have newspapers that are forced to make a profit creating sensationalist tabloid journalsim, and the continued prosperity of independant voices like Southern Weekend.

American elections are covered and analysed in televsion round tables. Even the much maligned Chinese internet and its great "firewall of China" has not been able to stop the flow of continous albeit frequently indirect political dialogue. I could find you at least three anti government postings on the tianya forum within minutes.

Meanwhile the central government is becoming weaker and weaker. Sure they may pass a handful of new draconian laws, but they are not really enforced. The central government has little power over the local provincial and city governments. The downside of this is that chaos reigns outside the big cities. Crime rates in small towns and villages are shockingly high. There are so many problems to fix: health care, corruption, abused migrant workers. The central government vocal about recognising all of them, but are powerless to fix them.

The scary question is, who is taking over in this vacuum of power? I think part of the answer is regional governments. Perhaps, even the military.

So does the government benefit from this wave of economic growth? In terms of power, the answer is no.

What happens when the government becomes too weak to stand? That's hard to say, but I don't want to be there to find out.

Chengora said...

I think you're a bit sanguine about the pace of reform in China, Jonny. The great firewall doesn't stop everything, and that's undoubtedly a good thing. But try to organize, to exercise a right of (physical) assembly, and you've got problems. This is precisely because internet agitation is one, controllable thing which only the elite and some of the middle have access to. Genuine freedom of assembly is orders of magnitude different. Just ask Howard Dean, and it's a chief issue that my own organization deals with. We encourage party leaders to focus on grassroots organization, since that is really where mobilization comes from, particularly in elections. However, they tend to concentrate on satellite TV, which is useless but flashy.

As for corruption, the central government's power, and Shanghai bosses, I think the best explanation lies in the multiplicity of centers within the Chinese government and bureaucracy. The moves against Shanghai are certainly an exertion of central power against a region, but undoubtedly also one of a particular branch of the party falling against another. It's checks and balances of a venal sort, where the problem is a mix of different power centers working against each other, as well as utter self-interest and corruption within each center. But this emerges from the CCP's problems and priorities, and it is there where genuine counterweights are needed.

Also, China has never shied away from the language of democracy. In point of fact, though, no Communist government has, because they think they are the bearer of genuine democracy. So in that regard, the language doesn't surprise me.

I certainly agree, however, that there is a boiler-top feeling to all this, and I would suspect that, as in the past, if anything blows up, it'll be the regional governments that take hold of things.

HoBs said...

"Nevertheless, this shows that the central government does not shy from using the sensitive language of democracy in its propoganda."

Of course that's true in every country in the world. I like the regular elections in Iraq, where Sadaam Hussein always wins by 100%-0%. That is what's tricky about measuring democracy. Every country claims to be one. The least democratic countries are always the ones with Democratic in their country name (e.g. Democratic People's Republic of Korea)