Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reverse field opinion writing at the FT

Near the outset of his column today, the FT's David Pilling has this to say about a traditional article of faith in what you might call a mainstream American view of history:
Former US president Bill Clinton proselytised the idea that, in a knowledge economy, only those states that were politically open would prosper. China has proved him spectacularly wrong. Indeed, Beijing is busily creating the biggest middle class in the history of the world, yet the Communist party’s hold on power looks as firm as ever.

To rub it in, economies in countries that do not bother with elections have generally performed better than those that regularly go through the rigmarole of transferring power. Even the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, gunned down in 1983 for his principled opposition to the Marcos dictatorship, said that freedom of speech meant little to those not free from hunger. China’s growth has averaged 10 per cent a year in the past 30 years. The Philippines has not even managed 4 per cent. 

I start scribbling: Clinton wasn't wrong, just early.  I prepare to cite Pilling's colleague Gideon Rachman in rebuttal:

The [Chinese] government’s neurotic obsession with achieving its totemic figure of 8 per cent growth a year hints at the country’s continuing political fragility. Without a democratic mandate, the Communist party relies on rapid growth to keep the system stable. Somehow the country needs to make the transition to a system in which the government can draw upon alternative sources of legitimacy. Twenty years after the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist party shows no outward sign of contemplating a transition to a more democratic system. Meanwhile, the Chinese media speculate openly that social unrest could rise to dangerous levels, if economic growth slackens.

When lo, Pilling tacks about, noting, a)  Asia is far from a monolith; it's almost as varied in culture and political system as the human race, containing two thirds of it; and b) Taiwan and South Korea have transitioned from authoritarian capitalism to robust democracy, not to mention India, Japan, Indonesia. Then, full circle:
Finally, look at China itself. It is true that, viewed from afar, China’s political system has hardly budged. But no one paying attention could doubt that with the rise of the middle class has come a revolution in access to knowledge and the stirrings of a civil society. With a little technical savvy or a dollar a week for a virtual private network (VPN), anyone in China can breach the Great Firewall and see the same information as freedom-surfers in London or New York. That is not the same thing as democracy. But perhaps Mr Clinton was not so wide of the mark after all.

That is vintage FT. Rachman and Martin Wolf also have a penchant for turning their arguments inside out, or at least feinting to one side and coming out on the other. Though we might assume that by the time they publish a column they know where it's going, their stylistic preference is to imitate the thought process.  The give the impression of going where the facts and their observations take them, often doubling back in the same column, displaying (or simulating) the progress of a train of thought.

1 comment:

  1. There are a couple of weak links in the argument against Bill Clinton.

    The Chinese economy, like many other economies as we are finding out, is built partially on a house of cards.

    They have built up their middle class by essentially offering obscenely cheap credit to an American government whose citizens have an addiction to cheap merchandise that was, lo and behold, produced by Chinese manufacturers.

    They have also artificially pegged their currency to benefit this policy.

    This is certainly fine for China..., as long as that system continues status quo. But reality, and real life, can be different. Your trading partners can only borrow so much before they reach what animal biologists call a "carrying capacity". And what if your trading partners experience a severe recession where consumption habits drastically change?

    People don't complain when times are good and material wealth is close at hand. That's natural.

    But what happens when the tap runs dry?
    As The Dude said, "You gotta feed the monkey!"