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Can The Dragon Change Its Spots?

Up until now, China’s leadership has surprised many of its critics with its ability to adapt to changed circumstances and manage in a very technocratic way all kinds of complicated questions. Yet a report in the New York Times explains how even the most senior members of China’s elite are worried and perplexed by the difficulties their country faces:

A heavyweight crowd gathered last October for a banquet in Beijing’s tallest skyscraper. The son of Mao Zedong’s immediate successor was there, as was the daughter of the country’s No. 2 military official for nearly three decades, along with the half sister of China’s president-in-waiting, and many more


Most surprising, though, was the reason for the meeting. A small coterie of children of China’s founding elites who favor deeper political and economic change had come to debate the need for a new direction under the next generation of Communist Party leaders, who are set to take power in a once-a-decade changeover set to begin this year. Many had met the previous August, and would meet again in February.

The private gatherings are a telling indicator of how even some in the elite are worried about the course the Communist Party is charting for China’s future. And to advocates of political change, they offer hope that influential party members support the idea that tomorrow’s China should give citizens more power to choose their leaders and seek redress for grievances, two longtime complaints about the current system.

But the problem is that even as the tiny band of political reformers is attracting more influential adherents, it is splintered into factions that cannot agree on what “reform” would be, much less how to achieve it. The fundamental shifts that are crucial to their demands — a legal system beyond Communist Party control as well as elections with real rules and real choices among candidates — are seen even among the most radical as distant dreams, at best part of a second phase of reform.

Americans may not understand the deep fear that makes many Chinese conservative when faced with the possibility of change. China has seen many enthusiastic revolutions aiming to create a better society, and most of them have ended in terror and blood.

That is why many people in China, and also in the West, hope against all hope that China’s leadership will find a way to make gradual changes. But it isn’t easy. Those who envy China and think the Chinese have discovered the secret of an efficient planned economy don’t get just how complicated and difficult China’s situation really is. Those Chinese who understand their system best are the most concerned; a country that spends more on internal security than external defense knows where the real dangers lie.

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  • Glen

    The workings of a market economy — its spontaneous order, efficient resource allocation and virtually complete elimination of the “information problem” — perplexes many otherwise educated people in the same way that quantum mechanics initially appears irreconcilable with observed reality.

    There reality is that no such thing as an “efficient planned economy” actually exists. Hierarchical and bureaucratic organizational forms may allow voluntary assemblies to accomplish enormous tasks, particularly when communications is difficult and expensive. But they all suffer from intrinsic defects that quickly become insurmountable — this is the chief reason why human civilization didn’t progress much between the invention of writing and the discovery of electricity.

    Human beings are fundamentally autonomous individuals. When the technology exists for each individual to be continuously aware of his or her endeavors relative to everyone else, any additional coordination or management becomes pure overhead. And in the 21st Century, that’s what most governments and large corporations will be: pure overhead.

  • Luke Lea

    I can’t praise too highly Jeffrey Hayes’s website on China. I don’t know who he is but the guy has pulled together an amazing amount of information about that society. If you would like to understand the obstacles to reform you could do worse than start with his section on “Government, Politics and Crime.” It’s just a sample from a very large feast.

  • Luke Lea

    Here’s a nice factoid on China:

    “esterners often focus myopically on the growth rate of China’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is roughly 9 percent per year. While this is an important indicator of prosperity, it must be considered in tandem with other important metrics, such as inflation and the increasing cost of residential real estate. China’s consumer price index rose 5 percent in the first quarter of 2011. This means that the effective real growth rate in GDP was only 4 percent .”

    And something I bet you didn’t know:

    “Indeed, according to several Beijing college students interviewed for this article, the word “Hitler” does not evoke images of anti-Semitism or genocide, but rather, strong leadership and nationalism. They say that they admire Hitler for his ability to unify his country and restore it to a position of respect in the international arena. According to them, conditions in China today are similar to the conditions in Weimar Germany that brought Hitler to power: crippling inflation, wounded national pride and a perception of rivals around every corner. It may come as a surprise to many Westerners to learn that young Chinese actually feel stifled by a lack of economic opportunity.”

    From here:

  • Luke Lea

    China’s growth rate?: Are the figures we read in the papers adjusted for inflation? Or not? Depends on who you read. So seldom we are told, our media really stink. Anyway you decide:

    I’m thinking they have to be adjusted for inflation. Otherwise what is the big deal? On the other hand I know stories about the Dow Jones Average are never corrected for inflation. If you look at the stock market over the past several decades corrected for inflation it is quite a different picture. I remember the Dow was flirting with 12,000 at the Millennium. How much inflation has there been since then? A lot.

  • Anthony

    “The autocracy that back-flipped on Marxist ideology to forge the world’s second largest economy seems incaple of embracing political changes that actually could prolong its own survival.” Aforementioned may be most insightful clause framing CCP’s upcoming changes – systemic and societal arrangements WRM underlaid with more than 5,000 years of history.

  • John Hasley

    “Americans may not understand the deep fear that makes many Chinese conservative when faced with the possibility of change.”

    For those who have such trouble, think of Thomas Jefferson, who compared America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery to holding a wolf by the ears: neither party is happy with the situation, but you don’t dare let go. In the end, America never did come up with a good solution, but had to settle for a civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

    Britain and France ended semi-absolute monarchies by ending the monarchs along with lots of other people. Germany’s fascination with strong rulers was discouraged from the outside in explicit terms. And Russia managed to get the heavy bloodshed without ending up with a properly limited government.

    Revolutions tend to happen when a population has come to expect rising standards lift them out of poverty, only to have that taken away. And we can do little from the outside but to improve our standing so that we can at least consider our options when the time comes, rather than just say “We’re $50 trillion in debt and can’t do anything.”

  • Robert

    China has for most of its history been obsessed with retaining tight control over a land area as large as, but more geographically diverse than Europe’s. This comes from a sense that if a central government doesn’t hang on tight, the whole place will fractionate as Europe did when the Roman Empire fell apart.

    The European analogy isn’t exact. But it might have been better for Chinese people if the various regions had split into separate countries. That might have allowed the economic and political flux of people and ideas that helped Europe create and build western civilization.

    China as a country might have come out weaker in that path, while Chinese civilization might have been stronger.

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