by Ron Unz The American Conservative
Previously by Ron Unz: The Dark Heart of the US Government
The rise of China surely ranks among the most important world developments of the last 100 years. With America still trapped in its fifth year of economic hardship, and the Chinese economy poised to surpass our own before the end of this decade, China looms very large on the horizon. We are living in the early years of what journalists once dubbed “The Pacific Century,” yet there are worrisome signs it may instead become known as “The Chinese Century.”
But does the Chinese giant have feet of clay? In a recently published book, Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson characterize China’s ruling elites as “extractive” – parasitic and corrupt – and predict that Chinese economic growth will soon falter and decline, while America’s “inclusive” governing institutions have taken us from strength to strength. They argue that a country governed as a one-party state, without the free media or checks and balances of our own democratic system, cannot long prosper in the modern world. The glowing tributes this book has received from a vast array of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, including six Nobel laureates in economics, testifies to the widespread popularity of this optimistic message.
Yet do the facts about China and America really warrant this conclusion?
China Shakes the World
By the late 1970s, three decades of Communist central planning had managed to increase China’s production at a respectable rate, but with tremendous fits and starts, and often at a terrible cost: 35 million or more Chinese had starved to death during the disastrous 1959–1961 famine caused by Mao’s forced industrialization policy of the Great Leap Forward.
China’s population had also grown very rapidly during this period, so the typical standard of living had improved only slightly, perhaps 2 percent per year between 1958 and 1978, and this from an extremely low base. Adjusted for purchasing power, most Chinese in 1980 had an income 60–70 percent below that of the citizens in other major Third World countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Kenya, none of which were considered great economic success stories. In those days, even Haitians were far wealthier than Chinese.
All this began to change very rapidly once Deng Xiaoping initiated his free-market reforms in 1978, first throughout the countryside and eventually in the smaller industrial enterprises of the coastal provinces. By 1985, The Economist ran a cover story praising China’s 700,000,000 peasants for having doubled their agricultural production in just seven years, an achievement almost unprecedented in world history. Meanwhile, China’s newly adopted one-child policy, despite its considerable unpopularity, had sharply reduced population growth rates in a country possessing relatively little arable land.
A combination of slowing population growth and rapidly accelerating economic output has obvious implications for national prosperity. During the three decades to 2010, China achieved perhaps the most rapid sustained rate of economic development in the history of the human species, with its real economy growing almost 40-fold between 1978 and 2010. In 1978, America’s economy was 15 times larger, but according to most international estimates, China is now set to surpass America’s total economic output within just another few years.
Furthermore, the vast majority of China’s newly created economic wealth has flowed to ordinary Chinese workers, who have moved from oxen and bicycles to the verge of automobiles in just a single generation. While median American incomes have been stagnant for almost forty years, those in China have nearly doubled every decade, with the real wages of workers outside the farm-sector rising about 150 percent over the last ten years alone. The Chinese of 1980 were desperately poor compared to Pakistanis, Nigerians, or Kenyans; but today, they are several times wealthier, representing more than a tenfold shift in relative income.
A World Bank report recently highlighted the huge drop in global poverty rates from 1980 to 2008, but critics noted that over 100 percent of that decline came from China alone: the number of Chinese living in dire poverty fell by a remarkable 662 million, while the impoverished population in the rest of the world actually rose by 13 million. And although India is often paired with China in the Western media, a large fraction of Indians have actually grown poorer over time. The bottom half of India’s still rapidly growing population has seen its daily caloric intake steadily decline for the last 30 years, with half of all children under five now being malnourished.
China’s economic progress is especially impressive when matched against historical parallels. Between 1870 and 1900, America enjoyed unprecedented industrial expansion, such that even Karl Marx and his followers began to doubt that a Communist revolution would be necessary or even possible in a country whose people were achieving such widely shared prosperity through capitalistic expansion. During those 30 years America’s real per capita income grew by 100 percent. But over the last 30 years, real per capita income in China has grown by more than 1,300 percent.
Over the last decade alone, China quadrupled its industrial output, which is now comparable to that of the U.S. In the crucial sector of automobiles, China raised its production ninefold, from 2 million cars in 2000 to 18 million in 2010, a figure now greater than the combined totals for America and Japan. China accounted for fully 85 percent of the total world increase in auto manufacturing during that decade.
It is true that many of China’s highest-tech exports are more apparent than real. Nearly all Apple’s iPhones and iPads come from China, but this is largely due to the use of cheap Chinese labor for final assembly, with just 4 percent of the value added in those world-leading items being Chinese. This distorts Chinese trade statistics, leading to unnecessary friction. However, some high-tech China exports are indeed fully Chinese, notably those of Huawei, which now ranks alongside Sweden’s Ericsson as one of the world’s two leading telecommunications manufacturers, while once powerful North American competitors such Lucent-Alcatel and Nortel have fallen into steep decline or even bankruptcy. And although America originally pioneered the Human Genome Project, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) today probably stands as the world leader in that enormously important emerging scientific field.
China’s recent rise should hardly surprise us. For most of the last 3,000 years, China together with the Mediterranean world and its adjoining European peninsula have constituted the two greatest world centers of technological and economic progress. During the 13th century, Marco Polo traveled from his native Venice to the Chinese Empire and described the latter as vastly wealthier and more advanced than any European country. As late as the 18th century, many leading European philosophers such as Voltaire often looked to Chinese society as an intellectual exemplar, while both the British and the Prussians used the Chinese mandarinate as their model for establishing a meritocratic civil service based on competitive examinations.
Even a century ago, near the nadir of China’s later weakness and decay, some of America’s foremost public intellectuals, such as Edward A. Ross and Lothrop Stoddard, boldly predicted the forthcoming restoration of the Chinese nation to global influence, the former with equanimity and the latter with serious concern. Indeed, Stoddard argued that only three major inventions effectively separated the world of classical antiquity from that of 18th-century Europe – gunpowder, the mariner’s compass, and the printing press. All three seem to have first appeared in China, though for various social, political, and ideological reasons, none were properly implemented.
Does China’s rise necessarily imply America’s decline? Not at all: human economic progress is not a zero-sum game. Under the right circumstances, the rapid development of one large country should tend to improve living standards for the rest of the world.
This is most obvious for those nations whose economic strengths directly complement those of a growing China. Massive industrial expansion clearly requires a similar increase in raw-material consumption, and China is now the world’s largest producer and user of electricity, concrete, steel, and many other basic materials, with its iron-ore imports surging by a factor of ten between 2000 and 2011. This has driven huge increases in the costs of most commodities; for example, copper’s world price rose more than eightfold during the last decade. As a direct consequence, these years have generally been very good ones for the economies of countries that heavily rely upon the export of natural resources – Australia, Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Africa.
Meanwhile, as China’s growth gradually doubles total world industrial production, the resulting “China price” reduces the cost of manufactured goods, making them much more easily affordable to everyone, and thereby greatly increases the global standard of living. While this process may negatively impact those particular industries and countries directly competing with China, it provides enormous opportunities as well, not merely to the aforementioned raw-material suppliers but also to countries like Germany, whose advanced equipment and machine tools have found a huge Chinese market, thereby helping to reduce German unemployment to the lowest level in 20 years.
And as ordinary Chinese grow wealthier, they provide a larger market as well for the goods and services of leading Western companies, ranging from fast-food chains to consumer products to luxury goods. Chinese workers not only assemble Apple’s iPhones and iPads, but are also very eager to purchase them, and China has now become that company’s second largest market, with nearly all of the extravagant profit margins flowing back to its American owners and employees. In 2011 General Motors sold more cars in China than in the U.S., and that rapidly growing market became a crucial factor in the survival of an iconic American corporation. China has become the third largest market in the world for McDonald’s, and the main driver of global profits for the American parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC.
Social Costs of a Rapid Rise
Transforming a country in little more than a single generation from a land of nearly a billion peasants to one of nearly a billion city-dwellers is no easy task, and such a breakneck pace of industrial and economic development inevitably leads to substantial social costs. Chinese urban pollution is among the worst in the world, and traffic is rapidly heading toward that same point. China now contains the second largest number of billionaires after America, together with more than a million dollar-millionaires, and although many of these individuals came by their fortunes honestly, many others did not. Official corruption is a leading source of popular resentment against the various levels of Chinese government, ranging from local village councils to the highest officials in Beijing.
But we must maintain a proper sense of proportion. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles when it still had the most notorious smog in America, I recognize that such trends can be reversed with time and money, and indeed the Chinese government has expressed intense interest in the emerging technology of non-polluting electric cars. Rapidly growing national wealth can be deployed to solve many problems.
Similarly, plutocrats who grow rich through friends in high places or even outright corruption are easier to tolerate when a rising tide is rapidly lifting all boats. Ordinary Chinese workers have increased their real income by well over 1,000 percent in recent decades, while the corresponding figure for most American workers has been close to zero. If typical American wages were doubling every decade, there would be far less anger in our own society directed against the “One Percent.” Indeed, under the standard GINI index used to measure wealth inequality, China’s score is not particularly high, being roughly the same as that of the United States, though certainly indicating greater inequality than most of the social democracies of Western Europe.
Many American pundits and politicians still focus their attention on the tragic Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, during which hundreds of determined Chinese protesters were massacred by government troops. But although that event loomed very large at the time, in hindsight it generated merely a blip in the upward trajectory of China’s development and today seems virtually forgotten among ordinary Chinese, whose real incomes have increased several-fold in the quarter century since then.
Much of the Tiananmen protest had been driven by popular outrage at government corruption, and certainly there have been additional major scandals in recent years, often heavily splashed across the pages of America’s leading newspapers. But a closer examination paints a more nuanced picture, especially when contrasted with America’s own situation.
For example, over the last few years one of the most ambitious Chinese projects has been a plan to create the world’s largest and most advanced network of high-speed rail transport, an effort that absorbed a remarkable $200 billion of government investment. The result was the construction of over 6,000 miles of track, a total probably now greater than that of all the world’s other nations combined. Unfortunately, this project also involved considerable corruption, as was widely reported in the world media, which estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars had been misappropriated through bribery and graft. This scandal eventually led to the arrest or removal of numerous government officials, notably including China’s powerful Railways Minister.
Obviously such serious corruption would seem horrifying in a country with the pristine standards of a Sweden or a Norway. But based on the published accounts, it appears that the funds diverted amounted to perhaps as little as 0.2 percent of the total, with the remaining 99.8 percent generally spent as intended. So serious corruption notwithstanding, the project succeeded and China does indeed now possess the world’s largest and most advanced network of high-speed rail, constructed almost entirely in the last five or six years.
Meanwhile, America has no high-speed rail whatsoever, despite decades of debate and vast amounts of time and money spent on lobbying, hearings, political campaigns, planning efforts, and environmental-impact reports. China’s high-speed rail system may be far from perfect, but it actually exists, while America’s does not. Annual Chinese ridership now totals over 25 million trips per year, and although an occasional disaster – such as the 2011 crash in Weizhou, which killed 40 passengers – is tragic, it is hardly unexpected. After all, America’s aging low-speed trains are not exempt from similar calamities, as we saw in the 2008 Chatsworth crash that killed 25 in California.
For many years Western journalists regularly reported that the dismantling of China’s old Maoist system of government-guaranteed healthcare had led to serious social stresses, forcing ordinary workers to save an unreasonable fraction of their salaries to pay for medical treatment if they or their families became ill. But over the last couple of years, the government has taken major steps to reduce this problem by establishing a national healthcare insurance system whose coverage now extends to 95 percent or so of the total population, a far better ratio than is found in wealthy America and at a tiny fraction of the cost. Once again, competent leaders with access to growing national wealth can effectively solve these sorts of major social problems.
Although Chinese cities have negligible crime and are almost entirely free of the horrible slums found in many rapidly urbanizing Third World countries, housing for ordinary workers is often quite inadequate. But national concerns over rising unemployment due to the global recession gave the government a perfect opportunity late last year to announce a bold plan to construct over 35 million modern new government apartments, which would then be provided to ordinary workers on a subsidized basis.