Friday, 6 June 2014

Rise of China - a paper tiger?

This one's about China - the country, not the ceramics. I'll tell you my thoughts on earthenware another day.

A successful and not entirely unintimidating business figure told me the other day that the University of Oxford is wasting its time running an MBA programme. When China starts educating its business leaders, he said, they will do it their own way - the MBA will become yesterday's news.

Coincidentally, some friends posted Facebook updates also about China, specifically the Tiannamen Square massacre:

I didn't know the massacre was suppressed so fiercely, though it's hardly a surprise. Anyway, this contrast of China's supposedly gleaming future and the reality of its recent past and its present got me to thinking - specifically, it got me to thinking 'you already have some hastily jotted scraps on the rise of China - perhaps this is a way to squeeze some life out of them?'

So, having reached to the back of the cupboard and checked the sell-by date, here is my slightly stale offering. I'm not an economist, or a Sinologist, or a historian, so it's likely to be all very dubious.

A while ago I read a piece by Robert Peston, the BBC economics editor, on the possibility of a downturn in China. It's good - I recommend it. It is troubling that the arguments for China's inevitable rise to dominant world power status come from economists - in a way, it's natural that most predictions of the political and social future are made by those social scientists who have (or imagine they have) the most developed and mathematically sophisticated heuristic tools.

In another way, it is absurd - we would reject as incomplete and hopelessly reductive any history that tried to describe a country's past in solely economic terms, because we know of the many other factors that determine events (politics, religion, social change, culture, individuals and relations between individuals). Why, then, do we give so much weight to economists' predictions of the future when we know they are giving us nowhere near the whole story about what makes stuff happen?

Maybe it's because economics has enough maths in it to make its projection credible - or, less generously, because economics has enough empirical trappings and glamour to make us briefly forget that futurology is a mug's game. As any gambler / mug knows, you just might get away with it - even woefully wrong predictions become yesterday's news and disappear into kind obscurity once the big event has come to pass.

But I'm not really interested in this question. More important - is the prediction of China's rise to superpower status flawed because it is reductively economic? Should we listen to the economists, or are they selling us snake oil?

Consider the previous two world powers, the United Kingdom and the United States, and their ascent:

  1. both were the world's foremost military nations;
  2. both led the world in technological development;
  3. both were among the world's most politically stable nations, and unquestionably the most politically innovative;
  4. both were leading trading and industrial nations;

None of these things can be said of China at the moment, or even conceivably in the near future, apart from the last. It seems beyond doubt that for some time, even the foreseeable, the US will remain stronger, more inventive, and more stable than China. China will work harder and produce more - but is this enough?

I might be committing a fallacy here: namely by imaging that there is some Anglo-Saxon 'special path' that must be followed to achieve global leadership, whereas in fact the Anglo-American virtues 1-3 are merely incidental and not conditions of superpower status - really, all that makes a country top dog is number 4, productivity and growth.

But innovation, and with it a culture that allows and creates innovation, do seem like necessary conditions, namely: 

  • enough political flexibility to adapt to the inevitable social changes (new demands and aspirations) caused by the increased wealth of being a wealthy industrialized nation; 
  • the research and development capability to create the military advantage needed to protect overseas investment and wealth-creation. 

Even if the exemplar of the previous two global powers did not exist, I think one would still conclude that radical extension of China's power would require these attributes - as it is, she has a sclerotic one-party system that doesn't allow its citizens to use the internet unsupervised, and a military not yet able to project power (into e.g. Africa).

Turning to America, it is undeniable that, though she may be a on a losing streak in various ways (economic, military), we are living in a new golden age of American innovation. China can boast nothing comparable to Silicon Valley, and we might also ask whether its current culture could produce anything even remotely similar. That is, a culture of innovation based on spontaneous creativity, daring to fail, and cheek.

Now for my final attempt to argue, perhaps tentatively, that certain non-economic factors are conditions of the global dominance that the UK and US achieved historically, and the dominance China could putatively achieve. Viz. the global leader's pre-eminent position among other nations is facilitated by relations of assent and imitation - in the first case, assent to its dominance in recognition of its achievements and the possible value of those achievements. Central to the relationship between Europe (Britain specifically) and India was the latter's sense that, though an ancient and advanced civilization, it had met a civilization more advanced than its own from which it could learn a lot - this is despite the moral backwardness of imperialism, and I certainly don't overlook the importance of brute coercion. 

In the second case, the bonds of emulation - the adoption of religious, legal, and political institutions.

I think these two principles - assent and imitation - certainly apply to the British, American, Roman, and Islamic empires. If they do not apply to the Spanish and Mongol empires, then maybe that is proof I am right - dominance grounded only or mainly in coercion doesn't last long. It needs to be at least facilitated by affective bonds of emulation and assent (even admiration).

Frankly I fail to see what China has to offer that the world will want to imitate. Appreciate, yes. Buy, certainly. But imitate? The world will want to buy its products, but this does not translate into assent to its pre-eminence. When the Arab world flared up three years ago, people in Benghazi and Cairo were more likely to clamour for democracy than for Communism, or one-party rule, or Confucianism.

Even if I have completely failed to provecontra the economists, that China's rise is not inevitable, there is always the fallback of arguing merely for what is preferable. I know which I prefer, and I don't need an economist to tell me why.

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