Looking at the Track Record

Today I came across this interesting summary of a recent debate between Minxin Pei and Eric X. Li about Chinese democracy, moderated by James Fallows (thanks to @thats_mandarin for the heads-up). With the important caveat that I didn’t see the debate firsthand and thus am relying on the summary of Li’s position in this article, let’s take a look at some of his statements.

[Li conceded that] China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? “I’m a venture capitalist,” Li said, “so I look at track records.” In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.

OK, so let’s look at track records. Taiwan is a great comparison here ((Not a perfect one since the country is far smaller, but there are no perfect comparisons here)), since its government was in a very similar situation in 1949, having also just been weakened by decades of war and (in its case) an eventual defeat and forced retreat. My guess is that in 1949, Taiwan’s GDP, literacy rate, and life expectancy were quite similar to China’s. (Though I could be wrong. I couldn’t find much available data on Taiwan in 1949, although it appears the GDP was indeed very low, if perhaps not quite as low as the PRC’s).

So who has the better track record now? Taiwan — undeniably a far more democratic state than China — on every single count. Its per capita GDP is way higher than the PRC’s ($37,000 vs. $8,400). Its life expectancy rate is also higher than China’s (79.35 vs. 73.47), and it even has an advantage in literacy, albeit a very slight one (96.1% ((This number is from 2003, though; it may be higher now)) vs. 95.9%). ((Note that most of these numbers are from the CIA World Factbook, and I chose PPP GDP for this article, but the numbers from other sources are in all instances I saw very similar.))

But to see why this matters, let’s continue with Li’s argument:

Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn’t specify what these were), but they’ve been dwarfed by China’s achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I’m at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that’s engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company’s top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn’t make sense. “The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. … I think the answer is clear.”

Li is not wrong that China’s one-party government has made some monumental achievements along with its monumental mistakes, although which dwarfs which depends very much on whether you’re (for example) a successful venture capitalist or a farmer whose land has been confiscated. Regardless, if we’re looking at track records, it sure looks like Taiwan’s government has a better one. And what’s more, Taiwan’s current government is the result of a successful stable transition from a one-party dictatorship to a more-or-less functional multiparty democracy (albeit one with the occasional legislative fist fight). As far as track records go, isn’t Taiwan’s comparative success in every category Li named, along with its successful transition to a multiparty system, evidence that such a transition could work, and might even be beneficial to China?

I think it’s quite telling that Li chose to use a boardroom metaphor, though. I think he’s right about the decision one would make when running a company, but China is a nation, not a corporation. When a corporation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, its stock price plummets and investors become angry and poor. Workers get laid off and have to find new jobs. When a nation makes a catastrophic policy mistake, there are deaths (sometimes millions of them).

Moreover, a nation’s goals should be entirely different from a corporation’s. Companies are out to make money, period. Nations should be out to make money only insofar as that improves the quality of life for their own people. Nations also have to consider an extremely complex variety of other factors; it’s not all just about the GDP bottom line, which is why running a country the way you would run a company is insane. ((I should note that I don’t think China’s leaders really are running China like a company; what I’m saying here is that Li’s comparison is pretty problematic.))

I’m not sure why Fallows or Pei accepted this metaphor as legitimate, but they apparently did at least for the sake of continued discussion, and thus, discussion continued:

It wasn’t that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the “one person, one vote” definition seriously.

Li makes a fair point here, and one that he has made before, so I’ll counter with a point that I’ve made before: China’s system is even younger if we operate by the same strict definitions. Since the current system (which is responsible for most of China’s growth) is quite obviously not communist or socialist in practice, if we want to talk about this system’s track record we might generously say it dates back to the late 1970s. If Western democracy is unproven system, Chinese-style authoritarianism is even moreso.

Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they’re charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? “It’s like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM.”

Ignoring the nonsensical smilie at the end ((but I’m happy to discuss why this is stupid in the comments if need be…)), one could easily make the same vague, unsupported argument about China, and in fact we see such arguments all the time. History will prove one (or both) of these arguments right, I imagine, but both systems are currently facing “monumental challenges” and whether or not they’re capable of dealing with them is very much yet to be determined.

As for the opinion polling, is that really an effective measure of the national mood in a country where dissidents and critics are detained and tortured? Or, for that matter, in a country where the prevailing cultural attitude is to keep one’s true beliefs to oneself and trusted family and friends, not to shout them at anyone with a microphone who will listen (as seems to be popular in the US)? I certainly know plenty of Chinese who are very frustrated with the government but would never ever tell that to a pollster cold-calling them over the phone.

Li does concede that corruption is a problem, but cites Transparency International’s global rankings as evidence that corruption is a developing-nation problem and not an authoritarian problem, per se. He may be right, but again it’s worth noting that Taiwan, whose government was starting from more or less the same place, ranks as significantly more clean than China on that scale. ((Although I’ll grant that Taiwan had the benefit of US aid to a greater extent than China had help from the Soviets.))

Lest anyone be confused, Li is most certainly not arguing that authoritarianism is the best system for China now; he’s in this thing for the long haul:

Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.

“I am saying the former.”

The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world’s advance [sic] democracies.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Li there. China has certainly changed a lot, but its one-party system hasn’t survived a civil war (America’s multiparty system did), and most of the reason China now would be unrecognizable to Chinese from 63 years ago is that things started out so terribly. I’m not sure that the fact that most democracies didn’t begin with millions of people starving to death should really be considered a selling point for the relative strength of authoritarianism.

And, as Minxin Pei pointed out, the political system itself has barely changed at all and would be quite recognizable to Chinese from the early communist period. Policies have changed drastically, but the men with their hands on the wheel still get there the same way. Li counters:

It’s a fallacy to say the system hasn’t changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People’s Conference — most conspicuously, it’s [sic] members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren’t interested in this kind of story; they’re interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.

With regards to the NPC changes, I think he’s missed the point; as that body continues to be a relatively meaningless rubber-stamp legislature anyway; changes to it aren’t particularly relevant. With regards to local changes, I love ((sarcasm)) the cheap dig at reporters he throws in, but apparently he’s not interested enough in the story to mention any specifics, either, which rather undermines his positon.

Anyway, Li’s overall point was made quite clear during the question period:

In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. “If they’re from men, they’re not absolute; they can be negotiated.” It was only too bad there wasn’t time to discuss what “negotiated” means here.

“I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech,” he added later. “Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial.”

I think it’s pretty clear to anyone who has been poor or powerless (or both) why individual rights are sacrosanct even if one doesn’t believe they come from god. It’s not hard to understand why Eric Li doesn’t give a shit about internet censorship in China, for example: after all he has a column in the Huffington Post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to understand why free speech (or due process, or the rule of law, or the right to elected representation, etc. etc.) are important to a farmer who has lost his land and is trying to contact the central government to resolve the problem.

Rights certainly are a “negotiation,” Li isn’t wrong about that. Even in the land of the free, I don’t have the right to make libelous comments or murder people (among other things). I don’t think anyone would argue that how far any right goes isn’t a negotiation, part of the social contract for any society, and different groups choose differently. But without freedom of speech or the right to elected representation, who has what rights in China is not a negotiated dialogue between the rulers and the ruled, it is a one-sided lecture. Without representation or the right to represent oneself through freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, any real “negotiation” on rights is utterly impossible.

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66 thoughts on “Looking at the Track Record”

  1. “You see someone say something like this and you know, instantly, that it’s coming from someone who is vastly exaggerating his credentials and overestimating the depth of his experience, as well as ignoring his non-representative sampling.

    You also neglect to mention that Communism in Tibet was similarly “organically developed”, and that it predated the “invasion” of Tibet by decades. The response to and Chushi Gangdruk was lukewarm, especially considering the relative fervor with which Tibetans eviscerated their ruling class.”

    I don’t think there would be much point to exaggerating my credentials on an anonymous message board. And no amount of exaggeration could hide the fact that I have booked time in Tibet, with Tibetan organizations, and with Tibetans themselves, whereas you’re just repeating talking points from a propaganda machine.

    Funny thing about that non-representative sample- want to help me devise a reasonable set of questions to ask Tibetans and go to Tibet to poll them? We would definitely be kicked out of China or imprisoned, but I think that might be a valuable experience for you. Judging by how carefully China keeps pollsters and reporters out of Tibet, they know exactly what kind of answers Tibetans would give.

    Regarding indigenous Tibetan communism: It’s pretty irrelevant to the discussion, given that Tibetan communists were generally purged by China because of how many of them still harbored Tibetan nationalist sentiments. The few that were left generally haven’t been a focus of major Tibetan or Chinese interest because of how low on the Chinese political food chain they were.

    You should probably read Tsering Shakya’s Dragon in the Land of Snows if you actually want to know what you’re talking about- or if reading something by a Tibetan makes you uncomfortable, at least pick up Melvyn Goldstein’s History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951: Demise of the Lamaist State.

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  2. “Funny thing about that non-representative sample- want to help me devise a reasonable set of questions to ask Tibetans and go to Tibet to poll them?”
    —that’s a great suggestion. I hope that guy takes you up on it…but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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  3. J
    I don’t think there would be much point to exaggerating my credentials on an anonymous message board.

    Yes, there would, considering that they’re central to your argument.

    Judging by how carefully China keeps pollsters and reporters out of Tibet, they know exactly what kind of answers Tibetans would give.

    Nah – they know exactly what kind of track record Westerners have in Tibet from Younghusband’s expedition to CIA sponsored terrorism. It’s obvious that they’d be spreading propaganda if given the chance.

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  4. SK Cheung
    what stipulations?

    They would take advantage of China’s transition to advance their interests at the people’s expense. If any economic aid were to be forthcoming it’d be contingent upon the surrender of Chinese sovereignty. No doubt something like the proposed “international enviro police” stipulated by the developed world’s Copenhagen (or whichever conference) would be demanded.

    Just as it makes no sense for China to wish that the US fails, similarly it makes no sense for the US to hope that China fails.

    I hope you’re not implying that the US government has any sense. I refer to the last 10 years (or more)

    Furthermore, why would CHina’s economy fail (any more or less so) in a democratic system (as compared to the current arrangement)?

    First, because the transition has to be perfect to keep it from stalling a wide range of activity in a nation. Second, because the CCP is now doing so well that it’s highly unlikely (by the historical record) that conditions will improve. After Taiwan’s first true “elections” of CSB, the island’s economy suffered in comparison with other Chinese-majority polities.

    FOARP
    Forecasters are saying that Chinese GDP growth should slow to 6% y-o-y by mid-late decade, but then they also said that it wouldn’t rain last weekend . . .

    The rule of the last 30 years is that Chinese growth has been consistently and systematically underestimated, not that this means anything in and of itself.

    But from a much lower basis, and following thirty years of “mismanagement and incompetence”.

    Given the same base values China has seen higher growth than Poland in every single year – despite the fact that Poland was far less devastated by their stint with “Communism”. They had more capital and more resources, better market access and a better educated populace. Dismissing China’s progress as mere catch-up growth ignores all of these factors.

    Otto Kerner
    I’ve never heard of an indigenous Tibetan communist from inside “political Tibet”.

    Sounds like you and J disagree on some points.

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  5. “They would take advantage of China’s transition to advance their interests at the people’s expense. If any economic aid were to be forthcoming it’d be contingent upon the surrender of Chinese sovereignty.”
    —huh? How would they “take advantage”? Advance what “interests”? How/why would they seek to infringe upon Chinese sovereignty? And again, we’re talking about a change in governance. A democratic China would still be the second largest economy in the world. It would still have a free-market economy. I have no idea what you’re talking about, besides random and unsubstantiated fear-mongering.

    What would emissions controls and carbon thresholds have to do with it? Why would a democratic China suddenly feel compelled to adhere to emissions targets that an autocratic China refuses to (and to which much of the rest of the world has turned their back on)? I mean seriously, where do you get this stuff?

    “I hope you’re not implying that the US government has any sense.”
    —that’s a non-sequitur. Sure, the US government is goofy at times. But what makes you think they’ll want to undermine the second largest economy in the world? Just more random fear-mongering.

    “transition has to be perfect to keep it from stalling a wide range of activity in a nation”
    —oh, so now “perfection” is the threshold. What would constitute such “perfection”? Again, besides these random platitudes, how would a change in governance “stall” the economy? What does an autocratic government provide to a free-market economy that a democratic government cannot? In fact, that “track-record” you love is showing that the CHinese economy is already slowing…right under the CCP’s nose. And even Wen speaks of the need to transition to a consumption-based economy…which is one for which the CCP has no track-record whatsoever.

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  6. Not sure what you mean, Truth Speaker. Just to be clear, I was referring to indigenous Tibetan communists from political Tibet before the PLA came. Phüntshok Wanggyäl was a communist but he was from Bathang in Sichuan. I assume he’s the main example that J was thinking of of a Tibetan communist who was purged due to Tibetan nationalist sympathies.

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  7. “The rule of the last 30 years is that Chinese growth has been consistently and systematically underestimated, not that this means anything in and of itself.”

    Really? I have a copy of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers, published in 1987, which predicted (based on a 1986 study by The Economist) that China would have a GDP level roughly 30% higher than that reported last year – a good prediction all the same though, given the time-factor. I think you right to say there are a lot of nay-sayers (Gordon Chang being the most infamous) who endlessly and groundlessly predict a slow-down, but serious studies that indicated a potential slow down but subsequently were shown to be false? I can’t think of one.

    “Dismissing China’s progress as mere catch-up growth ignores all of these factors.”

    Having dismissed Polish growth as catch-up in your previous comment, I think you should ponder on this for a moment.

    At the example of Poland shows that there is no proof that autocratic regimes really enable growth, or that democratic regimes hamper it. For every example of a dam or a bridge not built due to the democratic process, you may also point to dams and bridges built merely for prestige, or poorly, simply to meet the expectations of a ruling dictator, nor is infrastructure the be-all and end-all of economic growth.

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  8. “Not sure what you mean, Truth Speaker. Just to be clear, I was referring to indigenous Tibetan communists from political Tibet before the PLA came. Phüntshok Wanggyäl was a communist but he was from Bathang in Sichuan. I assume he’s the main example that J was thinking of of a Tibetan communist who was purged due to Tibetan nationalist sympathies.”

    Right- and not only was he from outside of ‘political Tibet,’ but he founded the Tibetan Communist Party while in China. Anyway I’m not really sure why I’m trying to engage with truthspeaker here, dude just wants to vomit up talking points so im out!

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  9. SK, an authoritarian China simply has more resolve to oppose foreign demands. If democracy were good for China, their key competitors by nature would not want it for her, especially going by America and Western Europe’s track record.

    But what makes you think they’ll want to undermine the second largest economy in the world?

    What makes you think they WON’T? China is a competitor for resources. America is all about zero sum.

    What would constitute such “perfection”?

    Anything that doesn’t cause long-term destabilization.

    Otto Kerner
    I was referring to indigenous Tibetan communists from political Tibet before the PLA came.

    “Political Tibet” is kind of a meaningless qualifier as Chushi Gangdruk also originated in Kham. The people in “political Tibet” were too busy scraping by on subsistence agriculture.

    Gil
    Having dismissed Polish growth as catch-up in your previous comment, I think you should ponder on this for a moment.

    I see no reason to believe otherwise. Poland is not exceptional – the Baltic States and the Czech Republic post similar growth figures for similar reasons despite varying paths to “democratic reform”. I also took note of the regional wealth effect. Poland simply didn’t grow as fast as China did at similar points, or Singapore, or Taiwan.

    At the example of Poland shows that there is no proof that autocratic regimes really enable growth

    They don’t, I agree. My person view is that authoritarian regimes are unpredictable but can deliver exceptional results if you’re lucky. Once a nation is rich and more stable the risk start to outweigh the rewards.

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  10. “an authoritarian China simply has more resolve to oppose foreign demands.”
    —why would that be? A democratic China would be responsive to Chinese people. Do Chinese people have an inherent tendency to capitulate to foreign demands, such that a democratic China would allow for the expression of such tendencies?

    “If democracy were good for China, their key competitors by nature would not want it for her”
    —once again, this is the same fear-mongering that “the west” wishes ill upon China. How does disruption, let alone failure, of the number two economy in the world make things better for “the west”?

    “What makes you think they WON’T?”
    —because that would drag down the rest of the world’s economies with it. It’s ripping off you nose to spite your face. Could they try to do it? Sure. But why would they want to? It’s an irrational fear.

    “Anything that doesn’t cause long-term destabilization.”
    —well then it depends on what you mean by “destabilization”? Seems like more of those generic platitudes. Change alone does not suffice. Is there a rational reason why a change in the system of governance that leaves China’s free-market economy intact would “destabilize” said economy in the “long term”? Beyond perhaps an irrational fear of change?

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  11. S.K Cheung
    A democratic China would be responsive to Chinese people.

    There is no proof of this. There are very few democracies where the government is responsive to the people, and if they are they are incompetent and sluggish. Those that are successful are almost always SMALL. There are physical limits to the extent where the given voter or representative can legislate fairly or effectively. It makes no sense to risk a transition for a form of government that’s no better than what they have.

    How does disruption, let alone failure, of the number two economy in the world make things better for “the west”?

    How does ousting democratically elected leaders in the Middle East, only to have them replaced by Islamist dictators, make things better for “the West”? It doesn’t, but they’re stupid enough to think it does. You make the error of assuming even 10% of currently democratic governments are rational or morally upright, they are neither. At least the CCP kinda has the first part down.

    Is there a rational reason why a change in the system of governance that leaves China’s free-market economy intact would

    First of all, even if the CCP nominally hands over power many of them will still be in charge – including prominent members of the PLA. The DPP today still whines like little babies about the KMT having a grip on power because of their connections and assets, so there’s no reason to get your hopes up so high.

    Second, China is relatively undeveloped and has inexperienced institutions and government bodies, corporations, industries, NGOs, etc. The CCP at least shields China’s fledgling firms from ridiculous Western demands to sell the entire nation piecemeal to amoral, rentseeking foreigners, and they’ve nurtured entire industries that would have been destroyed otherwise. A democratic China, especially a developing democratic China, would have no such resolve.

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  12. “There are very few democracies where the government is responsive to the people,”
    —this is debatable, of course. But confined to the narrow parameters of the ability to “oppose foreign demands”, how likely are Chinese people to capitulate to such demands via their representatives in a democracy? Like I said earlier, for you to suggest that a democracy in China would succumb to foreign demands is to suggest that CHinese people would choose to do so. Somehow I don’t find that likely, or even plausible. I guess you do.

    “It makes no sense to risk a transition for a form of government that’s no better than what they have.”
    —well, I’d leave it to Chinese people to judge whether an alternate form of government is better (or not) than what they currently have. If they think it makes sense, that’s good enough for me. If they think it doesn’t make sense, that’s also good enough for me. But what clearly doesn’t make any sense at all is for you, or the CCP, to tell Chinese people what’s best for them.

    “How does ousting democratically elected leaders in the Middle East, only to have them replaced by Islamist dictators, make things better for “the West”?”
    —I guess you’re going back to the 1970s and 80s here, cuz recent events don’t qualify for your current characterization. But you’re right, there are prior examples where they’ve meddled a generation ago where it came back to bite them, in hindsight. Presumably, it made sense for them to meddle at the time. So the question for you is this: how would it make sense for “the west” to meddle with the number 2 economy in the world TODAY?

    BTW, the CCP is “rational” only insofar as doing things to try to cling to power. That is not the same as behaving rationally for the benefit of Chinese people. And also, what economic “rationality” does the CCP provide that a democratic system couldn’t engender?

    “CCP nominally hands over power many of them will still be in charge”
    —I suppose that’s true. A change in the system doesn’t mean there will be instant turnover of the players. In fact there likely won’t be immediate turnover of the players. But that’s ok, cuz these players will be playing under different rules…and if they don’t perform, they won’t be playing much longer. I don’t know what DPP/KMT has to do with it, cuz Chinese people are under no obligation to import Taiwanese remnants; and if Taiwanese are happy enough with KMT to re-elect them, DPP whining doesn’t really matter.

    “The CCP at least shields China’s fledgling firms from ridiculous Western demands to sell the entire nation piecemeal ”
    —oh please. How much more of this ridiculous fear-mongering do you have from where it came from? If protectionism is what Chinese people want, how does a democratically governed China lose its ability to offer economic protectionism? Again, all that the CCP offers is authoritarianism, which does scant little wrt the economy.

    “A democratic China, especially a developing democratic China, would have no such resolve.”
    —why, because Chinese people lack such resolve? On what basis do you suggest this?

    Now, you’re certainly correct that China under the CCP has piss-poor institutions, without which a democratic system of governance cannot function effectively. Besides the CCP itself, that deficiency is the only real barrier to a Chinese democracy, if they so choose.

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  13. Taiwan was not a democracy until 1996. It is a shining example of good authoritarian rule if anything. BTW, Taiwan is not really comparable to China anyway because of the difference in population. Metropolitan Shanghai probably has the same population as Taiwan has.

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  14. “It is a shining example of good authoritarian rule if anything.”
    —also a good example of where authoritarian rule (good or bad) eventually ends up, for what it’s worth.

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