Mar 142012

I think a lot about China these days.

For nearly a year, a copy of the USA weekly edition of the China Daily, the official newspaper of China’s communist party, has landed on my doorstep every Friday, unbidden. It is a sample, probably related to my Wall Street Journal subscription.

I sift through the paper with interest. At a recent dinner party, I was asked to reflect on the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle and to ponder what the next 50 years might bring to our region. I said that I’m not sure what the right answer is, but I’m pretty sure it will involve China.

One item that caught my eye in the China Daily recently: Chinese shipyards that had been pumping out expensive yachts for foreigners are now finding a lot of buyers among rich Chinese.

You don’t have to read the China Daily very long to realize that the Chinese people have been bought off. However unwillingly or reluctantly, they have accepted the pursuit of the good life as a sort of proxy for the freedoms that we in the west take for granted.

China’s currency is technically not convertible. But as in the U.S. and elsewhere, the rich find a way. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that rich Chinese are headed for the exits, emigrating in increasing numbers to the U.S. and Europe. They seek things that China for all its prosperity often fails to provide for it 1.3 billion citizens: Clean water, safe food, high-quality education.

Over a period of several weeks in January and February, the Financial Times ran a series of articles tagged “Crisis of Capitalism,” covering, among other things, the dreadfully slow recovery from the economic crisis, the unsustainable fiscal deficits in the Eurozone and in the United States, and the decrepit state of voter confidence in western democracies.

But one of the FT’s most perceptive writers wrote recently that it is way too seen to give up on western democracy. Gideon Rachman noted that recent elections in Russian and Iran and the convening recently of China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress should give a perverse form of encouragement to leaders of western democracies. Wrote Rachman: “For even as they decry the flaws and hypocrisies of western democracies, the world’s autocrats feel compelled to ape their practices.”

Wrote Rachman:

Democracy has its flaws: populism, the excessive power of lobbyists, the urge to make unaffordable promises and to shirk reforms. But as the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions reminded us all, authoritarianism tends to produce its own morbid and dysfunctional symptoms: corruption, injustice, police abuse, torture, denial of freedom of speech.

Here is Rachman’s coup d’grace:

China’s economic success cannot change the perception, both in China and around the world, that the current political system will have to change. China’s ability to get things done has excited interest and envy, but it is hard to think of any nation where there is popular demand to adopt China’s political system. No matter how debt-ridden and dysfunctional they look, the world’s democracies are still winning the global beauty contest.

Post script: Best book I’ve read recently on the subject: China in Ten Words, a work of non-fiction by the Chinese novelist Yu Hua. Highly recommended.

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