The Land That Failed to Fail
November 19, 2018 3:29 AM   Subscribe

 
I read this yesterday and it is fascinating. First of a five-part series. Coming next week...

Part 2: How to Control Your Citizens: Opportunity. Nationalism. Fear.
Part 3: What’s China Doing There? And There? Staking Its Claim as a World Power
Part 4: China’s Economy Became No. 2 by Defying No. 1. Now It’s at a Crossroad.
Part 5: The Road to Confrontation
posted by chavenet at 3:55 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


So old I can remember when the One Child Policy was going to create a population of unstable, unmarriagable males who would bring China down from the inside.
posted by gerryblog at 4:44 AM on November 19, 2018 [8 favorites]


also, Africanized killer bees are on their way up from South America
posted by gerryblog at 4:45 AM on November 19, 2018 [8 favorites]


Cunning China, spending money on schools not wars...

"Most students also enroll in after-school tutoring programs — a market worth $125 billion, according to one study, or as much as half the government’s annual military budget."

...and fostering competent government (admittedly in absence of pesky suffrage)

"And it revamped the internal report cards it used to evaluate local leaders for promotions and bonuses, focusing them almost exclusively on concrete economic targets."
posted by Damienmce at 5:03 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


So old I can remember when the One Child Policy was going to create a population of unstable, unmarriagable males who would bring China down from the inside.

It has, and it may.
posted by panama joe at 5:04 AM on November 19, 2018 [32 favorites]


> Cunning China, spending money on schools not wars...

My understanding is that the CCP expends a significant amount on armaments to keep the PLA happy.
posted by lovelyzoo at 5:15 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


An interesting article but kind of a silly headline... did anyone actually believe beyond Cold War propaganda that totalitarianism isn't compatible with economic prosperity? Except maybe Thomas Friedman, originator of other such gems as the nearly-instantly-disproven theory that countries with McDonald's franchises would avoid military conflict?

You'd have to ignore rather major counterexamples like Nazi Germany. And beyond that, the majority of human history during which Chinese polities have usually been quite authoritarian by modern standards but have also in almost every century been the preeminent economic powers in the world: much of European colonialism involved conquoring and pillaging places all over the globe, but then hauling all of the loot off to China to buy Chinese manufactured products and commodities and artwork. And of course the exploration which began the era involved Europeans searching for trade routes to China and Chinese trading partners.

Al Jazeera English's 101 East put out a great report on the cutting edge in capitalism a few days ago: “China's Spying Eyes”... Our goal [with the social credit system] is to ensure that if people keep their promises, they can go anywhere in the world. And if people break their promises, they won't be able to move an inch.

Lots of emphasis from interviewees that the social credit system is “innovative.” As well as an interview with a journalist whose social credit score cratered, and is now faced with exclusion from long-distance travel and other sanctions, after he accused government officials of corruption and lost a defamation suit in a Chinese court. (He was also detained and interrogated 70 times in a single year and all of his social media accounts were closed—social media being where he published his investigative reports, of course.)

The Al Jazeera piece also includes details from the concentration camps and elsewhere in the Uighur Muslim regions of Xinjiang as mentioned in the OP article. (thread on Xinjiang last month)
posted by XMLicious at 5:44 AM on November 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


A weird little graph shows China returning to its usual place in the world economy, though.

Caveat: besides having a lot of fudge factors, the associated article also fails to account for the other important trend in the 18th-20th century - major military predation by Western powers into China and India, with associated looting.
posted by Mogur at 5:46 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


My boss just got back from a tour of our supplier's brand new plant in China. The plant has a couple of hundred large chemical reactors. It is one plant in a brand new industrial park that is in effect a brand new city.
posted by No Robots at 6:14 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


I don't think the narrative was totalitarianism was the reason China would collapse, but that its economy was a house of cards that would inevitably collapse because the Chinese hadn't sufficiently adhered to orthodox market-based capitalism. Basically, because they didn't reform their economy in such a way that would allow foreign investors to come in and take enough profit.

There was also a narrative that eventually, social and political liberalization was inevitable, because people would demand it as they became more prosperous. That was my take on the western media's coverage, living there for about five years and reading about it consistently since then. I still remember picking up a sensationalist Englishi language book in Hong Kong called "The Coming Collapse of China" which said that currency manipulation, the corrupt banking system, and artificial evaluations of the stock market were going to cause a crash within 5 years (this was 2002). I admit, I believed that one, or less. The other narrative, about inevitability of political reform was less convincing even then.
posted by skewed at 6:30 AM on November 19, 2018 [7 favorites]


Going off Mogur's comment above, I was struck by this line:

An isolated, impoverished backwater has evolved into the most significant rival to the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union.

It's just so.. ahistorical. For the vast majority of the history of civilization China has been a major player. Who would think the last 100 years means so much more than the 2,000+ that preceded it?
posted by The Notorious SRD at 6:38 AM on November 19, 2018 [33 favorites]


Who would think the last 100 years means so much more than the 2,000+ that preceded it?

Americans!
posted by chavenet at 6:41 AM on November 19, 2018 [63 favorites]


"an autocracy with democratic characteristics"

Add capitalism in there and that's basically most Western leaders' wet dream.
posted by slimepuppy at 6:45 AM on November 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


I wonder if we're seeing something almost entirely without precedent in the world -- an economically-center authoritarian state. Sure they have lots of capitalism, but it's a lot like communism, too, with its level of state ownership and control. I know the whole Leninist-Marxist thing included a side-track where communist nations would go the way of "state capitalism" which the Soviets seemed to attempt but never got working, and China might have cracked the code.

This century I think the market fetishists and libertarians will discover very much to their chagrin (if they'll even admit to chagrin) that it's actually possible -- worse, sustainable -- to have a lot of economic freedom and very, very little democratic freedom. The ruling-class-in-waiting in the USA is watching China jealously and you bet they're working on how to get that to work here.
posted by tclark at 6:57 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


If we want to keep trying to apply early 20th century terminology to 21st century political ideologies and movements, I'd say that it's much more accurate to describe China as Fascist rather than Communist.

Not that China **IS** Fascist, but it's a lot closer to Fascism than it is to Communism. They've abandoned even the pretense of the workers seizing the means of production and the state being a sort of transitional mechanism for doing so.

I think there's insufficient attention paid to how the economy worked in Fascist nations, perhaps because they only existed for a fairly brief time. But what China is doing looks vastly more like what Mussolini and Hitler did than what Stalin did. Again, it isn't what Hitler and Mussolini were doing, China is doing it's own new thing that doesn't easily and neatly fit into any of the early 20th century boxes. But it's closer to one than the other.

In the Fascist economies private enterprise was encouraged and promoted within the bounds of the needs and dictates of the state. Sucking up to well connected government types was important for private industry, and if you went against the state you'd be killed, but outside that private industry was strengthened and encouraged.

Whatever you want to term it, China's approach is working.

And, frankly, this shouldn't be surprising. Capitalism is successful, but only at the cost of incredible waste. Over 50% of new business fail within a year of starting. And with better computers and modeling a more planned approach to economic isn't necessarily going to fail. As Charlie Stross notes, corporations are basically a slow and cumbersome form of AI. The idea that big lumbering wasteful slow AI is the only way to have a successful economy is laughable and only embraced in the West due to the past failings of planned economies.

A mixed form, with strong central planning and free enterprise around the edges is clearly working in China today, and as the article notes it seems like a mixture of naivete and religious faith that has caused the Western world to believe that China must inevitably fail.


The Notorious SRD Empires come and go though. Mali was powerful for centuries. Admittedly, not for as long as China, but still. Egypt too. You can't say "well, China was basically the most powerful nation on Earth for close to 2,000 years [1] therefore of course we should expect that going forward it will continue to be a massive world power." History is littered with the battered remains of once great empires that fell apart and became third rate nothings.

[1] Which isn't really accurate anyway. China mostly kept within its own borders and had little interaction with the outside world outside people petitioning it for recognition.
posted by sotonohito at 7:08 AM on November 19, 2018 [8 favorites]


Whatever you want to term it, China's approach is working.

Never say that a system is working without specifying what goal it is trying to achieve, and what goals it should be trying to achieve. The Chinese system can be said to be working, from the perspective of its leadership, only because increasing human freedom is not one of the leadership's goals.

A student of mine recently mentioned that they were studying abroad partly to escape censorship, which they had already experienced as a teenager. Now on the outside, they found themselves isolated due to being unable to get information they could trust about what's happening at home. Hoping to offer some help as a teacher, I recommended Gulag Archipelago as a way of imagining how freedom of the soul is possible under an oppressive regime. It was only afterward that I was hit by the horror of that book being plausibly life-circumstances-relevant.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:47 AM on November 19, 2018 [12 favorites]


Tired of having discounted the threat posed by the American far right, the NYT heads East.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:48 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Before we get too NYT-amirite based on the paper’s domestic coverage, it’s worth pointing out that they consistently produce some of the best English-language reporting on China (admittedly not a super high bar to clear), have their own Chinese-language version of their website, and continue to push their stories within China through a variety of channels, despite being aggressively censored there since 2012 as a result of publishing a story about the then-prime minister’s family’s finances. You can compare that to Bloomberg, who killed major pieces of investigative journalism into leadership finances and retreated from the country, after being threatened with the loss of their market for Bloomberg terminals.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:04 AM on November 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


Whatever you want to term it, China's approach is working.

I'm curious as to what "working" means - and I don't say that in a disparaging sense.

The Chinese system can be said to be working, from the perspective of its leadership, only because increasing human freedom is not one of the leadership's goals.

I tend to agree with this statement. For all of our faults as a nation, I believe that the core tenant of personal freedom has a greater pull than does authoritarianism resulting in greater perceived social stability.

The fundamental issue that our style of governance must overcome is that ours is a system predicated upon moral authority and ethical obligation. Believe it or not, this is something that Tucker Carlson has even been discussing recently on his book tour - that our elites have essentially abrogated their responsibilities and turned inward, and this is in effect a large part of the malaise we are currently suffering through.
posted by tgrundke at 8:17 AM on November 19, 2018


I enjoyed the article, but was a little frustrated by the framing of the story as a rivalry for the largest GDP between the US and China.

We--all of us, Chinese or not--are better off for having close to a billion people lifted out of poverty. And equal GDP's is still far from equal per-capita GDP's, so there's more lifting to be done.

The world economy is a competition to some degree, OK, but in a lot of ways it's a competition to see who can do more for each other--other things being equal, we're better off with richer trading partners than poorer ones.

But other things aren't equal, OK.
posted by bfields at 8:33 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


I've been researching the SAPs imposed on African countries in the 1980s - Structural Adjustment Programmes based on the free market ideology espoused by World Bank and IMF - and its been making me weep for the mess it made of their countries, the rise of the informal sector, the unemployment and total crash of demand on the consumer side.

Seeing the changes here in India right now, and seeing the rise of China, its a good thing that is happening, whatever the methodologies and the ideologies. Singapore's philosophy was that first we become a first world nation, then we talk freedom. Right now, they've just changed their school system and eradicated the very examination driven approach that built them up in their first 50 years.

I think a lot less "one right way and its ours" and a lot more "there's different ways to get to wherever you want to go" will do our planet a lot of good.
posted by infini at 8:40 AM on November 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


the majority of human history during which Chinese polities have usually been quite authoritarian by modern standards but have also in almost every century been the preeminent economic powers

Most of the preeminent economic powers in history, if you go back far enough, have been pretty hardcore authoritarian by today's standards. But it's important not to confuse authoritarianism or autocracy with the new thing, which is totalitarianism. We've only had the technology for properly totalitarian states worthy of the name for about a century, and China is among the places pushing forward into new and unexplored frontiers of total state control.

There have been only one or two other arguably totalitarian great economic powers in the world, and they came to bad ends. More than naivete or faith, it's hope that keeps people thinking that this one too will not last.
posted by sfenders at 8:40 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Whatever you want to term it, China's approach is working.

We don't really know that. The Chinese economy is highly opaque, and nobody trusts the numbers that are being generated internally.

Demographics are worrying. Due to the one child policy, China's got a graying population, and it's hitting problem at a much earlier state of economic development than places like Japan, Germany, or Italy. Old people work less and require more public expenditures. This is a serious problem in wealthy countries like Japan, it's a massive problem in less wealthy countries like China.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:49 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Seeing the changes here in India right now, and seeing the rise of China, its a good thing that is happening, whatever the methodologies and the ideologies. Singapore's philosophy was that first we become a first world nation, then we talk freedom.

Very relieved to hear the good news about the Ends. I’d been starting to harbour doubts about the Means, but as long as everyone’s heart is in the right place and we’re all hoping for the best, then there’s no need to worry about details like “methodologies” and “ideologies”.

(Please note that the same considerations do not retroactively apply to the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes. In that case, everyone hoped from the outset that the programmes would make things much worse, and the methodologies adopted were certainly not driven by an over-riding belief in a misplaced ideology.)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:54 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


The image they chose as the visual embodiment of innovation is hilarious.
posted by sfenders at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


We don't really know that. The Chinese economy is highly opaque, and nobody trusts the numbers that are being generated internally.

Always worth noting that “nobody” in this case means “quite literally nobody, including the Chinese government itself”.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:21 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


tgrundke I was using "working" to mean "the government is stable and the economy is producing the goods and services necessary to provide an increasing standard of living for the population".
posted by sotonohito at 9:35 AM on November 19, 2018


Demographics are worrying. Due to the one child policy, China's got a graying population, and it's hitting problem at a much earlier state of economic development than places like Japan, Germany, or Italy. Old people work less and require more public expenditures. This is a serious problem in wealthy countries like Japan, it's a massive problem in less wealthy countries like China.

The graying population argument is one of those propaganda spins that is greatly exaggerated by right-wingers as an excuse to cut back on retirement benefits for the elderly. The claim is that fewer workers will be unable to pay for the benefits of the rising number of elderly.

But if you look at the real numbers, there's nothing particularly frightening about it and that is because of continuing productivity growth. Productivity growth is increasing efficiency which means that you can produce more stuff with fewer people.

As an example, pundits make a huge deal out of the fact that in the U.S. the elderly population will grow from 15% to 22% over the next 30 years. How are we going to pay for them with fewer workers, the story goes?

Not too difficult. Even at the current historically low productivity growth rate of 1.5%, in thirty years workers will be 56% more efficient, 56% richer. There will be plenty to go around to handle the increase in the elderly.

And for China, the case is even more dramatic. Because they are starting from a much lower base of efficiency, their productivity growth rate is better than 5%. In thirty years that means they will be more than 300% more efficient, 300% richer. Caring for their elderly population should be no problem.

The graying population does require some adjustments, including making sure that the top 1% don't capture all the gains, but it is used as a scaremongering story from the right for cutting benefits. It's not really a graying problem. It is a distribution problem.
posted by JackFlash at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


@JackFlash
I'm not sure I follow. Don't the members of the graying population also expect some growth in the received benefits? i.e. aren't the 300% richer workers expected to pay for the 300% more expensive retirees?
posted by bastionofsanity at 11:11 AM on November 19, 2018


It's hard for me to know what is good or bad about China. I remember the spooky feeling I got trying to follow the Tianjin explosion in 2015. A slow day at the office had my coworkers and I watching videos and news stories as they appeared and disappeared from the comfort of the US. I don't know what to believe about Chinese government and culture, or how to view its effect on tech, entertainment, industry...etc. It's kind of horrifying to think that a country that big can get away with so much secrecy.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:15 AM on November 19, 2018


...as long as everyone’s heart is in the right place and we’re all hoping for the best, then there’s no need to worry about details like “methodologies” and “ideologies”.

Yeah, probably if you're Uyghur you are still worried about the details
posted by demonic winged headgear at 11:18 AM on November 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure I follow. Don't the members of the graying population also expect some growth in the received benefits? i.e. aren't the 300% richer workers expected to pay for the 300% more expensive retirees?

The amount people pay into social security increases directly as pay increases (until you hit the cap of $132k per person, which only a small percentage of earners do). So more earners making more dollars (more or less) means more money for retirees. Costs for retirees increase as inflation increases. If inflation is low, and productivity growth is modest but consistent, then we could be fine despite demographic problems. Having richer workers wouldn't (by itself) make retirees' expenses higher.
posted by skewed at 11:24 AM on November 19, 2018


The thing we'll have to wait and see is how China handles it's first real recession. Growth has been so high that there has been no consecutive quarters of actual negative or zero growth since 1978. That's an amazing run, but it makes sense, growth has been so high that when the global economy has hit the skids, China drops from 8-9% to 5-6% for awhile. That's still way more growth than in countries like the U.S., but has caused problems in China. Their growth streak can't last forever though (everyone says), eventually they are going to have a multi-year period of negligible economic growth. How will they handle a real recession? My guess is that they will have a tough time but be okay, but I don't think anybody really knows. And this could still be years and years away.
posted by skewed at 11:37 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Don't the members of the graying population also expect some growth in the received benefits? i.e. aren't the 300% richer workers expected to pay for the 300% more expensive retirees?

Well, you can divide the gains up anyway you want, but let's say workers are 150% richer and retirees are 150% richer. The point is that everyone is richer. There's plenty of money to go around. The graying of the population isn't a catastrophe as some politicians like to paint it.
posted by JackFlash at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I feel like if you're gonna talk about a society's success, then it can't be about numbers. Can reporting give us a sense of whether Chinese people in general care about social justice and democracy, and how they culturally transmit their values and what that's like to be a person living as a member of that society. A newspaper that mostly reports on politics and economics doesn't really analyze this individual dimension of understanding, of what the people think and why that is and so on.
posted by polymodus at 2:15 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Singapore's philosophy was that first we become a first world nation, then we talk freedom.

Which is a pretty despicable philosophy because it puts the needs of the nation ahead of individual freedoms at any point in history. That's called revisionism. Comparing two coercive, authoritarian models--Singapore versus SAPs--is a false comparison. In fact as Chomsky has argued, it's what the globalized powers have always wanted; they want their freedom to do harmful "experiments" on different geographies as if it were a global playground, and then reap the results. So to argue for Singapore's success nevertheless falls within such an ideological narrative. The worst ideology is the pretense of not having an ideology.
posted by polymodus at 2:37 PM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I don't think China's rise is very mysterious: they're catching up, and they've been able to have increasing prosperity for thirty years. Not different in theory from the Europe of the trente glorieuses after 1945. Increasing wealth covers a lot of sins.

They haven't invented a magic new form of economy, so they can't sustain that forever. As skewed says, the big question is what happens when they actually hit a recession or depression. China has natural tendencies both to unity and fractiousness— 話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分:周末七國分爭,并入於秦

The whole topic is also confused by the fact that pundits have been predicting the collapse of China for most of this time, either because the leaders were omigod communists, or because they weren't following the IMF nonsense.
posted by zompist at 2:41 PM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Yeah and I'd say China isn't catching up but recovering from after being nearly drawn and quartered and sent a couple hundred years backwards due to Western imperialism, whose legacy is still felt today.
posted by polymodus at 2:44 PM on November 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


Wait they actually believed Capitalism was synonymous with Democracy? I thought that was just a cynical ploy to get rich quicker.
posted by symbioid at 6:56 PM on November 19, 2018


The whole topic is also confused by the fact that pundits have been predicting the collapse of China for most of this time, either because the leaders were omigod communists, or because they weren't following the IMF nonsense.

I do think that those who see Xi's "President-For-Life" plan to be a really bad sign are onto something, though. I believe that a necessary (but not sufficient) basis for China's success has been that the old guard doesn't get too entrenched and hidebound. That's about to change.
posted by tclark at 8:43 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


They haven't invented a magic new form of economy, so they can't sustain that forever.

It seems like the question should be, now that we've got technology-augmented totalitarianism, can that go on forever? Now that China has an integrated and functioning panopticon surveillance hierarchy of humans and AI subsystems which, like the devils in C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, are able to watch every human in every moment and exploit or curb every last little bit of frustration and joy and fear and self-indulgence, bend those things to the will and purposes of the state, and so can dispose of the ethno-religious unrest of marginalized and oppressed Uighur Muslims by simply disposing of the Uighur Muslim identity or reducing it to a veneer—'Sinicisation' of Muslims in Xinjiang must go on, says Chinese official—is economic unrest really much of a challenge at all to a system like that?

I can't remember whether it's in both the book and the film, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four in the Ministry of Truth you see John Hurt's character simply erase a newspaper headline before publication that announces a cut to the chocolate ration in dystopian post-Britain, and rewrite it with a replacement headline falsely announcing the chocolate ration has been raised to the same level. Later on he cheers alongside his fellow citizens at the good news.

In speaking of character, which he believed was inherently good in people, the scholar Mencius 孟子 who lived in the Warring States period a couple of centuries after Confucius analogized (Classical Chinese text w/ alt. translation) human nature to a forested hilltop, which might have its greenery and vitality cut down in some people:
Is there not [also] a heart of humanity and righteousness originally existing in man? The way in which he loses his originally good mind is like the way in which the trees are hewed down with axes and hatchets. As trees are cut down day after day, can a mountain retain its beauty? To be sure, the days and nights do the healing, and there is the nourishing air of the calm morning which keeps him normal in his likes and dislikes. But the effect is slight, and is disturbed and destroyed by what he does during the day. When there is repeated disturbance, the restorative influence of the night will not be sufficient to preserve it, man becomes not much different from the beast.
The modern Chinese state, it seems to me, has developed Agent Orange for those hilltops, and will shortly have absolute control over what can flourish there, if anything at all.
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 AM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Nobody Knows Anything About China
posted by panic at 3:41 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


It seems strange to me that this thread has devolved into a critique of collectivism. Where are all the socialists who frequent this board? How is it that here the discussion about China smacks of the John Birch society? The Anglo-American obsession with personal liberty is the likely cuprit here. As an antidote, I recommend Harry Waton's The Fetishism of liberty. Here is a representative passage:
The tendency of the material world is towards integration, cooperation and inter dependence. On the other hand the tendency of the spiritual world is towards self-consciousness and freedom. The more thoroughly we shall become integrated materially the higher shall we rise spiritually and the wider will then be our freedom. For freedom we are to look in the direction of Spirit, and not in the direction of matter. As St. Paul said: "Now, the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is also Freedom."
If China has understood that spiritual/intellectual freedom is dependent on material inter-dependence, then it has indeed advanced beyond the West.
posted by No Robots at 8:19 AM on November 20, 2018


polymodus, very much with you here, but when you say,

Can reporting give us a sense of whether Chinese people in general care about social justice and democracy, and how they culturally transmit their values and what that's like to be a person living as a member of that society.

can we in fact assume that Chinese people in general care about democracy? I'm sure they care about many things that are commonly found in so-called democratic societies, but is democracy an ideological aspiration for the common Chinese person?
posted by wym at 7:53 PM on November 20, 2018


« Older Jeff Goldblum's jazzy, quirky tribute to a family...   |   24 Amazing, Homemade Dungeons & Dragons Maps Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments