Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Who can stop the rise and rise of China? The communists, of course

By Mark Steyn

Seventy years ago, in the days of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, when the
inscrutable Oriental had a powerful grip on Occidental culture, Erle
Stanley Gardner wrote en passant in the course of a short story: "The
Chinese of wealth always builds his house with a cunning simulation of
external poverty. In the Orient one may look in vain for mansions,
unless one has the entrée to private homes. The street entrances
always give the impression of congestion and poverty, and the lines of
architecture are carefully carried out so that no glimpse of the
mansion itself is visible over the forbidding false front of what
appears to be a squalid hovel."

Well, the mansion's pretty much out in the open now. Confucius say: If
you got it, flaunt it, baby. China is the preferred vacation
destination for middle-class Britons; western businessmen return
cooing with admiration over the quality of the WiFi in the lobby
Starbucks of their Guangzhou hotels; glittering skylines ascend ever
higher from the coastal cities as fleets of BMWs cruise the upscale
boutiques in the streets below.

The assumption that this will be the "Asian century" is so universal
that Jacques Chirac (borrowing from Harold Macmillan vis-à-vis JFK)
now promotes himself as Greece to Beijing's Rome, and the marginally
less deranged of The Guardian's many Euro-fantasists excuse the EU's
sclerosis on the grounds that no one could possibly compete with the
unstoppable rise of a Chinese behemoth that by mid-century will have
squashed America like the cockroach she is.

Even in the US, the cry is heard: Go east, young man! "If I were a
young journalist today, figuring out where I should go to make my
career, I would go to China," said Philip Bennett, the Washington
Post's managing editor, in a fawning interview with the People's Daily
in Beijing a few weeks back. "I think China is the best place in the
world to be an American journalist right now."

Really? Tell it to Zhao Yan of the New York Times' Beijing bureau, who
was arrested last September and has been held without trial ever

What we're seeing is an inversion of what Erle Stanley Gardner
observed: a cunning simulation of external wealth and power that is,
in fact, a forbidding false front for a state that remains a squalid
hovel. Zhao of the Times is not alone in his fate: China jails more
journalists than any other country in the world. Ching Cheong, a
correspondent for the Straits Times of Singapore, disappeared in April
while seeking copies of unpublished interviews with Zhao Ziyang, the
Communist Party general secretary, who fell from favour after
declining to support the Tiananmen Square massacre. And, if that's how
the regime treats representatives of leading global publications, you
can imagine what "the best place in the world" to be a journalist is
like for the local boys.

China is (to borrow the formulation they used when they swallowed Hong
Kong) "One Country, Two Systems". On the one hand, there's the China
the world gushes over - the economic powerhouse that makes just about
everything in your house. On the other, there's the largely
unreconstructed official China - a regime that, while no longer as
zealously ideological as it once was, nevertheless clings to the old
techniques beloved of paranoid totalitarianism: lie and bluster in
public, arrest and torture in private. China is the Security Council
member most actively promoting inaction on Darfur, where (in the most
significant long-range military deployment in five centuries), it has
4,000 troops protecting its oil interests. Kim Jong-Il of North Korea
is an international threat only because Beijing licenses him as a
provocateur with which to torment Washington and Tokyo, in the way
that a mob boss will send round a mentally unstable heavy. This is not
the behaviour of a psychologically healthy state.

How long can these two systems co-exist in one country and what will
happen when they collide? If the People's Republic is now the workshop
of the world, the Communist Party is the bull in its own China shop.
It's unclear, for example, whether they have the discipline to be able
to resist moving against Taiwan in the next couple of years. Unlike
the demoralised late-period Soviet nomenklatura, Beijing's leadership
does not accept that the cause is lost: unlike most outside analysts,
they do not assume that the world's first economically viable form of
Communism is merely an interim phase en route to a free - or even
free-ish - society.

Mao, though he gets a better press than Hitler and Stalin, was the
biggest mass murderer of all time, with a body count ten times' higher
than the Nazis (as Jung Chang's new biography reminds us). The
standard line of Sinologists is that, while still perfunct-orily
genuflecting to his embalmed corpse in Tiananmen Square, his
successors have moved on - just as, in Austin Powers, while Dr Evil is
in suspended animation, his Number Two diversifies the consortium's
core business away from evildoing and reorients it toward a portfolio
of investments including a chain of premium coffee stores. But Maoists
with stock options are still Maoists - especially when they owe their
robust portfolios to a privileged position within the state apparatus.

The internal contradictions of Commie-capitalism will, in the end,
scupper the present arrangements in Beijing. China manufactures the
products for some of the biggest brands in the world, but it's also
the biggest thief of copyrights and patents of those same brands. It
makes almost all Disney's official merchandising, yet it's also the
country that defrauds Disney and pirates its movies. The new China's
contempt for the concept of intellectual property arises from the old
China's contempt for the concept of all private property: because most
big Chinese businesses are (in one form or another)
government-controlled, they've failed to understand the link between
property rights and economic development.

China hasn't invented or discovered anything of significance in half a
millennium, but the careless assumption that intellectual property is
something to be stolen rather than protected shows why. If you're a
resource-poor nation (as China is), long-term prosperity comes from
liberating the creative energies of your people - and Beijing still
has no interest in that. If a blogger attempts to use the words
"freedom" or "democracy" or "Taiwan independence" on Microsoft's new
Chinese internet portal, he gets the message: "This item contains
forbidden speech. Please delete the forbidden speech." How pathetic is
that? Not just for the Microsoft-spined Corporation, which should be
ashamed of itself, but for the Chinese government, which pretends to
be a world power but is terrified of words.

Does "Commie wimps" count as forbidden speech, too? And what is the
likelihood of China advancing to a functioning modern stand-alone
business culture if it's unable to discuss anything except within its
feudal political straitjackets? Its speech code is a sign not of
control but of weakness; its internet protective blocks are not the
armour but the, er, chink.

India, by contrast, with much less ballyhoo, is advancing faster than
China toward a fully-developed economy - one that creates its own
ideas. Small example: there are low-fare airlines that sell £40
one-way cross-country air tickets from computer screens at Indian
petrol stations. No one would develop such a system for China, where
internal travel is still tightly controlled by the state. But, because
they respect their own people as a market, Indian businesses are
already proving nimbler at serving other markets. The return on
investment capital is already much better in India than in China.

I said a while back that China was a better bet for the future than
Russia or the European Union. Which is damning with faint praise:
trapped in a demographic death spiral, Russia and Europe have no
future at all. But that doesn't mean China will bestride the scene as
a geopolitical colossus. When European analysts coo about a "Chinese
century", all they mean is "Oh, God, please, anything other than a
second American century". But wishing won't make it so.

China won't advance to the First World with its present borders
intact. In a billion-strong state with an 80 per cent rural population
cut off from the coastal boom and prevented from participating in it,
"One country, two systems" will lead to two or three countries, three
or four systems. The 21st century will be an Anglosphere century, with
America, India and Australia leading the way. Anti-Americans betting
on Beijing will find the China shop is in the end mostly a lot of


Blogger Louis Cyphre said...

Muy interesante. Hace poco puse este artículo sobre la posibilidad de que China se convierta en la próxima superpotencia mundial.

3:21 PM  

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