Economist Arthur Kroeber argued last week that China´s leadership accepts that its authoritarian strength triggers off collateral damage: it will never become a leader in technology or soft power, including censorship. Journalist Ian Johnson disagrees in the ChinaFile, the people might not accept that trade-off.
Two problems. One, I suspect this tradeoff is news to many people in the government. We can all agree that it’s unfair to expect China to be producing Googles and Apples at this point in its development, nor for its films to rival Hollywood’s influence. But the government fervently believes that it has to innovate. It is pouring huge amounts of money into trying to become a technological and soft-power giant. The whole of northern Beijing is becoming a high-tech park, while the Beijing-Tianjin corridor is home to tens of thousands of people working for top-level government research institutes, charged with innovation. Perhaps this is delusional, but such an economic transformation is also widely seen outside the government as necessary for China’s long-term economic health. That this won’t happen is a bit surprising and, to me, is more the lede than the not-too surprising point that the CCP isn’t about to collapse.
I think the essay is structured this way because the argument (and here I may be wrong but it’s how I read it) is that these problems are long-term issues that can be addressed in the future. For now, Kroeber implies, China can grow and prosper with its current model. Leave the innovating and movie-making to the future.
There’s some merit to this. I remember talking to the economist Barry Naughton in the 1990s and he wisely said that long-term secular trends like urbanization are going to keep China growing for another long while. That turned out to be true, and by the same token we can say that a technocratically led government can keep things on track, building more high-speed trains, bringing more people into cities, and restructuring the economy away from polluting enterprises. That should be good for many more years of growth.
The problem is that China’s system isn’t just an old jalopy that is doing the job and can be replaced when it breaks. Instead, it’s like a performance-enhancing drug that is delivering successes but also damaging the body.
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