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Misunderstanding China’s True Condition (and So Our True Priorities)

The always-insightful Minxin Pei writes about the repeated American over-estimation of other countries in Everything You Think You Know About China Is Wrong. We’ve over-estimated enemies or supposed rivals for decades:

For the last 40 years, Americans have lagged in recognizing the declining fortunes of their foreign rivals. In the 1970s they thought the Soviet Union was 10 feet tall — ascendant even though corruption and inefficiency were destroying the vital organs of a decaying communist regime. In the late 1980s, they feared that Japan was going to economically overtake the United States, yet the crony capitalism, speculative madness, and political corruption evident throughout the 1980s led to the collapse of the Japanese economy in 1991.

Pei notes that the real news from Beijing is gloomy (and that her troubles are not temporary):

The latest news from Beijing is indicative of Chinese weakness: a persistent slowdown of economic growth, a glut of unsold goods, rising bad bank loans, a bursting real estate bubble, and a vicious power struggle at the top, coupled with unending political scandals. Many factors that have powered China’s rise, such as the demographic dividend, disregard for the environment, supercheap labor, and virtually unlimited access to external markets, are either receding or disappearing….

The disconnect between the brewing troubles in China and the seemingly unshakable perception of Chinese strength persists even though the U.S. media accurately cover China, in particular the country’s inner fragilities. One explanation for this disconnect is that elites and ordinary Americans remain poorly informed about China and the nature of its economic challenges in the coming decades. The current economic slowdown in Beijing is neither cyclical nor the result of weak external demand for Chinese goods. China’s economic ills are far more deeply rooted: an overbearing state squandering capital and squeezing out the private sector, systemic inefficiency and lack of innovation, a rapacious ruling elite interested solely in self-enrichment and the perpetuation of its privileges, a woefully underdeveloped financial sector, and mounting ecological and demographic pressures.

China cannot escape the errors of so-called state capitalism; she’ll not defy gravity. Her model is a moral failure and will prove an economic wreck. Our policy toward her should rest on more than the unfounded worries of unrealistic assessments.

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