What’s unprecedented about China

I’ve been struck recently by how often Western observers are describing China’s current political-economic-social model as unprecedented. The first example comes from the eminent economic historian Joel Mokyr, in a very good interview with Allison Schrager. Although China is not the main topic of their discussion, she does ask him this question: “Do you think the culture they have now is conducive to innovation?”:

That is a really hard question and I go back and forth on it. But my sense . . . I was in China about 12 years ago and I taught a long course in Shanghai at Fudan, and at that time I actually would’ve answered that they could. I would’ve been very bullish about China. It was before the authoritarian crackdown of Xi Jinping, and I become more skeptical about China because I actually think that a society that penalizes people for thinking in ways that are not convenient to the government, those societies in the end will not be nearly as creative as societies in which there’s some freedom of thought in which the government basically shrugs and takes an agnostic view, and you can say and think whatever you want. If the market for ideas accepts your idea, good. If they don’t, that’s your problem, and we’re not going to put you in jail for saying things to annoy us.

Now, that wasn’t the case in Stalin’s Russia or in Brezhnev’s Russia for that, and as a result, they fell behind radically behind the West in this 1970s, 1980s, and eventually their system collapsed. What China is trying to do is to have it both ways, to let people think relatively free about things that are technical and don’t matter, and suppress people who come up with social-political ideas, which they don’t like. And whether that model actually works, I am doubtful about, but the truth is we haven’t actually tried anything like that in human history. It has nothing really to go by.

I mean, in Stalin’s Russia it wasn’t just social and political ideas were suppressed, they actually took an active interest in science, and they basically decided what science was good, what science was bad. The same was true for a shorter time, with similar results, of Hitler’s Germany. They suppressed large amounts of physics because it was Jewish science. I mean, if you start thinking like that you are going to fall behind.

The economist Chang-Tai Hsieh takes a different angle, in a very interesting short piece called “Two Strong Hands: China’s Vision for the Private Sector” that analyzes the “the political foundation for China’s support of the private sector” (there is also a video presentation on the themes of the article that is worth watching). In it he tries to explain the apparent contradiction between the government’s crackdown on large companies and its support for small ones:

The Party has targeted large private firms, not because of a desire to return to Mao’s socialist economic vision, but due to fear that their growing power threatens Party control. At the same time, there is a widespread recognition that without a vibrant private sector, the economy will wither and the Party cannot survive. The result is what I call a strategy of using “two strong hands”: The first involves eliminating all threats to the Party’s control, while the second lends support to private firms that serve its interests by delivering growth, jobs and innovation — without becoming too powerful.

The default view of Chinese economic reformers is that the ‘two strong hands’ strategy will not work long-term, because total Party control will eventually undermine the market economy. Smaller companies might stop investing to grow, for fear of becoming ‘too big’ and hence finding themselves in the Party’s firing line. In this view, the ‘two strong hands’ are thus fundamentally incompatible.

The default view of Western political scientists is similar, albeit coming from a different angle. They would argue that the ‘two strong hands’ will come into conflict with each other, as millions of entrepreneurs and a rising middle class will eventually threaten the Party’s control of the political sphere.

Whether or not the ‘two strong hands’ can co-exist successfully is ultimately an empirical question. If the Chinese economy can maintain its private-sector driven growth momentum while the Party consolidates its power, the strategy will be judged a success. The key unknown is whether the Party’s efforts to support its favored parts of the private sector can spur enough growth to outweigh the negative effects of its crackdown on other, less favored areas. How much is lost if entrepreneurs know that it could be dangerous to be the next Alibaba, and how much is gained by the creation of millions of new small firms? Can a private sector of many “million-dollar companies” drive an economy with fewer “billion-dollar companies”?

What’s clear is that this model has never been seen before: a market economy with a large private sector under the control of the Communist Party. China has returned to a Maoist model of political control, but not the Maoist economic model of central planning and reliance on state-owned firms.

Both of these interventions are useful in clarifying points of tension in China’s current approach: can the government control political discourse without dampening scientific discourse? can the government limit the power of large firms without harming incentives for entrepreneurship? These are indeed empirical questions that cannot be answered a priori, although it’s clear where the sympathies of both authors lie.

Yet I can’t imagine that calling their strategy “unprecedented” would be received as a criticism by China’s Communist Party leaders, who since their abandonment of the Stalinist and Maoist models have never claimed to be following a predetermined blueprint. They have always said they are exploring their way to a new development strategy based on China’s actual conditions. And of course, similar questions were raised in earlier decades about the attempt to combine socialism with market economics; no one less than Janos Kornai thought their halfway house was inherently unstable and would soon collapse. Chinese officials are no strangers to the simultaneous pursuit of apparently conflicting ideals.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for this post.
    No one argues anymore about the control and censorship of scientific discourse in China in the social sciences and humanities in recent years. But I’m interested in how much it concerns hard-science, due to which China is advancing and apparently plans to advance in the international economy. Here, strict authoritarian control may, on the contrary, be a positive factor for the development of this area. There is an analogy with the USSR related to the fact that the late Soviet period was the peak of the country’s backwardness in scientific and technological terms. This is true, but the problem may not be so much in the political system, but in the system of economic management and the low level of managers in Russia. In China, despite the CCP, the level of economic and enterprise management is not comparable to modern Russia, where it is extremely unprofessional and low. Please tell us if there are publications on this topic or with a similar point of view?

    Reply

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