Wednesday, August 11, 2010

We will get fooled again

Matthew Yglesias offers a reasonable prediction of China's economic and political future:
Historically, few authoritarian regimes have seen that their own self-interest is best maximized via enlightened policies. But at least one interpretation of what’s happening in China is that the most important authoritarians around have figured this out (Abu Dhabi also seems to have) and this is driving major improvements in human well-being.
He raises this point during a broader discussion of democracies, authoritarian states, and the relative economic prosperity of each.  His central point, via Dani Rodrick, is that democracies fare better than authoritarian regimes, for a variety of reasons.  He goes on to talk about Singapore, and to make his observation about China.

But he doesn't confront the dark side of his prediction.  If China continues to grow, loosens its grip a bit, and delivers sufficient "major improvements in human well-being," its government might become unassailable.  At that point, it will have succeeded in filling the void left by the Soviet Union and providing a new alternative to liberal democracy:  authoritarian capitalism.

He also concludes with this:
I’m not sure whether China’s leaders can keep delivering growth, but if they can’t it’ll be hard for them to stay in charge.
This goes down a little harder.  Nothing lasts forever, and when China as we know it follows every other nation into the dustbin of history, I have no idea how it will happen.  But I do have trouble imagining, given advances in military technology, how an economically-driven revolution would happen there.  And other countries have plenty of incentives to keep China stable.

In the end, this is a huge obstacle to people in China becoming freer.  If the Chinese government can sustain enough growth to keep elites happy, can use authoritarian methods to keep people in line, and can continue to make itself indispensable to the world economy, things aren't going to get any better.  Rather than embracing freedom, it will keep it's hand on the dial, doling out just enough succor to keep people from rocking the boat.  At that point, the "enlightened policies" that offer some "improvements in well-being" will serve as little more than a palliative, a new opium for the masses.

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