The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Mark Steyn, in his inimitably entertaining manner, takes on the idea of a "Chinese Century" in the Telegraph. He maintains that the rise of China will be cut short by "the internal contradictions of Commie-capitalism", foremost among which is corruption among its nomenklatura:

The standard line of Sinologists is that, while still perfunctorily genuflecting to his embalmed corpse in Tiananmen Square, his successors have moved on... 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.

Fair enough, and a good reason to doubt that China can continue its economic trajectory. But for an unsustainable system to collapse, its internal contradictions must come to affect its stakeholders. The tremendous growth (from a very low baseline) of the Chinese economy has kept the country stable despite naked corruption at every level, despite the ominous spread of AIDS, despite the obvious callousness of the Party's leaders to the people's wishes.

As long as this economic growth can be sustained, by any means, China can remain stable and increase in power. Mr. Steyn shows some obstacles to the current model of economic growth, but there are other models. In particular, China could strengthen itself relative to its Southeast Asian neighbors (and thus profit economically at their expense) by impeding their access to raw materials. If this were done gradually enough, or if the United States became too dependent on Chinese loans and Chinese goods, the world's response might be mere protest.

The whole point of Empire is to have your cake and eat your neighbor's, too: to support with external revenues an otherwise unsustainable domestic economic policy. War with China is unwarranted, but watchfulness to ensure that they play by the same economic rules as their smaller neighbors is justified.