The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, March 05, 2007


A loyal Marginal Revolution reader asks for discussion of
china [sic]
I have not been to China since 1999, but I feel confident that the changes since then are the logical extension of those already underway at that time. I agree with the conventional wisdom that China is highly promising but highly unstable; and I think that, for the non-Chinese world, this is a good thing.

To a Western sensibility, China outside Hong Kong feels alien -- more so even than Tokyo. Perhaps I can express it best by saying that the Japanese, while serious and formal, seem young in their curiosity and perfectionism, while the Chinese seem old, old with weariness rather than with wisdom. Life is not precious in China, and death is not dreaded.

The overriding pragmatism of Chinese culture also appears to contribute to a greater vulnerability to tragedies of the commons. To a sufficiently imaginative viewer, almost any public good -- from an open stretch of roadside near a park entrance, to an honestly run business paying no kickbacks -- is a resource crying out to be exploited. The preservation of public goods through forbearance on the part of many is s significant part of "social capital", and there is little such forbearance in China. Perhaps this is an effect of crowding and poverty, rather than of anything specifically Chinese; I have no firsthand knowledge of India or of Africa beyond its northernmost reaches.

China is in a three-way race, where its economic growth must outpace both the aging of its population (projected into the future here) and the social time bomb of its gender imbalance. I expect that continued rapid growth is necessary for stability; stagnation or even slow (1-3% annual) growth will likely lead to unrest, violence and possibly collapse. Looking carefully at the aging chart above, it appears that China's apparent growth is partially due to favorable demographics, as many people enter the work force and few leave. This is reminiscent of Japan's apparent dominance in the 1980's, which was boosted by an extremely similar demographic profile.

Finally, throughout the world, what is precious? Many Americans and Europeans cast a very wide net here, proclaiming the sacred value (though they might not choose that word) of the quality of life of farm animals and lab rats. In China, where exotic animals are jammed into cages outside the more expensive restaurants, such a view seems implausible.

[Mr. Cowen's remarks are here and here.]