Sunday, October 2

China by the numbers

A reader sent me a link to an essay that analyzes China's chance for democracy by taking an extensive look at China's changing demographics. The essayist, who goes by the pen name of Spengler and writes for the Asia Times, starts with the observation:
Whenever the government of the People's Republic of China agrees with the US State Department about China's internal affairs, it is a good bet that either both are wrong or that the matter is irrelevant.
Spengler goes on to explain why he thinks State shouldn't put stock in Beijing's promise of direct elections at the township level within a few years:
Rural self-rule has no bearing at all upon the problem of Chinese governance. If Chinese villagers have the opportunity to elect their own leaders, the main issue about which they will quarrel will be who is allowed to leave first.

Instead, China must learn to rule cities that are mushrooming into the largest urban concentrations the world has ever known, populated by poor migrants speaking various dialects.

By far the largest popular migration in history is in flow tide between the Chinese countryside and coastal cities. In the mere span of five years between 1996 and 2000, China's urban-rural population ratio rose to 36%-64% from 29%-71%, and the UN Population Division projects that by 2050, the ratio will shift to 67%-33% urban. Chinese cities, the UN forecasts, will contain 800 million people by mid-century. By 2015, the population of cities will reach 220 million, compared to the 1995 level of 134 million.

Well over half a billion souls will migrate from farm to city over the space of half a century. All of them will be quite poor. China claims 80% literacy, but as countryside reads less than the city, it is a fair guess that a third of the migrants will be illiterate, and many of them, again perhaps a third, will not be able to understand a political speech in Mandarin, the largest dialect.

No historical precedent exists for a population transfer on this scale, and to conduct it peacefully would be a virtuoso act of statecraft. To require China to adopt a Western parliamentary regime in the process is utopian. [...]
Spengler closes with a wonderful summary of why the US has the world's best government and why Samuel Huntington's Confucian-babble is babble.

He also points out that American faith in constitutional ideals has always been shored by a cushion of capital. From there he advises that America should offer China "practical suggestions, such as how to develop internal capital markets, rather than grandiose and self-serving advice."

Granted, the US should tone down the grandiose rhetoric. But the problem with Spengler's advice is that it ignores screamingly obvious facts. China's rulers are not bumpkins. They are people loath to share power. They've spent more than a half century coming up with every excuse in the book for not sharing.

So I venture it is naive for Washington to assume that offering Beijing the same good economic advice they've gotten for years from the IMF and bankers in Taipei, Hong Kong, London and Singapore is the best help the US can give China.

The US Department of State can't force democracy on the Chinese but they can stop fawning over Beijing's endless prevarication. How to do this? By loudly and repeatedly reminding Beijing that China's economic progress was achieved on the back of democratic governments.

That, I submit, is the most practical course for American diplomacy with regard to China. It's practical because it treats China's leaders for what they are: adults fully possessed of their faculties. By continuing to nod in agreement with Beijing's excuses the US foreign office treats the Chinese as if they're idiots. Don't think Beijing is unaware that they're being patronized.

As to the mountain of problems that a half billion rural Chinese will face in coming to the big city, and the challenge this poses for establishing democracy in China: how does Spengler think America was built up? Was it done by a bunch a big-city PhDs speaking the King's English? No. It was built from waves of illiterate village hicks babbling every dialect you can think of, including Chinese ones.

Spengler's pessimism ignores the native intelligence of all peoples everywhere, including villagers. Many millions of immigrants to this country quickly learned the drill: you learn to speaka da English a little, you learn to read a little, and you get the general idea of democracy -- enough to vote.

Landing a man on the moon was hard; getting the basic drill of living in a democratic country is never hard. But first the drill has to be in place.

(1) China must wait for democracy.

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