Saturday, December 24, 2016

China's Future by David Shambaugh

Paperback, 244 pages Published March 14th 2016 by Polity Press ISBN 1509507140 (ISBN13: 9781509507146)

This book was named among The Economist’s Best Books of the Year, but if you’ve ever heard that end-of-year podcast, you’d know that list is not exactly discriminating. However, I did not know that when I ordered this, and I also did not know that The Economist also named Shambaugh's 2013 China Goes Global as Best of the Year. Frankly, I am not impressed, either with this book or The Economist’s list.

This book was actually a speech that Shambaugh had been schlepping around various outlets for a couple of years until he discovered that, with a little tweaking, he could actually sell it as a book. It is, thankfully, brief. That is the best thing that can be said about it.

Shambaugh is an academic who, although he has been studying China for forty years, has never actually put himself in the leader’s place, and therefore cannot adequately convey the feeling Chinese leaders must have of sitting atop an active volcano, knowing changes are necessary, and handling some while stomping out flames as their pants catch on fire.

Shambaugh is dismissive and arch when contemplating the difficulties and constraints facing China’s leaders, while not for a moment considering that every country, even the “free market” democracies in the West, are facing enormous issues with crippling debt, infrastructure, wage-gap, health delivery systems, education and innovation. I really hate his smug attitude.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, it’s a wonder that we still have under-innovating academics like Shambaugh still peddling their tired lectures at universities and think tanks when the world has actually changed in forty years, and we can sit around and discuss, with innovation and rationality, what one would do if one were facing China’s issues, without the attitude. Since the West clearly doesn’t have it all worked out perfectly, why couldn’t we try to imagine a system that uses some state control and unleashes the creativity of the populace without allowing the wide wage and wealth gaps that appear in, say, America?

I find it astonishing that Shambaugh is worried China’s universities are not good enough or that China doesn’t have enough innovation. China is going to eat our lunch in twenty-five years, as anyone who has spent any time there will be happy to tell you. The entire economy has enormous vitality because these folks have known scarcity, and are extremely cunning in knowing how to get by. More than I have ever seen anywhere, it is a nation of entrepreneurs. The leaders’ problem stems from trying to keep it all under control.

Which is the best thing to address first? Deregulating the banking and financial system will cause a vast economic unbalancing, but not doing so is also a problem. Corruption may be endemic, no matter whether leaders are appointed or elected, or how free or tight the central control of the business relationships. Addressing it straight on, and sharing its devastating impacts via a freer press may actually bring more social goods.

The dissidents? They clearly care enough to speak out and see things that the center is avoiding. Rather than jailing them, put them to work coming up with solutions with the brightest poli-sci students, giving them real-life constraints and limited scope, e.g., a province may privatize their largest glass factory. What are the political, social, economic implications, and can it be done discretely within one province? How can the enormous job of introducing needed changes be done piecemeal if moving one piece shifts an entire economy?

Yes, China has to deal with rising expectations. Don’t we all? Shambaugh raises all the moving pieces China must address, but he seems out of touch. His lecture is drowning in very old-fashioned platitudes and attitudes towards “the communists” and he has no apparent enthusiasm for the experiment China undertook in their revolution and since. This is exciting stuff, folks, but you’d never know it from Shambaugh.

The most interesting observations were made by other authors that Shambaugh was quoting:
"Thus, I see China as currently stagnating in what scholar Minxin Pei very astutely and presciently described in 2006 (!) as a ‘trapped transition.’ In this wishful and visionary book [Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy], Pei…describes…economic foundation is inevitably constrained by its political superstructure. Without fundamental and far-reaching political reforms, China’s economy will stagnate and the regime may well collapse…I did not agree with his argument at the time, but have come around to agree with him now. The reason for my changed assessment is that China has changed in the interim."
Good god, folks. Just read Minxin Pei. I plan to. He has a new book just out, called China's Crony Capitalism.

The other legitimately interesting idea Shambaugh tells us about is a book published in 1989 (!) by Zbigniew Brzezinski, called The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. In it Brzezinski apparently discusses communist party-states in the “post-communist authoritarianism” stage:
"In this phase, the communist leadership loses confidence, evinces a deep insecurity, and tries to reassert control."
I don’t think China is in this stage, but just about anything Brzezinski writes about the Soviets is interesting, and this one sounds just about as relevant as you're going to get.

The NYT on 12/20/2106 featured a QUOTATION OF THE DAY which struck me as having quite a lot of understanding behind it:
"China is a dragon. America is an eagle. Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks."
JIN CANRONG, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, at a forum discussing China's future and international relations. — Dec 20, 2016 06:52AM

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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