The wrong lesson to draw from China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy is that authoritarianism works, writes Chrystia Freeland. Dictatorships aren’t so good at innovation or self-correction.
“That’s plain wrong,” Freeland argues.
History suggests that centrally planned economies have performed well in using others’ technologies to pull largely agricultural societies into the industrial age. But the absence of freedom impedes the ability to innovate and rectify mistakes made by an overbearing state, as China’s own history demonstrates:
A favorite explanation for those centuries of stagnation is the same one we offer for China’s current dynamism — its centralized, authoritarian state. As economic historian Joel Mokyr has written, “the absence of political competition did not mean that technological progress could not take place, but it did mean that one decision maker could deal it a mortal blow.” Meanwhile, in chaotic, divided, inefficient Europe, when one ruler decided to repress his innovators, “they did no more than switch the center of economic gravity from one area to another.” Dictatorships aren’t so great at self-correction.
She might have added that democracy also allows policy debates to be thrashed out peaceably and publicly, unlike the bitter ideological battle within China’s ruling Communist Party prompted by recent labor unrest that has pitted supporters of the harmonious society doctrine against the Crown Prince faction which favors high economic growth as the only way to ensure Great Power status.
By raising the living standards and expectations of a growing middle class, China’s ruling Communist Party is “laying the normative foundation for the opposition movement that will ultimately defeat it,” claims Susan Shirk, of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation:
Without elections, independent non-governmental organisations, or a free press, the CCP is incapable of getting local officials to devote themselves to the welfare of their citizens instead of lining their own pockets and those of their real estate developer friends. Local misrule erodes popular support for the CCP and provokes protests that could snowball into destabilising demands for political change.