Sunday, June 10, 2007

The bull in the China shop

The other night I was reading Christopher Hitchens's essay "The Struggle of the Kurds" (from 1992; republished in his 2004 anthology Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays) and was struck by this sentence:

"...many outwardly advanced types have taken little from development except technology, which they have employed for barbarous purposes."

Wise words here. Barbarism plus technology does not equal civilization, which is foremost a matter of values such as respect for the rule of law and due process, the freedoms of speech and assembly and conscience, the toleration of minorities, and many others. I think that this is sometimes in danger of being forgotten when we extol the rise of countries such as China, which is aping the outward achievements of the West while its political culture remains in a primitive state. Recent scandals in that country such as the tainting of food for profit, the harvesting of organs from living prisoners and even the enslavement of workers should remind us that any country is more than the sum total of its infrastructure and its economic output.


Rajeev said...

One of the advantages of globalization and increased trade is that that it is not just goods that get traded but also ideas.
China is no more incapable of democracy than, say South Korea, Japan or Germany.
More trade means that more Chinese travel overseas and will hear about democratic ideals and will desire them. Foreign born Chinese are also going to Shanghai and places like that, bringing with them not just their money and technology but also fresh ideas.
Trade transformed the West by empowering businessmen and a middle class hungry for more power. Why should China be an exception?

Neil said...

You're underestimating the extent to which people are willing to let the rights of other people go to hell as long as their own wallets are full... why would most of the capitalists in China want to rock the boat when their profits are rolling in -- especially when official corruption is in many cases working to their benefit?

Remember too that unlike the West, China has no Christian heritage. The Chinese don't have a cultural imperative to love their neighbour or to worry about the fate of their individual soul. Much of Western humanitarianism has its roots in Christianity (and has traditionally proceeded in the teeth of fierce opposition from vested interests such as business.)

Rajeev said...

Corruption doesn't benefit the average Chinese businessman, which is why the government of China has taken to executing corrupt officials. Corruption undermines transparency, which is the cornerstone of a functional market system. There are no exceptions to this and China is ranked in the middle for corruption - not too far away from India, a democratic country.

Japan is not a Christian country whereas it has a vibrant democracy. Taiwan is not a Christian country and it has a vibrant democracy. Ditto for South Korea. India has no Christian heritage but it is a strong democracy.

Russian is a Christian country but democracy seems to be fading there. Venezuela and Cuba are Christian countries and I wouldn't cite them as examples of democracy. Germany has a strong history of Christianity (and also the birthplace of protestantism) and it produced Hitler.

I think that the connection between Christianity and democracy is quite tenuous.

But quite clearly, there is a tendency that with increasing affluence, and a growing middle class, democracy also starts to take root as the newly rich want more freedoms to go with their wealth. It was the emerging middle classes and newly rich of Europe that had the luxury to think of such abstract things as liberty.

As for China, newspapers are beginning to question official policy (especially on the environment) and don't forget 1989 - there were plenty of Chinese willing to get crushed under tanks to stand up for democracy.

Neil said...

>Corruption undermines >transparency, which is the >cornerstone of a functional market >system.

And transparency can undermine individual competitiveness, which is why you get securities fraud in the US (which not even all libertarians believe ought to be illegal) -- people can and naturally will use their privileged access to power or information to gain advantage. What you mean to say perhaps is that transparency is the cornerstone of an ideally functioning market system, but there is nothing to guarantee that any individual entrepreneur is as concerned with the welfare of the market system as a whole as he is with his own immediate self- interest. Very few businessmen are idealistic devotees of Adam Smith, after all.

>There are no exceptions to this >and China is ranked in the middle >for corruption - not too far away >from India, a democratic country.

Ranked by whom -- not those same people who decided that the US was one of the least peaceful countries in the world, I hope! Such rankings are often rather subjective, but in any case is it really such a boast for China to be able to say that its climate of corruption is not quite as bad as India's? (And is the converse that much of a boast for India?)

>Japan is not a Christian country >whereas it has a vibrant >democracy.

I may have been overstating the case by mentioning Christianity: while it is true that Christianity was a prerequisite for Western democracy, it's also true that it was a prerequisite for the kind of socialism that ended up prevailing in China (since Marxism as you know was originally a Christian heresy.) So it can go both ways. --Now, it may be possible to import democracy into countries with no Christian roots, but whether or not that "democracy" is going to transcend mere majoritarianism remains to be seen.

To address at least one of your Asian examples: the Japanese economy notoriously tanked in the mid-1990s for reasons relating to its traditional values, such as hierarchical deference to questionable decisions, bribery, and corruption. In any case Japan's democratic constitution was imposed upon it by the victorious Western powers after WWII, and there is no shortage of nationalistic politicians who would gladly get rid of it if they thought the rest of the world would let them away with it.

>Taiwan is not a Christian country >and it has a vibrant democracy.

Their democracy is less than 20 years old, so we'll have to see how that goes in the long run. Any change in the security situation with relation to China could just as easily push it in the opposite direction. (In the meantime Taiwan remains plagued by corruption and cronyism of a sort not seen in the Western democracies.)

>Ditto for South Korea.

Ditto for their democracy, also about 20 years old. Also ditto for it being contingent on their security situation... Koreans are so ethnically nationalist and xenophobic in any case that (as polls will confirm) they feel more sympathy with Kim Jong Il's regime than they do with the US, which doesn't speak well for the depth of democratic sentiment in their country.

>India has no Christian heritage >but it is a strong democracy.

That doesn't necessarily make it a humane country in which to live. Sorry, am I shifting the goalposts here? Democracy itself is a grand thing, and a prerequisite for a reasonably just society. But it does not, by itself, ensure the reasonably just society. Just ask the Muslims who find themselves under the rule of the BJP, or the Dalits, or the Assamese, or the Andaman Islanders.

>I think that the connection between >Christianity and democracy is >quite tenuous.

Was it merely coincidental, do you think, that the first democratic societies were Christian ones -- and the first societies to abolish slavery and child labour, too, given that these causes were largely spearheaded by Christian groups?

>But quite clearly, there is a >tendency that with increasing >affluence, and a growing middle >class, democracy also starts to >take root as the newly rich want >more freedoms to go with their >wealth.

Did we talk about Singapore yet? Surely you will admit at least one exception... Again, there is no necessary connection between wealth and freedom. Economic well-being for most people is going to be a more powerful motivator than the desire for freedoms which are going to have little or no effect on that well-being. --Look at the erosion of civil liberties that has taken place under the watch of Bush Jr. in the US. Has this estranged him from his affluent, corporate base as much as, say, his rampant deficit spending has done?

>As for China, newspapers are >beginning to question official >policy (especially on the >environment) and don't forget 1989 >- there were plenty of Chinese >willing to get crushed under tanks >to stand up for democracy.

And since then, what? That was 17 years ago. Did you read that story in the news the other day about the Chinese girl working at a regional newspaper who unwittingly published a personal ad commemorating the massacre at Tiananmen square? She didn't recognize it as subversive and remove it for the simple fact that she had never heard of June 4, 1989 -- she was never taught about it in school, obviously, and where else was she going to learn about it, given widespread censorship of the internet and other vital sources of information? Although those who experienced the killings (in the case of those placing the ad, the mothers of those who died) will of course remember, for the younger generation of Chinese it has simply gone down the memory hole. It is as if it never happened: things in China are, you might say, business as usual. And when business is booming, who cares?