Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pessimism About China, Russia and Iran Breaking the West

‘The West must bend great will of China’, by Fraser Nelson, Scotland on Sunday, 23 April :

Since Adam Smith first explained the principles of economic freedom three centuries ago, no country has managed to combine dictatorship with economic strength to the extent that China is now achieving. It is breaking new ground.

It has done this by managing globalisation. It restricts information commodities - the media, internet, political groups and associations - while creating economic freedom in selling billions of goods to the West.

China's partial embrace of Smith's free market principles has allowed it to tackle poverty - and enrich itself - at a rate unknown in human history. But it is filtering out the aspects of a free society it does not like.”

This extract is from a highly doom-ridden and pessimistic vision of the new roles emerging for China, Iran and Russia in subverting the West through their key places in the world economy. It is traditionally relatively easier for totalitarian regimes to rule in periods of economic poverty. But this changes in situations where the economy begins to thrive.

The French Revolution, for example, was not provoked by the people’s long standing poverty; it was provoked by the return to that poverty from a temporary respite in a period of relative affluence in France just before the country was thrown into unrest, from rising bread prices (and prices of other commodities consumed by the poor and the middle-class) when the newly experienced affluence came to an end. When the domestic economy is made better and then falls back into it being worse, regimes experiencing change are at their most vulnerable.

China is already experiencing early signs of something like this, which if exacerbated by events, may prove destabilising. Dictatorships have no mechanisms, except internal violence, for regime change; democracies manage peaceful regime change within their constitutional norms and practice. In highly regulated states, as in China, Russia and Iran, with their heavily-controlled media, news leaks out (especially from China) that all is not well at the local level. Of course, the instruments of repression are solid for now (they are not that fragile) but the habits of years of totalitarian repressions in China have worn thin in several incidents with people in local riots and disorders.

Rapid growth in opulence causes two sources of discontent; from those who feel excluded from what they see and hear about the wealth of the cities and from those whose newly acquired access to the growing affluence is interrupted. People displaced by economic developments, with no avenue for restitution, taking to the streets shocks those in power (who typically overreact) and those watching the unthinkable – the Party under siege from people who dare to challenge it – encouraging more public dissent.

The long march to the fall of Soviet communism began with riots and disturbances in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, before it spread into Russia. That China sells billions of dollars worth to the West is also provoking unprecedented demands for higher wages, as predictable from economics, to which the Chinese communists are not invulnerable.

Fraser Nelson may be too impatient because he sees nothing changing within these countries. Great shifts into non-acceptance of old certainties, backed by totalitarian repression, which seems invincible, arise from deep shifts taking place cumulatively and mostly out of sight. If the new Chinese middle-class, the main beneficiaries of China’s hurried march to affluence, and the formerly poverty stricken labourers and peasant families come to worry about threats to their new positions, their consequential responses could expose the apparent stability of the communist regime to severe testing.

Smith also wrote about the life-long quest of people of all classes – from the ‘cradle’ to the ‘grave’ - to ‘better themselves’. Having tasted that process, and realised that it is not just a dream, they will not give it up easily. That changes the equation. Trade within a country raises its wealth. In that process the ruling regime is always under threat. Elements within and near the regimes know this and, like politicians everywhere, dispute how best to deal with threats to their tenures in office (from the lowest functionaries to the highest posts in the land). China is not akin to the tiny island state of Singapore.

Only in transitional democracies – always the least worse of all options of government – is resolution of these fissures manageable. That does not mean that democracies are immune from instability; only that their records of successful outcomes to these events are more numerous.

As Chou En Lai put it about the outcome of the French Revolution, which applies with equal force to the outcome of the current tensions between the West and totalitarian rivals, “it’s too early to say” which of the two will prove the more resilient.

[Read the article at:]


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