Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Mystery of the Chinese Failure

In The Wealth And Poverty of Nations, there is a fascinating chapters that discusses how China, the great fountain of invention and industry, from the compass, paper, gun powder, etc. stagnated in the 15th Century and feel far behind the Western World. While reading through these reasons, I was left with the strong impression that many of the worst defects of the Chinese Communist System, such as extreme bureaucratic control of economic and social life, hostility to commerce, innovation and free expression, etc. were not departures from the archaic Chinese Imperial System, but its extreme realization. Only by a piecemeal departure from these constraints in the last 25 years has China experienced economic growth. And unless the state continues to roll back its stifling control of finance, media and intellectual inquiry, the expansion of prosperity will be ephemeral. The irony is that the United States and segments of the western world have moved in the other direction, seeking to control and curtail economic freedom.

"The absence of (progress towards) a free market and institutionalized property rights. The Chines state was always interfering  with private enterprise - taking over lucrative activities, prohibiting others, manipulating prices, exacting bribes, curtailing private enrichment. The favorite target was maritime trade, which the Heavenly Kingdom saw as a diversion from imperial concerns, as a divisive force and source of income inequality, worse yet, as an invitation to exit. Matters reached a climax under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the state attempted to prohibit all trade overseas. Such interdictions led to evasion and smuggling, and smuggling brought corruption (protection money), confiscation, violence, and punishment. Bad government strangled initiative, increased the cost of transactions, diverted talent from commerce and industry."

"The larger values of society. A leading sociological historian (historical sociologist) sees gender relations as a major obstacle: the quasi-confinement of women to the home made it impossible, for example, to exploit textile machinery profitably in a factory setting. Here China differed sharply from Europe or Japan, where women had free access to public space and were often expected to work outside the home to accumulate a dowry or contribute resources to the family." 

"The great Hungarian-German-French sinologist, Etienne Balazs, would stress the larger context. He sees China's abortive technology as part of a larger pattern of totalitarian control: "...if one understand by totalitarianism the complete hold of the State and its executive organs and functionaries over all the activities of social life, without exception, Chinese society was highly totalitarian...No private initiative, no expression of public life that can escape official control.  There is to begin with a whole array of state monopolies, which compromise the great consumption staples: salt, iron, ea, alcohol, foreign trade. There is a monopoly of education, jealously guarded. There is practically a monopoly of letters (I was about to say, of the press): anything written unofficially, that escapes the censorship, has little hope of reaching the public. But, the reach of the Moloch State, the bureaucracy goes much farther. There are clothing regulations, a regulation of public and private construction (dimensions of houses); the colors one wears, the music one hears, the festivals - all are regulated. There are rules for birth and rules for death; the providential state watches minutely over every step of its subjects, from cradle to grave. It is a regimen of paper work and harassment, endless paper work and endless harassment."

"The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese, which have given so much to mankind - silk, tea, porcelain, paper, printing, and more-would no doubt have enriched China further and probably brought it to the threshold of modern industry, had it not bee for this stiffing state control. It is the State that kills technological progress in China. No only in the sense that it nips in the bud anything that goes against or seems to go against its interests, but also by customs implanted inexorably by the raison d'Etat. The atmosphere of routine, of traditionalism, and of immobility, which makes an innovation suspect, any initiative that is not commanded and sanctioned in advance, is unfavorable to the spirit of free inquiry." 

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