China-envying New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman likes to muse about how wonderful it would be if the United States could be like China for a day.
The scandal engulfing former rising star Bo Xilai, the cashiered Communist Party boss of the city of Chongqing, suggests how this magical day might go down.
A popular governor who rose to prominence based on his anti-corruption campaign while illicitly enriching himself would fall from grace. His wife would be accused of murdering a foreign businessman. His security chief, whom he relied upon to run an extensive spying operation on potential foes, would seek asylum at a foreign consulate, fearing for his life. State and federal security forces would have a standoff outside the consulate. The entire nation would become obsessed with the case, but the government would prevent anyone from searching the Internet for information about it. Everyone would assume that the government would control the political fallout by arranging a nice show trial for the disgraced governor.
Such would be the joys of China-for-a-Day, according to the Bo Xilai script. The Bo affair doesn’t truly tell us anything new about China. But the lurid details — the body of the allegedly murdered British businessman cremated without an autopsy; Bo’s privileged son partying as a student at Oxford and Harvard — might jolt some China-enviers out of their feverish delusions about the glories of the “Beijing Model.”
It’s not just Thomas Friedman. Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “China’s Superior Economic Model.” He cited Bo — and his “people-oriented development in Chongqing” — as one of the impressive assets of “Team China.” The book What the U.S. Can Learn From China appeared earlier this year. (It asks, among other things, “How does the Chinese political system avoid partisan rancor, but achieve genuine political accountability?”) President Barack Obama has used China’s public investments as a prod for adopting similar policies at home and said longingly of one of China’s technological advances, “That used to be us.”
The Bo scandal shows the Chinese system to be as thoroughly rotten as one would expect of a kleptocratic police state. What is unusual is only that it wasn’t kept under wraps. The country is run by a small number of Mafia-style families jostling with one another for power and profits. China’s power brokers are quasi-feudal lords with networks of cronies grasping all that they can. The sisters of Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, controlled a $126 million network of international businesses, according to Bloomberg News. They got rich on the families-and-friends program.
If China’s economic rise has been something to behold during the past three decades, it is not a tribute to the technocratic proficiency of China’s rulers. In China’s mixed system, it is the genuinely private companies that are more economically efficient. The World Bank writes, “A recent study shows that between 1978 and 2007 total factor productivity growth (a measure of efficiency improvements) in the state sector was a third that of the private sector, which has proved to be the more powerful engine of growth and innovation.”
China’s economic miracle may well stall out before we get the opportunity to emulate its supposed wonders. China can’t convert agricultural workers into manufacturing workers and suppress domestic consumption in the cause of creating an export-driven juggernaut forever. The World Bank report recommends that China move to the next stage of development by “reforming and restructuring state enterprises and banks, developing the private sector, promoting competition, and deepening reforms in the land, labor, and financial markets.” In other words, it should learn from the U.S.
The existence of China envy is a testament to the allure of 9 percent GDP growth coupled with a few fashionable policies like support for high-speed rail and solar energy. On this basis, Friedman calls China’s rulers a “reasonably enlightened group of people.” Their spectacular repression, greed, and Sopranos-like power struggles notwithstanding.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2012 by King Features Syndicate.