The Corner

Friedman Today

I’ll probably revisit this later — I’ve got some deadlines right now. But a bunch of readers have sent me this column today in which Tom Friedman seems to be addressing the complaints made by me and others about his long record of China-envy. He tries very hard to clear the record in his own behalf. He writes:

For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station — where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there, you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: “It was built in nine months.”

I know, I know. With enough cheap currency, labor and capital — and authoritarianism — you can build anything in nine months. Still, it gets your attention. Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.

Studying China’s ability to invest for the future doesn’t make me feel we have the wrong system. It makes me feel that we are abusing our right system. There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before. But we’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country.

And a bit later:

The Chinese system is autocratic, rife with corruption and at odds with a knowledge economy, which requires liberty. Yet China also has regular rotations of power at the top and a strong record of promoting on merit, so the average senior official is quite competent. Listening to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China tick off growth statistics in his speech here had the feel of a soulless corporate earnings report. Yet he has detailed plans for his people’s betterment, from universities to high-speed rail, and he’s delivering on them.

For starters, I do wish he’d stop referring to his own highly specific views of China as those of a generic “U.S. visitor.” I know he’s not alone in his views, but he doesn’t speak for everyone who has been there either.

Second, I love how even Friedman’s Chinese friends think he’s over idealizing China.

More importantly, saying he doesn’t want to live in an autocratic country like China, he just wants America to be able to do autocratic-type stuff democratically, isn’t as huge a distinction as I think he thinks it is. It still boils down to wanting everyone who disagrees with him to bend to his grand top-down schemes.

Oh, and about this grand Chinese meritocracy Friedman finds whenever he meets with Chinese functionaries. I have no doubt that the technocrats rise on their merits often enough. They also often get shot when they screw up or demand democracy. No doubt this sometimes contributes to efficiency (and even justice, as when corrupt bureaucrats allow children to be poisoned), but it’s not exactly a better system than our “toxically partisan” system. It’s a funny irony, toxic means poisonous, deadly. Our system is partisan, in the sense that we have peaceful democratic political parties that settle their differences without resort to violence. The Chinese system has no parties and, when push comes to shove, they settle their differences by killing people. So the toxicity of our system is purely figurative while the toxicity of the Chinese system is all too literal.

Look, China’s dictatorial rulers embraced markets reluctantly. First they killed tens of millions of their own people trying to make Communism work. They failed. So, in the late 1970s, they introduced market forces and things took off. People got richer, healthier, better educated. Tom Friedman looks at this transformation and says “It must have been the authoritarianism.” That says more about him than about China.

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