For space reasons (by which I mean the word count of my column, not the presence of black holes, cosmic dust, asteroids, or anything like that), there was one argument I couldn’t include in today’s column on China. Actually there were many arguments I couldn’t include, but the one I wanted to throw in there was this: I don’t think China can go another 30 years with its political system as it is. That’s a guess of course, but so is the confidence that its current system can continue.
First, all of these predictions of China’s steady, straightline, economic growth are ludicrous (and not just because the math is sometimes sketchy). Do we really believe — even with the Communist Party firmly in control — that China can continue growing at this blistering pace for two or three more decades? I don’t.
More important, I actually believe that wealth yields democracy and liberalism. I think the social science is pretty solid on this general principle, if not the exact timing and mechanisms of the process. So if China keeps getting richer, I think it will become more democratic. That could lead to real problems in the short run (democratization, modernization and fascism were closely linked in Germany and Italy). But those problems will not be conducive to steady economic growth. And in the long run, a democratic China is a much less scary China.
Meanwhile, I would bet that India overtakes China much sooner than people think. China had a ten year head start on India when it comes to economic liberalization. But India has more than a half century head start on China when it comes to democratization and the rule of law. Prosperity doesn’t threaten India’s political institutions (though a rise in literacy might throw the country leftward for a while). India’s political institutions foment prosperity. Meanwhile, China’s prosperity is on a collision course with its political system, whether the fans of authoritarian capitalism like it or not.
Just because I clicked on your earth pictures link before I read this post….
I look at those pictures of the United States completely lit up at night, and then you look at the pictures of giant, pitch-black China at night, and it ’s hard not to see room for a crazy amount of growth going on for a very long time.
Yeah, I’d step down from that uninformed argument at the mere suggestion of someone who has read more than a book about the subject, but I just wanted to point out a connection between those photos and economics.
Me: True, true. But there’s a room for a crazy amount of growth in Africa and India, too. But an absense of lightbulbs is not all it takes. And I should say that there’s room for a crazy amount of growth in the United States as well, it just won’t be measurable by how much we light up at night.