Thursday, October 14, 2010

The China question

In a short piece in Foreign Policy, "Reinventing the Wheel", William Easterly talks about economic development, linking it to past levels of technology, going back as far as 1000 BCE. This is a result of both the way in which technology builds upon itself, as Easterly points out, and also of the geographical and cultural separation of societies before recent communication and transportation improvements (which I don't think Easterly makes enough of). But the idea of the cumulative, snowballing effect of early technological development runs into some objections:
The most important counterexample is China, which in 1500 had plow cultivation, printing, paper, books, firearms, the compass, iron, and steel, and yet failed to emulate Europe's Industrial Revolution in the centuries that followed. Scholars have argued that autocratic Chinese emperors killed off technological progress for domestic political reasons. For example, one Ming emperor banned long-distance oceanic exploration for fear of foreign influence threatening his power, after Chinese ships had already reached East Africa in 1422.
Which didn't happen in Europe largely because of Europe's political incoherence:
Fragmented Europe did not have any one autocrat who could kill off technological innovation, and the constant threats of living in a hostile neighborhood spurred the advancement of military technology. And because borders were relatively open around 1500, the reality that citizens could leave for more advanced places -- the forerunner of today's "brain drain" -- kept alive the spirit of innovation.
So what lessons can be drawn from this about current problems of development? What's interesting is that China pops again as an illustration that past failures needn't prevent playing catch-up: "As China's history has shown [meaning presumably recent, free-market history, though he doesn't say], when governments stop killing innovation, good things happen." Yet, as we all know, China's political system seems hardly less autocratic now than it was when it did kill innovation -- what is it that makes the difference?

The answer is likely to be that understated aspect of communication/transportation improvements, that have shrunk the world down to dimensions considerably smaller than 15th century Europe, and that put contemporary China in a position similar to that of an early modern European state. Note how, under these conditions, capitalism is the default evolutionary path. The question that China poses, then, is whether the other aspects of modernity will follow as well -- specifically, democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights? These features took a while to develop in the West, as the transition was made from feudalism to capitalism. So I think there's a reasonable expectation that we'll see them develop in China as well, since they seem to be very much of a single cultural piece or pattern -- the only real question is, how peacefully?

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