China’s Rise, America’s Fall
The rise of China surely ranks among the most important world developments of the last 100 years. With America still trapped in its fifth year of economic hardship, and the Chinese economy poised to surpass our own before the end of this decade, China looms very large on the horizon. We are living in the early years of what journalists once dubbed “The Pacific Century,” yet there are worrisome signs it may instead become known as “The Chinese Century.”
But does the Chinese giant have feet of clay? In a recently published book, Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson characterize China’s ruling elites as “extractive”—parasitic and corrupt—and predict that Chinese economic growth will soon falter and decline, while America’s “inclusive” governing institutions have taken us from strength to strength. They argue that a country governed as a one-party state, without the free media or checks and balances of our own democratic system, cannot long prosper in the modern world. The glowing tributes this book has received from a vast array of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, including six Nobel laureates in economics, testifies to the widespread popularity of this optimistic message.
Yet do the facts about China and America really warrant this conclusion?
China Shakes the World
By the late 1970s, three decades of Communist central planning had managed to increase China’s production at a respectable rate, but with tremendous fits and starts, and often at a terrible cost: 35 million or more Chinese had starved to death during the disastrous 1959–1961 famine caused by Mao’s forced industrialization policy of the Great Leap Forward.
China’s population had also grown very rapidly during this period, so the typical standard of living had improved only slightly, perhaps 2 percent per year between 1958 and 1978, and this from an extremely low base. Adjusted for purchasing power, most Chinese in 1980 had an income 60–70 percent below that of the citizens in other major Third World countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Kenya, none of which were considered great economic success stories. In those days, even Haitians were far wealthier than Chinese.
All this began to change very rapidly once Deng Xiaoping initiated his free-market reforms in 1978, first throughout the countryside and eventually in the smaller industrial enterprises of the coastal provinces. By 1985, The Economistran a cover story praising China’s 700,000,000 peasants for having doubled their agricultural production in just seven years, an achievement almost unprecedented in world history. Meanwhile, China’s newly adopted one-child policy, despite its considerable unpopularity, had sharply reduced population growth rates in a country possessing relatively little arable land.
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