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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Morality, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and the Chinese economy – what does history teach?

Morality, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and the Chinese economy – what does history teach?

Chinese economy | Morality, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and the Chinese economy – what does history teach? Anthony Harrington

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, the members knew, of course, that their decision would not be cheered by the Chinese authorities who regard Liu Xiaobo as a “criminal” and have him locked up and serving an eleven year prison sentence.

Coincidentally, on October 1, or a full week before the Nobel Committee’s decision, the veteran commentator John Mauldin ran the full text of a reflection by the Hong Kong based consultancy, GaveKal, on the morality of Chinese growth [free but registration required]. The GaveKal article, is a response to a client who wanted to know the consultancy’s views on China’s not so glorious human rights record and how they mapped such views against the Chinese economic miracle. The question the client posed is succinctly put and worth stating:

“So how does a group of economists focused on the mind and the soul as well as the pocketbook reconcile the sociological challenges presented b modern China? … How do you view … 21st Century China as it relates to treatment of political rivals, the autonomy of the courts, religious freedoms, control of all forms of media, etc. Should we bend with the breeze and accept that this is the new world?”

GaveKal’s answer is given in two parts by two of its executives and repays reading in full. But the short summary version runs as follows. The first answer starts from the premise that while “an overly powerful and extended government is very dangerous… a total absence of the State is even worse.” Those who doubt this should review TV footage of Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam, and add to that a brief perusal of present clips of car bombings around Bagdad. A country split into warring factions is a horror.

The author then draws on the French philosophers of the Enlightenment to distinguish between three different types of freedom: 1) political freedom, 2) social freedom and 3) economic freedom, and points out that you can have 2) and 3) while having very little of 1), as witness Hong Kong. He then goes on to trash France, which might think it has 1), 2) and 3) by arguing that in fact
“the obese State has invaded the social and economic sphere, leaving entrepreneurs without oxygen.”

The Chinese government is prepared to offer increased freedoms in 2) and 3) with 1) being non-negotiable into the dim and distant future – hence Liu Xiaobo’s plight.

However, the author argues, China is in motion politically, and is heading down the road taken by Singapore, turning from “a totalitarian state into an authoritarian state with a technocratic bias”. You don’t see protests over Singapore very often in the world’s press.

The second GaveKal author answers that there is nothing surprising about China having been able to deliver high speed growth while remaining an authoritarian state. South Korea and Taiwan both achieved their fastest growth spurt under brutal dictatorships. And if you look at our own Western democracies during the industrial revolution, with Britain as the case in point, these were not really democracies as we understand them today. Women and the landless didn’t get to vote, but that didn’t stop the mills from turning.

As he notes:

"(China looks the way it does today) … because of a very specific 1500 year history of centralised bureaucratic authoritarianism, an almost equally long history of active commerce and preindustrial capitalism which set the template for private sector activity once the state decided to get out of the way; and the presence of Hong Kong, which meant that China could make full use of modern Western institutions (such as a reliable legal system, property rights, efficient services, etc) without having to go through the cumbersome decades-long political hassle of building these at home."

For those who think that China has somehow managed to engineer economic reform and fairly extensive social reforms without any transformation in its authoritarian structures, the author argues, consider China in the 1970s by comparison to China today. There is no comparison.

"If we judge China not by how far it has to go but by how far it has come, the change has been dramatic, and we can reasonably expect the political system to continue to evolve in the coming decades, though not necessarily in linear or predictable ways."

The point, he argues, is that societies are essentially compromises between competing “ultimate values” , and the resulting bargains are struck differently from place to place. “(It) is a fallacy to presume that only via democratic elections can a society achieve a “true” bargain.” In this spirit, we should regard China as a “work in progress” as China works out its bargains. “China will become what it becomes and hopefully whatever it becomes will produce good results both materially and spiritually for most Chinese,” he concludes.

Which of course, still leaves the eminently worthy 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo languishing in jail for doing things that no European citizen would regard as remotely criminal. However there is a good saying which goes, be careful of what you wish for, because you might get it. What on earth would keep a fully democratised China a unified state?

There has to be more than a sporting chance that a fully “free” China would split into a good many more autonomous bits than the old Soviet Empire dissolved into, and the world would probably be a far more dangerous place while this process worked itself out. A deep rooted and historically well grounded fear of instability is one of the root causes of the repressive side of the Chinese Government. (Cynics might say that having power breeds a fondness for power, and that this too, plays a part, and not a good part. History also teaches that the Chinese Emperors of old rarely survived the passing of “The Mandate of Heaven”.)

Fear of change is ultimately fruitless since change happens whether we want it or no, but in the Chinese context, it is perfectly comprehensible…

Further reading on the Chinese economy and developing countries:

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Tags: authoritarian , China , Chinese economy , democracies , human rights , Nobel Peace Prize , Singapore , totalitarian
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