Thursday, January 20, 2011

How To Frame Your Dragon

An editorial in today's WSJ provides a much needed dose of perspective to the excessive hype and hyperbole regarding China's rise and America's decline. Red Scare Reprise:

If China's rise presents any immediate danger, it's the risk that it might cause Americans to ignore the sources of our strength. For all of China's genuine successes, there's an even greater dose of exaggeration—the product of a political system long adept at hiding its weaknesses to strangers.

China remains an underdeveloped country, its economy barely one-third the size of America's. Its leaders live in fear of peasant revolts, ethnic separatists, underground religious movements, political dissidents and the free flow of information. Its economy remains profoundly hobbled by corruption, inefficient state-owned enterprises and an immature banking system.

There is no genuine rule of law and its regulatory environment has become increasingly unpredictable for foreign investors and local entrepreneurs. It suffers from an aging population and environmental damage Americans wouldn't tolerate. Its greatest comparative advantage—cheap labor—is under strain from rising domestic wages and competition from places like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Above all, China suffers from an absence of self-correcting mechanisms, beginning at the top with its authoritarian political system. And while it can trumpet achievements like a stealth fighter or bullet trains—some based on pilfered designs—it has a harder time adjusting to failure, much less admitting to it.

None of this strikes us as a particularly worthy model for the U.S. to emulate, and it's worth noting how few of China's neighbors seem eager to embrace its leadership. But it does seem to excite admiration among Western pundits with a soft spot for economic dirigisme and technocratic politics. That, too, is an old debate, one the technocrats always lose.