Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The Chinese Crackdown: Xi Jinping and Teddy Roosevelt

In the Times, Paul Mozur has a very interesting take on events in China. A while back, I presented Victor Mair's view that China's crackdown on, among other things, shady business practices, LGTBQ student groups, and effeminate male pop stars represented a return to the politics of the Cultural Revolution. Mozur prefers a different analogy, that of American Progressives taking on the business titans of the Gilded Age:

Chinese tech companies are reeling from regulation. Nervous creditors are hoping for a bailout for China’s largest developer. Growing numbers of executives are going to jail. An entire industry is shutting down.

For China’s leader, Xi Jinping, it’s all part of the plan.

Under Mr. Xi, China is reshaping how business works and limiting executives’ power. Long in coming, but rapid in execution, the policies are driven by a desire for state control and self-reliance as well as concerns about debt, inequality and influence by foreign countries, including the United States.

Emboldened by swelling nationalism and his success with Covid-19, Mr. Xi is remaking China’s business world in his own image. Above all else, that means control. Where once executives had a green light to grow at any cost, officials now want to dictate which industries boom, which ones bust and how it happens. . . . 

The goal is to fix structural problems, like excess debt and inequality, and generate more balanced growth. Taken together, the measures mark the end of a Gilded Age for private business that made China into a manufacturing powerhouse and a nexus of innovation. Economists warn that authoritarian governments have a shaky record with this type of transformation, though they acknowledge that few have brought such resources and planning to the effort.

This ignores the moral crusades that have lately gotten so much attention, but then our memory of the Progressive Era has the same blindness: the leading Progressives were mostly for Prohibition, anti-prostitution crusades, crackdowns on crime, and so on.

Anyway, I want to take Mozur's argument seriously for a moment. Suppose he is right, and what Xi and his people want is what Teddy Roosevelt wanted, and what economic populists everywhere want, whether they are left or right: jail for corrupt billionaires, an end to people getting rich off stock manipulation, a diversion of talent and resources away from get-rich-quick schemes and social media tricks toward the building of real things; a shift of attention from bankers or influencers to workers and parents. 

I wonder; it is possible to do such a thing without being seen by a wide swath of opinion as dictatorial? Not that I'm saying Xi and his people aren't dictatorial, I'm asking if the aims Mozur attributes to them could be promoted without raising cries of alarm. Certainly American Progressivism, and even more the New Deal, were met by exactly such accusations.

One thing that is clear about Xi's recent moves is that he wants to promote manufacturing and cares not a fig for online retail or social media. The one big Chinese tech company that seems to remain a government favorite is Huawei, which focuses on building fundamental gear for running wireless networks. Millions of Americans wish our government would show the same bias.

One of the developments that frightens people about events in China is the new prominence of Communist Party cells within corporations. These have always existed, but they have now been empowered to overrule corporate leadership when their decisions, in the eyes of the CP, put their own interests over those of the nation. Haven't many political factions in both the US and Europe dreamed of the same thing?

I regular hear people say some version of "everyone on Wall Street should be shot." Well?

Watching China over the past 40 years has been an object lesson in the power of global capitalism. Across much of the country extreme poverty has nearly disappeared. Hundreds of millions have joined the middle class. The cities have been transformed. Yes, this was accompanied by environmental devastation and sweatshop working conditions for millions, but I doubt you will find many Chinese people interested in going back to the 1970s.

But of course all of this comes at a high cost. One factor that bothers many Chinese is the influence of global corporations, which directly or indirectly have invested a trillion dollars in China and control much of its industry. We have also seen the crazy speculative bubbles that seem to accompany capitalism everywhere, with fortunes made and lost in gambling that seems at best tangentially related to the real economy. We have seen the rise of billionaires and staggering inequality. Intense meritocratic competition has taken over the schools.

Suppose Xi and company really wanted to fix these problems. Could they do it? If, along the way, they randomly jail a few hundred executives whose behavior has not really been worse than average; if they impose stricter limits on what people can say, or where they can say it; if they ruin a few dozen outspoken internet personalities; would it be worth it?

How much do we really care about equality, and what would we give up to get it? Is the craziness of our world, the inequality and the attention lavished on ludicrous celebrities, the inevitable price of real freedom?

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