I was in Sydney last week at a Pacific Rim Policy Exchange conference of think tanks in the Asia Pacific region, led by the Property Rights Alliance. A particular highlight was a dinner speech by Rowan Callick, the exceptionally well-qualified Asia Pacific editor of The Australian who has a deep knowledge of Asia and has lived for some years in China. He started by reminding delegates of the Western-driven mentality behind the UN’s Millenium Goals:
The goals are worthy targets in themselves, emanating of course from guilt-laden but increasingly broke Europe, and largely devoid of an economic context. They have come to be identified with the affirmation of a certain take on the “development” process – that of kind rich folk developing hapless poor supplicants through noblesse oblige.
Callick noted that the same mentality pervades our ‘world’ view of the GFC:
For you are meeting in the wake of the recent North American-European financial crisis – NOT a GLOBAL financial crisis – and just as this region is taking over, in my view unshakeably, the leadership of economic growth, if not of the global economy itself.
He observed that the example so many Asian countries have set in climbing out of poverty through rapid economic growth has largely gone unnoticed by the Western-dominated world of official aid, but not by the rest of the world.
I was living in Beijing when 43 African heads of state and government almost four years ago attended a summit there, which launched China’s extraordinary burst onto that continent. China wanted resources primarily, and ultimately once Africans begin to spend, its markets too. And as in Latin America and central Asia and the Pacific islands, such economic vitality proved both attractive and contagious. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao said he wasn’t interested in exporting a China Model of development. And I believe him. His priorities are domestic, first second and third. His party’s legitimacy depends on economic health at home.
But Africans who have for generations seen Western taxpayers and NGOs donate $ billions to their kleptocratic rulers are naturally lured to the revolutionary idea coming from the East, that economic growth is good, not merely bad for the planet as they had been told by those sleek Westerners. They are attracted to the notion that shipping, selling and buying stuff provides a better prospect for their families than following anaemic World Bank prescriptions.
A fun formula has it that in 1949 only socialism could save China. In 1979, only capitalism could save China. In 1989, only China could save socialism. And in 2009, only China could save capitalism.
Imagine a Western leader of today proclaiming as Deng Xiaoping did: To get rich is glorious. She or he would be condemned for crass materialism, and for privileging elites.
That determination to get rich is the type of talking dirty that thrills people who are dirt poor – that is, those people who have not already been pre-conditioned towards petty envy and the redistributionist zeal that led so many societies down a false trail, one that ends in the desert – as we see in contemporary Europe.
Callick noted that China has succeeded economically despite hobbling itself with efforts to control its people’s lives – a tribute to Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open manufacturing to foreign investors but also to the Chinese people themselves and their core individualistic culture.
In covering the Beijing Olympics while I was living there, I followed the Chinese teams. When China wasn’t playing, the default country which Chinese sports fans tended to cheer, was the US of A. They feel very much at home in the individualistic American culture.
And they mostly hate paying taxes, and avoid doing so, just as Americans, and I must say Australians, do. When I told a Chinese friend after I had begun working in Beijing, that I thought I should start paying some personal tax, he said I was crazy. Neither he nor any of his pals paid tax, he said. Why should they, when they didn’t choose the government, and mostly disagreed with what it spent money on.
China also has a huge grey income, and its property and financial sectors are rife with insider trading, market manipulation and much misuse of power for personal gain.
Deng Xiaoping spoke of crossing the river by feeling the stones – cautious progress. He was not referring to taking China from a communist river bank to a liberal democratic one, but taking the party and the country towards prosperity. Where did this great pilgrimage start? With formally conceding the space to do business.
Much of China’s rapid change can be attributed to the determination of its “masses” to carve out better lives for themselves come what may, with the party’s legitimacy relying on its capacity to shift its tactics, even its values, in response to demands from below.
And with Deng’s contract of 30 years ago beginning to fade, the party is now searching for a new source of legitimacy for itself as, among other roles, the source of security, stability and safety.
And now the party is beginning to use domestic Chinese NGOs to deliver the social services for which the country is increasingly clamouring as it ages, but which the government lacks the structures to deliver. The state’s wealth, including the massive foreign exchange largely still held in $US, was in part built on denying its own citizens a fair share – in the economic as in other realms. But this is proving not to be sustainable. A higher proportion of the economy is steadily being seized by consumers and workers, as part effect and part cause of the structural change from cheap surplus labour and towards domestic services and greater productivity.
In Asia more broadly, the right to do things for yourself, to be an autonomous actor, is coveted more highly than the right to receive support from the state – in part because success in the former will move you up to a higher realm of wellbeing and control over your life.
… I usually tell people who ask my advice on books to read about China today, to start with Charles Dickens. He was also writing of a society that was rapidly urbanising and industrialising, in which ancient extended families were shrinking into nuclear families, a world of casual injustices and astounding coincidences, and of resourceful heroes and, especially, heroines.
As Callick concludes:
Asia is hardly perfect, it’s a long way from liberal, but for the most part it loves globalization, its people prefer governments to keep out of sight, and… well, welcome to our region.
At the same conference I was invited to speak in a session on free trade and emphasised the case for organisations like the Australian Productivity Commission to shed light on the costs of protectionist policies to consumers and other industries. I’m a member of the Tasman Transparency Group, a collection of Australian and New Zealand economists and business people who’ve been urging governments to set up transparent agencies of this kind. A bill to set up a New Zealand Productivity Commission is currently before parliament.
Also at the conference was Kiwiblogger David Farrar who spoke on the role of social media in debating public policy in an era where there seems to be less and less focus on policy analysis in the regular media. What was particularly interesting was the representation of the free market institutes from the Asia region, most notably China, Korea and India. I particularly liked the Mongolian Institute for Fair Taxes and Wise Spending.
It was interesting that none of their preoccupations related to the economic debates raging in the West around things like Keynesian stimulus policies, fiscal deficits and the burden of welfare states.