Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Making Good Governance in China

Does economic freedom promote political freedom? No one argues that it does for certain, but many (Milton Friedman, most famously) have argued that it is a necessary condition. Few nations put the proposition of inevitability to the test like China. A vast increase in economic self-determination (at the individual level) and wealth appears not to have been accompanied by an improvement in governance or human rights.

That view is misplaced. First, the average Chinese citizen can chart his destiny in the market to a much greater extent than before. He can get an education pick his employer, change jobs, migrate, make his way in the world in ways that his parents could not. Second, there is some evidence that for all the problems that clearly remain, Chinese governance is improving too.

I was struck by the second picture above, and its relation to the first - two heads of government on television with loudspeakers in a time of crisis. Admittedly, the second one appears in an official Chinese government press story, but it nonetheless reminded me of the images of President Bush using his own loudspeaker at Ground Zero soon after 9/11. The Chinese press is currently full of images showing Chinese officials being Johnny on the spot. We expected President Bush to be there, because public opinion demanded a show of strength, but what about Prime Minister Wen? He answers to no electorate, and Chinese leaders certainly felt no obligation to go on TV after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which may have killed 750,000.

But more than ever before the Chinese government answers to its people because it must. People expect economic growth, they expect their economic rights to be respected, they expect public services (including earthquake relief) to be delivered effectively, and they will turn against any government that fails to accomplish these tasks. All is not rosy, to be sure. Public discontent can legally exist, but the Communist Party still reigns supreme. Nationalism in China is very powerful at the moment, and an accountable government could in theory be turned in a more angry direction than more sagacious officials would like by such nationalistic pressure in the event of a crisis. Chinese people can say these things they couldn’t a generation before, but they still can’t say that the Chinese Communist Party should be replaced. The laogai prison-labor system and violations of the human rights of the weak and powerless are still entrenched. (And along with many others, this blog, recall, apparently can’t even be read in China.) China in 2008 is not Denmark in 2008 with respect to basic freedoms or the rule of law. But it is not China in 1978 either. (The new buildings, bought with new wealth, appear to have survived the Sichuan earthquake much better than the older ones from a poorer time.) China’s greater economic freedom is taking it, three steps forward and two back, toward being a more responsible nation.


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