Importing China’s Economic Model

Defining Ideas, March 22, 2012

–Article by Ying Ma

Since the financial crisis of 2008, leftwing politicians, pundits, and activists in America have been busy either fawning all over or despairing about China. Repeatedly, they have lauded Beijing’s ability to undertake grand projects far more quickly than Washington’s political gridlock would ever allow. From New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to trade unionist Andy Stern to President Barack Obama, prominent Americans on the political left cannot stop using the example of China to advocate the need to drastically increase the size of the U.S. government and spend big on liberal priorities.

Yet another group of Americans, one far less interested in transforming the United States into a European welfare state, have been no less gushing in their praise of Chinese authoritarian chic. This group consists of business executives who are far more familiar with the workings of the free market than they are with the dogma of liberal ideology, and are driven first and foremost by the profit motive than big-government worship. Their China enthusiasm, however flawed, sheds light on America’s economic weaknesses and deserves attention.

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Waiting for Sunrise

Policy Review, December 2002/January 2003

Book Review of China Dawn: the Story of a Technology and Business Revolution by David Sheff (HarperBusiness. 301 pages. $26.95)

–By Ying Ma

Everybody wants something from China. American policymakers would like to see Chinese authoritarian rule undermined and democracy peacefully emerge. Chinese entrepreneurs from Beijing to Shenzhen want to found world-class companies that rival Western multinationals. Western businessmen salivate over the potential returns of investing in a market of 1.3 billion people. The Chinese government wants to develop a modern economy but maintain a backward, repressive political system.

When the information revolution caught fire in China in 1997, it appeared poised to grant everyone’s personal China wish. The revolution promised to spur the free flow of information, create a Chinese “New Economy,” attract foreign investment, and make people rich. Former president Bill Clinton called the internet “a harbinger of democracy” in China. Chinese president Jiang Zemin bragged to American audiences that Chinese society was rapidly becoming more modern through the internet and cell phones. Chinese companies regularly popped up in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s high-tech district, billed as China’s answer to titans like Microsoft, Yahoo, or eBay. Foreign companies — big names like Dell, Dow Jones, America Online, and others — rushed to invest in the new frontier of the technology bubble, banking on Chinese companies that promised a spot on stock exchanges in Hong Kong and New York. For a while, everyone was utterly giddy.

Far fewer are giddy today. Though the information revolution drastically changed the face of China during the past five years — connecting more Chinese than ever before with the outside world through the internet, wireless handsets, and broadband — democracy has not surfaced. The technology that was supposed to have a democratizing effect instead is controlled by government and private censors. The Chinese government has promoted the internet’s economic potential but has also labored assiduously to suppress its ability to free minds from authoritarianism. In the past few years, some Chinese entrepreneurs became rich, most foreign investors did not make nearly as much money as they had expected, and Washington is left wondering whether the information revolution can still deliver what it promised.

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