Monday, April 08, 2002

Arthur Waldron thinks that boosters of the Chinese economy have been fooled:

According to the Financial Times of London, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji recently told a television audience in his country that the Chinese economy would have "collapsed" in 1998 without the state stimulus spending that is currently taking Beijing's government debt to record-high levels. Zhu Rongji is someone who chooses his words carefully, which makes the term "collapse" alarming, although not perhaps, in retrospect, surprising.

Officially, China has for some time been claiming growth rates of 7 percent or more. But information casting doubt on those figures has long been available. Visitors see lots of rural people camped out at urban railroad stations or on sidewalks: Clearly they have nothing to do where they come from, or where they have arrived. Block after block of abandoned construction projects in cities suggest someone has run out of money (as does the recent proposal that money be raised for the Three Gorges Dam by selling stock). Almost daily protests by workers, many violent, are also a clue that all is not well. Moreover, even the official figures don't make sense: How can it be that energy use is falling in a booming economy? And unemployment rising (as the official statistics show)? This is unprecedented in economic history. Finally, the state borrowing for pump priming to which Premier Zhu refers has always been public knowledge. Why, if the economy is burning up the track, has stimulus been necessary?

Once again Chinese officialdom has put one over on Western observerdom.

Can nothing you read about China be believed? Waldron cites

the chronic pathologies of China watchers: groupthink (in the academy and government), fear of Chinese reaction, job pressure (in the intelligence community and the media) and greed and wishful thinking (in the case of business). Once again, we look like gullible fools to the Chinese.

To which we can add another item: fear of direct reprisals from the Chinese government, and those beholden to it. It costs money to read Perry Link's chilling article on this subject from the New York Review, but it's very much worth it.

It's absolutely routine for visiting scholars to be invited to "chat" with the police about the possibility of future visits to China, and the welfare of their friends and relatives. The threatening intent is clear, but no one talks about it; in fact, returnees are specifically warned to "preserve the image of State Security" by holding their tongues.

When scholars don't take the hints, the government is in the habit of rounding them up (including visitors with permanent residency in the United States) whence they find themselves mired in a Kafkaesque legal process where they are accused of crimes somehow involving unauthorized disclosure of information, but the nature of those offenses is deliberately not made clear. This vagueness serves several deliberate purposes, the most important of which is to keep everyone guessing about what the limits of correct behavior actually are, and to encourage scholars to play it safe. Very safe. Link describes one American scholar who recently canceled a research trip to China for fear that while in the country, she might stumble over some political tripwire. Her work is on the Tang dynasty, 618-907 CE.

Even large American corporations are not immune to this sort of intimidation; when the Chinese government imprisoned Li Shaomin, an American citizen teaching at the City University of Hong Kong, for "espionage", his former colleagues at AT&T (where he had worked for seven years) asked the company to help support his cause, and received a brief reply from the PR department saying that it was "not appropriate for AT&T to take an active role in publicizing" the case.

And they take the exact same approach with people who are doing or promoting business in China. One Chinese-American lawyer, Gordon Chang, has become known as a critic of both the regime and Westerners who, by his account, boost the Chinese economy cheerfully in public forums while describing it in private as corrupt, lawless, and mired in bad debt and bad deals. While writing a book on the subject, he had to retire from a pretty high-flying legal career (including two terms as a trustee of Cornell), claiming:

I would not be able to practice in a major firm ... I know many lawyers, fine and upstanding individuals otherwise, who refuse to utter a critical word about the regime except in private conversation. I know that they would not hire me now ...

(Here's a precis of Chang's views; it's pretty harsh. Among other things, he claims that many of China's industries are already drowning in overcapacity, and that the state of the peasantry, mostly hidden from Western observers, is pretty dire).

In describing Waldron's piece, Brink Lindsey notes that

China's [purported] remarkable growth over the past couple of decades has become the Communist Party's primary continuing claim to legitimacy. If the economy is sputtering, the last major prop of Communist rule may be wobbling. If the economy ever nosedives, bet on political turmoil.

Either that, or when the people get too restless to be distracted by these bogus claims, the regime will find something else to distract them with. Like that old standby, beloved of despots everywhere, the patriotic war...

(Now then, what was Joshua Marshall writing about the uprightness and competence of the Bush administration's East Asia diplomats?)


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