Chinese Democracy II

by Henry Farrell on May 22, 2007

Brad DeLong “links approvingly”: to Thomas Barnett’s “attack”: on James Mann and other China ‘fearmongers.’ Insofar as I can read through Barnett’s self-created jargon of “the Gap” etc, I don’t find this critique to be insightful, compelling, or indeed particularly accurate.

An overwrought argument from Mann, who specializes in them. … China is no “new” model or threat. It follows the model of Singapore, and before that South Korea, and before that Japan: a single-party state that bases almost all of its legitimacy on rising income and development through export-driven growth. It is a self-liquidating model: eventually the society wants more political freedom to go with that wealth. … we should logically welcome any so-called model that promotes external economic connectivity, because we know where that goes historically (i.e., where Japan and South Korea finally ended up: creating political freedoms that match their system’s potential–something that took us a while to achieve as well). … Confusing China’s influence-peddling with model propagation is a new academic fad in search of actual data to prove its distinctiveness, but there is none. China’s model is not unique, but a copycat of something we’ve seen before in “rising Asia,” just not on this scale. Prior to that, the USSR had its own bankrupt version.

There are minor-but-annoying tics in Barnett’s attack (e.g. he keeps on harping that Mann as an examplar of the ill-informed ‘academic,’ while under any reasonable definition of the term, “Mann”: ain’t an academic, but “Barnett”: is). But what’s troubling is (a) his failure to understand the available evidence himself, and (b) his trashing of Mann’s arguments based on a mischaracterization of them.

Barnett’s claim is that there is an ineluctable process through which greater wealth leads to demands for political freedom; a version of what Albert Hirschman calls the ‘doux-commerce’ thesis. There is indeed decent evidence to suggest that there is a _correlation_ between higher income levels and democratic success. However, in a classic “article”:, Przeworski and Limongi argue that the empirical correlation between democracy and economic success doesn’t provide evidence that dictatorships are more likely to collapse and become democracies as a result of economic growth. Instead, when you look at the statistics, it suggests that democracies, once established for exogenous reasons, are more likely to be able to _sustain themselves_ when incomes are high than when they are not.

Przeworski and Limongi’s article isn’t the final word; Carles Boix and Susan Stokes land “some good blows”: against it in a subsequent article. But even on their arguments, the statistical evidence for the _doux-commerce_ thesis is quite contestable, and is at most an important trend. It certainly isn’t anything approaching an ineluctable force of history that can be used to belabour opponents around the head. This is _especially_ so when one is arguing that “where Japan and South Korea finally ended up” is evidence in favour of the doux-commerce argument; Barnett here neglects to mention a “minor historical interlude”: between the initial development of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere concept and the democratization of Japan.

Barnett’s trashing of Mann’s arguments is similarly unsatisfying; he constructs a straw man to his own specifications, and wallops the bejazus out of it. Barnett’s own reading of history is peculiar; it may seem clear to Barnett in retrospect that the Warsaw Pact was “bankrupt” and ergo not a historical threat, but the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe for forty-odd years is a rather odd example to invoke if one wants to reassure readers that China doesn’t pose military risks to the West. Nor does he represent Mann’s arguments fairly, as I understand them. As I read Mann, he is less trying to argue that China is exporting its model than that it is perfectly happy to prop up dictatorships through various forms of support when it is in its economic interest to do so, and that this is creating a _de facto_ alternative to the kind of global order that Western powers. This means that pro-democracy Western states (insofar as they _are_ genuinely pro-democracy; I’m bracketing this question, but suspect it will come up in comments) have far less leverage to push for free media, a fair shake for opposition parties etc. Not only is this argument unexceptionable; it seems to me to be obviously true, regardless of how you read the broader political implications. Some nasty dictatorships in Africa and elsewhere _are_ better able to cock a snook than they used to be.

What this implies, if I am reading Mann correctly, is that integration into the world economic system doesn’t lead to democracy _unless_ economic integration goes hand-in-hand with _political_ pressures towards greater democracy. On this argument, much of the impetus towards democracy in the post-WWII (and especially the post-Cold War) era has come from the perception that you need to be a genuine democracy to be a full member of the club. There isn’t much statistical evidence for or against this that I know of (it seems to me to be more or less statistically intractable), but there is at least some semi-relevant qualitative evidence from the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe after the Cold War. No serious observers that I know of would claim that the broad success of democratization in this region wasn’t linked to the promise of EU membership for those countries that satisfied the Copenhagen criteria.

Barnett’s thesis isn’t crazy, but it isn’t obviously and necessarily right either. As I read it, if you want to go with Barnett, you are betting that greater wealth and external economic ties are going to lead to democratization in China. If you want to go with Mann, you are betting that economic growth isn’t necessarily relevant to democratization in China and that external economic ties only help cement democratization when they go hand-in-hand with direct or indirect forms of political pressure towards democracy. Neither of these arguments is obviously wrong to me. As Brad has argued previously, hostility to China may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy where China becomes alienated from the West precisely because Chinese leaders feel themselves to be untrusted and unloved. But it may also be that China hasn’t any real interest in becoming part of any established international democratic order either, and that a certain amount of distrust and hedging is warranted. I wouldn’t want to lay hard money on either side of this bet, but Barnett’s overblown attack on Mann doesn’t do much to persuade me that his side of the argument is right.

Update: It’s occurred to me since first writing this that Barnett’s reference to the Soviet Union is likely not to the Warsaw Pact, but to the Soviet practice of propping up client regimes in Africa and elsewhere through economic assistance. In which case the snark above is partly invalidated.

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Left Flank » Barnett and Mann by Crooked Timber
05.23.07 at 1:05 pm



Uncle Kvetch 05.22.07 at 4:34 pm

As I read Mann, he is less trying to argue that China is exporting its model than that it is perfectly happy to prop up dictatorships through various forms of support when it is in its economic interest to do so

Making it different from the US…how, exactly?

(I know, you anticipated that question….)


roger 05.22.07 at 4:50 pm

The idea that, after 1945, Japan became a democracy seems to me a bit contestable. In the sense that Mexico under the PRI was a democracy – that is, if we expand democracy to mean a system in which elections are formally held to validate one party rule – then Japan is a democracy. Otherwise, like Mexico and like Italy, it took the end of the Cold War to shake the system in a democratic direction, and like those two nations, the progress towards democracy since 1990 has been inconsistent.


Jared 05.22.07 at 4:53 pm

To invalidate a little more snark: I originally read the Singapore-South Korea-Japan model as a reference to the post-war situation (single-party systems with export-driven economic growth), so World War II isn’t necessarily relevant.


Jared 05.22.07 at 4:58 pm

Right–I think Roger’s point is right, and I think that’s what Barnett meant. But contra Barnett, it seems to me that there was a more active civil society in late-Cold War Japan than in present-day China, largely for the reasons Henry brings up.


Henry 05.22.07 at 5:38 pm

Jared – the point is that neither Japan or South Korea became a democracy _because of_ economic growth; they became democracies in large part because of external intervention. Economic growth surely shored them up some – but that is Przeworski and Limongi’s argument. It doesn’t and can’t support the causal argument that Barnett perceives himself to be making. Or is there something I’m missing here? (wouldn’t be the first time)?


abb1 05.22.07 at 6:24 pm

If I may, I think the reference to the USSR is not to the Warsaw Pact, nor to the client regimes, but to his main point: the model of “a single-party state that bases almost all of its legitimacy on rising income” (though not much of “export-driven growth” there; a case of the “oil curse”, perhaps). That certainly was the essence of the Khrushchev period.


Doctor Slack 05.22.07 at 7:27 pm

Mann’s column is really just godawful mush. The list of “repressive regimes” he regards as “looking to Beijing” is incoherent (Syria and Venezuela are supposed to be in the same class of state, which can also be usefully lumped in with Burma and North Korea? Ummm, no. And doesn’t the US also have close ties with Uzbekistan?), his criteria for what constitutes Chinese “support” for these regimes are unstated unless I’m missing something*, and his list of states seeking closer ties with Beijing is carefully selective (leaving out Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and Australia just to name a few). All those vagaries are what make the narrative about China propping up an “alternative” to the Western-led order possible in the first place.

I don’t know that I buy Barnett’s argument about the “self-liquidating” Chinese model. But is his attack on Mann “overblown” or unfair? No.

(* China is a leading investor in Sudan, for instance, but so are France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. It does business in China, but so does Canada and a number of other countries — so is that really a case of China as an isolated supporter of Mugabe?)


Jared 05.22.07 at 7:32 pm

All I meant was that when Barnett says “single-party state etc..,” I don’t think he’s talking about interwar Japan, I think he’s talking about post-war Japan, in which (as Roger mentions) the LDP lost its firm hold on power only after the Cold War. If I read him right, what he means by the democratization of Japan is not the occupation but something more recent, probably the short-lived defeat of the LDP in 1993.

But other than that I agree with you: Barnett misses precisely the occupation, which suggests that yes, external intervention is what brought democracy to Japan, which was then (a la Przeworski and Limongi) shored up by economic growth, although the democracy wasn’t as full as it could have been because (as you mention) the US wasn’t as pro-democracy as it claimed to be.


Doctor Slack 05.22.07 at 9:35 pm

It does business in China, but so does Canada and a number of other countries. . .

Sorry, that should read “it does business in Zimbabwe, but so do Canada and a number of other countries. . . “


MQ 05.22.07 at 10:17 pm

The question of whether China becomes a full-blown democracy by Western standards is rather different than the question of whether China is a responsible member of international community. It’s arguably more of one than the U.S. is. In addition, China’s successful management of its economic modernization process has indisputably improved the lives of many tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people.

I’m not sure what the point is of faulting China at all. If the point is to start or encourage any kind of military conflict with them, then that’s certainly much crazier than Barnett is being. If the point is to get formal trade or international sanctions of some sort against them for not being “democratic” enough, then the efficacy of that route for democracy promotion is surely far less proven than relying on the “doux-commerce” thesis to eventually create democracy. If the point is to have the informal conversation in global civil society agree that China is “undemocratic” and should improve its human rights record, then fine. Who’s disagreeing?


MoXmas 05.22.07 at 11:00 pm

Barnett’s thesis is more about how “linkage” causes societies to become more and more liberal, generally meaning democratic. This linkage can most readily take the form of economic ones, because those benefits are most readily apparent.

(In his first book, he also talks about the linkages that the US Navy during the Cold War brought by being a standard that many other countries looked to and modeled themselves on. So, cultural linkages as well. Barnett has a background as a military theorist, after all.)

Generally, Barnett thinks that the folks in the Pentagon who are trying to make China the new Great Threat are dopes, because he thinks the growing web of economic ties between the China and the West will make war irrelevant in that context.

That said, he also believes that you can spread connectiveness from the muzzle of a military bureaucracy — that is, an organization designed to make a society stable and secure. His “Admin Corps”. (With a kick-ass military force to back it up, which he calls the Leviathan.)

Anyway, Barnett is pretty influential in parts of the current US military philosophical world.

He also puts great stock in Tom Friedman, and like Friedman, he gives short shrift to labor issues. It’s more surprising from Barnett, though, a graduate of the Wisconsin history program.



Martin Bento 05.22.07 at 11:50 pm

Even aside from the doux-commerce thesis, is it clear that the notion that economic integration prevents war so well-supported really? At first glance, it seems a no-brainer, but perhaps that means one should glance again. Only recently did the world regain the degree of economic integration it had prior to WW1. What happened? An archduke got knocked off in Serbia. The whole world plunges into war on an unprecedented scale. Twice. Two unimaginable totalitarian nightmares are unleashed on the world over the next several decades. Would all this have resulted if the world had *not* been so economically integrated, making the problems of one the problems of all?

The idea that integration prevents war seems to rest of the premise that the people making money off the integrated structures will work to prevent war and they will prevail. But there is always money to be made from war as well. War generates winners and losers, and I don’t see any clear reason the interests of the foreseeable losers would generally prevail. Further, it seems clear that war, especially in the modern age, is a negative-sum game. If rational economic calculations governed it, then, it would be rare, as it is clearly unpredictable and the chances are that any given player – meaning sides in the war, not individuals – will lose, possibly big. If economic calculation governed, and given that humans must be pretty good at prisoner’s dilemma games to have complex societies, it seems war would be quite rare. If only.

And where have we seen the greatest increase in war in recent decades? In civil war, revolution, collapse into anarchy, that is to say, *within* the units of greatest large-scale economic integration that we have: the nation-states. If the economic integration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, India/Pakistan, could not keep them stable and peaceful, what makes us think economic integration between nations will achieve this or even help?


Doctor Slack 05.23.07 at 12:04 am

is it clear that the notion that economic integration prevents war so well-supported really?

No, for the reasons you state among others. And if Barnett does indeed take Friedman seriously, that’s hardly a point in his favour either. But that said, I still think he comes out better than Mann in this particular exchange.


Jim Harrison 05.23.07 at 12:20 am

On the evidence, America’s political system is moving towards something similar to China’s and not the other way around.


Martin Bento 05.23.07 at 12:28 am

Doc, thanks. I am under the impression that Barnett’s overall thesis – his name has come up before in the circles I frequent – is something like this, though I haven’t delved into his ideas really.

Jim, In some ways, I tend to agree. I’ve long said that the US elite hating China for disregarding human rights is like Ken Starr hating Clinton for getting a blow job – why not me, Monica? And when China took down the spy plane, the incident as it played out showed who was willing to defy whom. But China is spreading the wealth widely within their country, though, which the US elite is not going to do.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.23.07 at 12:43 am

“But China is spreading the wealth widely within their country…”

Income disparity is a growing and widely acknowledged problem within China. Search: ‘China, income disparity.’


SG 05.23.07 at 12:45 am

Is it not the case that as living standards rose in Japan before world war 2 – during the Meiji and Taisho eras – there was increasing pressure (including political movements) for democracy? They had 2 party rule during the 20s and a broad movement towards suffrage from the establishment of the Restoration in the 1860s. I interpret the war as a military/ruling class attempt to reverse this pressure and maintain the status of the nobility (or an attempt to reverse Meiji and reintroduce a proto-shogunate, depending on how uncharitable one is feeling).

Also during the Taisho era Japan was connected with the rest of the world, and was modelling its new democracy on external systems. So I would say that Barnett`s view of the role of living standards and connectedness in establishing democracy in Japan is more valid assessed in the period 1860 – 1930 than after the war but, as Mr. Bento observed at #12, these phenomena themselves are hardly proof against war; and obviously Japan needed more than rising living standards and international relations to prevent the slide into tyranny which began in the late 20s/early 30s and culminated in the war.

(also this stage of modern Japanese history doesn`t necessarily fit with the view that pressure is needed to get dictatorships to become democracies; but it might accord with the view that fragile democracies can go rapidly backwards when faced with a gang of western democracies collaborating to undermine their progress, as in for example the Treaty of London).


Martin Bento 05.23.07 at 1:12 am

sg, I think Barnett’s view would require not just that such pressures emerge, but that they prevail. If they create a reaction more oppressive then the starting point, then they have been counter-productive. Of course, a lot depends on the time scale you look at, but if we’re going to zoom way out, it is not clear that liberal democracy will last anyway. As Jim suggested, its status in the US at present is rather dismal.

Patrick, yes, inequality is rising, but as with wealth, from a very low base. Under communism, there was a small rich elite, but it was *very* small, and the range of disparity among the rest was not so great. I could be wrong – I’m going by what some trade-with-China boosters said on this – but I think that the share of the new wealth that has gone to expanding the middle class, versus that which has gone to enriching the wealthy compares favorably to that, say, of the US during the 1990’s. I haven’t done the research myself, though, so I could be wrong on this.


paul 05.23.07 at 1:35 am


China’s gini coefficient apparently sits at 0.496 and rising. That compares most unfavourably to the US’s 0.41 as of 05. There are probably rival estimates floating around, but these accord pretty well with what I’d seen previously.

“And doesn’t the US also have close ties with Uzbekistan?”
No. They’ve actually been relatively firm with Karimov and his habit of boiling his political opponents and been punished as a result.


SG 05.23.07 at 2:40 am

Paul, the prisoner of whom you speak is reported to have been boiled to death in an Uzbek prison in 2002. At the time the US was rendering prisoners to Uzbekistan in a program which is suspected to have lasted until 2003. Join the dots.


notsneaky 05.23.07 at 2:58 am

Re 18 and 19

China’s Gini has been rising because essentially the 50% of people in the income distribution above the average have gotten richer faster than the 50% of people in the income distribution below the average have gotten richer (they just got richer more slowly). One obvious way to see this is that the number/proportion of Chinese living on 1$ a day or 2$ a day has plummeted, even while the Gini has gone up. (Nice animation here:

As an aside, one big drawback of the whole Acemoglu and Robinson framework
is that it doesn’t deal with the relationship between growth and democracy at all. It’s sort of the big elephant in the room that you keep wondering about while reading the book (the other one being the transition in Eastern Europe, which does not get mentioned at all). They do however consider inequality – more of it lowers chance of moving to democracy as the elites have more to lose.


Martin Bento 05.23.07 at 2:58 am

Thanks, Paul. That’s what I get for believing the free trade crowd on any score.


Doctor Slack 05.23.07 at 3:27 am

They’ve actually been relatively firm with Karimov and his habit of boiling his political opponents and been punished as a result.

Yeah, I sometimes lose track of which former allies have and haven’t turned against the White House at various points. Revise to “didn’t the US and Uzbekistan have a close relationship until very recently”? IIRC most observers at the time Tashkent terminated basing agreements with the US were under the impression they did so under pressure from Moscow, not over American criticism of Andijon.


paul 05.23.07 at 3:43 am

Notsneaky, I’m fine with all of that, but ultimately that’s just a description of an increase in inequality. I don’t view inequality as the be-all-and-end-all of judging national progress, but certainly the claim that China will be fine because if its low levels of inequality is way off base.

Sg, that’s a fair point.

Doctor slack, I don’t really buy your argument, and hadn’t heard anything of the sort. This is representative of the timelines I’ve seen:

The eviction notice [of the US from its Uzbek base] came four days before a senior State Department official was to arrive in Tashkent for talks with the government of President Islam Karimov. The relationship has been increasingly tense since bloody protests in the province of Andijan in May, the worst unrest since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns was going to pressure Tashkent to allow an international investigation into the Andijan protests, which human rights groups and three U.S. senators who met with eyewitnesses said killed about 500 people. Burns was also going to warn the government, one of the most authoritarian in the Islamic world, to open up politically — or risk the kind of upheavals witnessed recently in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials said.

Karimov has balked at an international probe. As U.S. pressure mounted, he cut off U.S. night flights and some cargo flights, forcing Washington to move search-and-rescue operations and some cargo flights to Bagram air base in Afghanistan and Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. As relations soured, the Bush administration was preparing for a further cutoff, U.S. officials said.

The United States was given the notice just hours after 439 Uzbek political refugees were flown out of neighboring Kyrgyzstan — over Uzbek objections — by the United Nations. The refugees fled after the May unrest, which Uzbek officials charged was the work of terrorists. The Bush administration had been pressuring Kyrgyzstan not to force the refugees to return to Uzbekistan.


Doctor Slack 05.23.07 at 4:53 am

I don’t really buy your argument, and hadn’t heard anything of the sort.

It’s not an “argument” so much as an imperfect remembering of articles like this one, basically contending that Moscow exploited the irritant of Andijan to play on broader Uzbek security-related dissatisfactions.

Anyway, the specific example of Uzbekistan is not that important to my original point.


JamesP 05.23.07 at 6:39 am

Equality of access to health care in China – which seems a pretty good measure of inequality to me – was ranked at 118th out of 121 countries recently. Hell, you would have to be blind to live here and not notice the speed at which inequality is growing, and in particularly how the poor increasingly live in proximity (as urban migration speeds up) to the rich.


Barry 05.23.07 at 1:18 pm

I’d point out that the Bush administration cozied up to the government in Uzbekistan while it was pursuing a campaign in Afghanistan. Things cooled off at a point in which the Bush administration was dropping Afghanistan (except for a token force) and prepping for the Iraq war. IMHO, the Bush administration regarded Afghanistan as a necessary task to pretend to take care of, before going on to what it really wanted – the conquest of Iraq.

So the ‘breakdown’ of relations also fits into the theory that the administration cozied up to a maggot when necessary, and only noticed the human rights violations when it no longer needed the maggot as much.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:39 pm

I’ve always wanted to write a (series of) post(s) in the style of Marvel Comics’ old “Bullpen Bulletins”, so here it goes:


mq gets it, mq nails it, all hail mq.


The example of Eastern Europe that Henry brings up is not particularly adequate IMO: [n]o serious observers that I know of would claim that the broad success of democratization in this region wasn’t linked to the promise of EU membership for those countries that satisfied the Copenhagen criteria.

Well, yes, obviously. As an Eastern European, however, I can assure you that the drive for democratization after the fall of communism in most of the area was strong enough for the prospect of EU membership, welcome and helpful as it was, to be little more than icing on the cake. Where the EU has been extremely helpful is in the improvement of the quality of the institutions of (some) of the prospective new members, after the adoption of democracy.

Which, upon a closer reading of your statement, is probably what you’re getting at. Anyway…

Most importantly, there is no Asian/global equivalent of the EU to dangle before China as a carrot, certainly not the WTO (and the Chinese are already in, anyways). On one hand, the EU is far more than a mere free trade area (and rightly so), and on the other hand protectionism is fraught with undesired consequences. And I’ve never seen it implemented with democracy promotion in mind.


No, the Cuban embargo is not a good example.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:41 pm


On yet another hand, it is clear that the issue of so-called global wage arbitrage is exacerbated by the difficulty of Chinese workers to organize themselves. There are prolly more imaginative ways to help bring about changes in this domain than the protectionist sledgehammer, though. Like, dunno, tax incentives to companies that invest in China and treat their workers properly ,or that purchase stuff from Chinese suppliers that do the same; tax penalties for those that don’t. Something. While the Chinese government has shown concern about environmental and inequality issues, it’s not known whether unions will be a long-term no-no*. Their permanence in the limbo of irrelevance** is certainly a matter of ideological purity in the West, that’s for sure…

*: long-term no-no? That’s some shit writing, no mistake.

**: shittier still.

sg at #17: I interpret the war as a military/ruling class attempt to reverse this pressure and maintain the status of the nobility (or an attempt to reverse Meiji and reintroduce a proto-shogunate, depending on how uncharitable one is feeling).

It is clear that the developments in Japan in the late 20s, 30s and 40s are to no small extent the result of an elitist reaction to incipient democratization etc. The characterization of this reaction as “traditionalist”, however, is not supported by most historians. Tomdispatch is a somewhat spotty site, but they sometimes post nice articles, like this one , that does a good job of capturing the modernity of the radical, fascistoid, “renovationist” imperialism of pre-war Japan.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:42 pm


The last bit segues into the topic of the thread. As it happens, the influence that America and the West in general can realistically exert on the political future of a country like China is limited mostly to a single domain. But in that domain, they can make an enormous difference. Namely…

Nationalism is the single biggest worldwide ideological threat to democracy and civil societies, the handiest rhetorical tool of authoritarian regimes there is. That’s an incontrovertible fact of the universe and whosoever disagrees has issues.

The Chinese regime is unsavoury, but any dealings with it have to acknowledge that the ascension to superpower status of a country of China’s size and pedigree is in principle desirable and in all likelihood inevitable.

America and to a lesser extent the West in general are quite far from ready to acknowledge this. This is bound to stoke Chinese nationalism.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:42 pm


One is reminded of all the mealy-mouthed crap about giving Russia a place at the table as a full-fledged member of the international community, while “containment” or “rollback” were/are pursued.

My Russian teacher, a dignified, highly intelligent elderly lady, articulates the standard Russian view with particular poignancy:

“Look guys, Russia has let go of most of her ’empire’ with what in historical terms is an unprecedented amount of grace. And you want to expand NATO up to our rectal area?? You think that the missile defence is aimed at Iran?? W00t n00b I have a nice bridge to sell you.”

Well, those are not her exact words, but you get the drift.

She has a chip on her shoulder, and a sweet tooth for Putin’s antics? Well, that’s precisely the point.

Democracy promotion —> zero nationalism ! ! ! “Preach with example”, as they say in Spanish ! ! ! We’re so far from that.

So far.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:43 pm


While we’re at it, don’t get me started on McCain’s League of Democracies bit. The scallawags from the National Interest have the good sense to say it’s rubbish while coyly refrain from pointing out the obvious (i.e. it’s all about the China willies), too loudly. Sodding teases.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:45 pm


What was the topic of the thread again? Oh yeah, Barnett’s argument is wobbly (his Friedmanesque leanings say it all, really), but compared to Mann he’s definitely the lesser evil.


Glorious Godfrey 05.23.07 at 2:45 pm


I’ll shut up now.


Martin Bento 05.23.07 at 3:04 pm

Fer cryin out loud, Barnett’s position isn’t even coherent. He Says “China’s model is not unique, but a copycat of something we’ve seen before in “rising Asia,”, but also claims that “While China’s “new” model, such as it is, appeals greatly to many authoritarian regimes in the Gap, there are scant few there that can possibly replicate it”. He can’t have it both ways. If China’s model is a copy, it cannot be intrinsically unique or immune to transplant.


Steve Kyle 05.23.07 at 4:07 pm

I spend a lot of time in both Central Asia and Africa (especially Angola) and have a rather cynical opinion of the US devotion to democracy. It is shouted far and wide but what the US is manifestly content with is democratic FORMS rather than democratic SUBSTANCE. Hold an election and they will be happy but they have demonstrated that they will put up with the most horrific wars (Angola) or mistreatment of political opponents (Uzbekistan) if the government will continue to accede to the US’s demands in other areas (the “real” interests?) in these cases oil and air base access.

None of this is lost on foreign observers. They are extremely cynical about the US “commitment” to democracy and in Angola are entirely dismissive of it since not only is US hypocrisy obvious, but the US is at best the fourth biggest external aid donor (behind China, the EU, and the World Bank).

On the larger question, the economic development record is clear that you can grow as a democracy or you can grow as a dictatorship and it isnt at all necessarily true that growth leads to one or the other. What IS true is that increasing literacy and communications make it harder to keep the lid on opposition movements and these two things tend to come with development.


soru 05.23.07 at 10:39 pm

Any state needs a source of legitimacy. China’s is currently ‘growth’. That can’t last forever, either because the growth won’t, or because it will become accepted as normal and forgotten.

Without a nationwide shared sense of legitimacy, in a state the size of China, you will inevitably end up with the situation of having to send a tank division to arrest a corrupt regional governor, and that is not going to end well.

There are various things that could replace that: ‘war’ is one, as in North Korea, ‘democracy’ another, as in the USA.

Those are probably the most likely, but if it is not one of those, it will be something wierder: Christianity, Islam, a fanatical devotion to the works of Ken MacLeod…


Quo Vadis 05.23.07 at 11:07 pm

A couple of years ago I took a graduate level course in international business. Our term project was about doing business in China and I was fortunate enough to have a Chinese national on my team. He was from Shanghai and was obviously one of the ‘haves’. Although he was very proud of his country and the progress China has been making he had no illusions about “the two Chinas” – the rich and the poor. Although many basic necessities are still subsidized, the government has been steadily cutting back on what it will pay for so while a few have seen huge improvements in income and lifestyle, things for the poor have in some ways actually gotten worse. Health care was once provided for free by the government, but they stopped subsidizing the hospitals so a visit to the hospital can cost a month’s pay (not counting the subsidized housing etc) for a typical rural citizen. A whole village might take up a collection to help a sick or injured person pay their bills. If they can’t pay? My friend said “The hospital will say ‘You go home and die’”.

He said that the problems are made worse because with the income gap comes a status gap and those with money like to flaunt it. He said that nobody was sure how the increasing inequity was going to be worked out, but to my surprise he added: “It might depend on what the army does.” The army is still the government’s muscle in dealing with any unrest, but the soldiers are among the have-nots so they would have little to loose if the whole experiment in capitalism came to an abrupt and financially disastrous end.


SG 05.24.07 at 12:44 am

Godfrey, oh Glorious one, thanks for the link but I think you have misunderstood me (or I have misunderstood what I think you understood I was saying). In suggesting Japan`s slide into fascism was driven by “traditionalism” I was not suggesting that they wanted to undo a modern economy or sensibilities, only that the architects of the slide (and their do seem to have been architects) wanted to restore a kind of pre-Meiji political order in which the military had real power and the political class (previously the nobility, now the electorate) had only the impression of power. So for example the military ruthlessly exploited a loophole in the constitution which enabled them to veto cabinets they didn`t like (I read this in a Japanese historian, sorry I forget his name, but he was a polemical chap so surely entirely correct in his use of facts).

In this regard I think Japan`s slide into fascism cannot be compared to the current US situation (although I like the comparison in your link, in other ways very apt) because no-one in the current coterie of fools in the US had much to do with the military (except in the sense of playing soldiers when they were children, maybe), and they certainly don`t seem to let the military have too much say in, say, military strategy. It was quite the opposite in 30s Japan, I think.

But now I too have completely diverged from the topic. My point anyway was that Taisho/Showa Japan was going through a period of increasing international connectedness and economic growth, but it didn`t stop the slide. Although, I suppose, there was that gang of thugs in the West who were starting to interfere in those international relations, so maybe if they hadn`t done so Japan would have remained democratic, and the world would be a very, very different place…


abb1 05.24.07 at 6:16 am

#39, I don’t know much, but I’m not sure if this is a “the rich and the poor” thing or a garden variety case of industrial revolution, peasants migrating to the cities. If it’s the latter, then, as far as I know, human civilization hasn’t yet found a way to get thru the process without some serious suffering.


SG 05.24.07 at 8:10 am

soru, this is a broad brush to paint China with:

Without a nationwide shared sense of legitimacy

I`m not professing to have a particular view on the matter, but it seems a strong statement to me. Do you have any particular reason to make it?


Glorious Godfrey 05.24.07 at 10:52 am

sg: Godfrey, oh Glorious one

My glory is merely alliterative, my friend. Otherwise, pedestrian logic and mundane insights are my stock-in-trade.

I think you have misunderstood me…

No biggie. The “proto-shogunate” bit just evoked the whole narrative of “feudal aversion to modernity” often used to frame Japanese authoritarianism. And yes, the brass had much more influence in pre-war Japan than under Bush’s gang of manxome cronies. That’s the problem with historical analogies, especially the provocative ones.

Just nitpicking, I guess.

At any rate, I do agree with the point that, contra Friedman and his McDonalds, international economic integration and economic growth are not an absolute guarantee of peace and democracy.

Not only is nationalism, under the appropriate circumstances, a rich source of “political capital” for governments to undermine democracy at home and international legality abroad, but, just as importantly, among the juridical persons active in the international sphere there is nothing that remotely approaches a monopoly or near-monopoly of the use of force by an accountable actor charged with the “protection of property”, “contract enforcement” and such. That this is so patently, painfully, embarrassingly obvious highlights both the sheer Panglossian idiocy of Friedman’s flat Earths and the dangers and evasion of drinking the protectionist hemlock.

“Drinking the protectionist hemlock” is a distracting image. What the fuck. Style and no substance just because we can.

Whether “free” markets, without proper oversight, turn out to be reasonably competitive ones is an additional, certainly not irrelevant question. Very few Libertarians are willing to answer that one (in fact, several stars of the movement like von Mises or la Rand never saw an anti-trust law that they liked).

There’s this naive depiction of XIX century globalization that states that its demise, in the fires of WWI, was a “mistake”, both foolish and tragic, made by nation state actors. Apart from presenting the century of colonial expansion or the Crimean or Franco-Prussian wars in a somewhat idyllic light, this view ignores that the closest thing to a formal framework for regulating international relations they had at the time was probably Victoria’s “matronate” i.e. her good offices as hub and procuress of European royalty. Otherwise, the conviction that “trade follows the flag” ran deep and it was in hindsight perhaps not surprising that the whole thing exploded in everyone’s faces.


Glorious Godfrey 05.24.07 at 11:17 am

[The penultimate paragraph of my last missive is, in case you haven’t noticed, digressive in its nature. It is part of the strategy of random accretion of disparate talking points with which I champion the view in this thread that:

-cronyism, thy name is Friedmanesque globalization;

-cronyism, thy name is good old “sovereign” statehood;

-there is a better way, Grasshopper Kwai Chang Caine, etc.]


soru 05.24.07 at 1:06 pm

Do you have any particular reason to make it?

Split the world up into 100 or so nation-sized regions, 20 year time periods, over the last 200 years, for a sample size of 1000. Name one such chunk that lacks such a source of shared legitimacy, and scores average or above in terms of common-sense measures of lack of suck in the lives of the people it covers.


SG 05.24.07 at 1:19 pm

soru, I meant that I’d like you to explain why you think the Chinese don’t have a “source of shared legitimacy”. Not to defend your theory of dialectic legitimarianism.


engels 05.24.07 at 3:36 pm

I don’t know much, but I’m not sure if this is a “the rich and the poor” thing or a garden variety case of industrial revolution, peasants migrating to the cities.

I’m not quite sure what you are arguing here, but despite your uncertainty on this point, and Radek’s evasions above, the gap between China’s rich and poor classes is very real and growing. It’s not a “garden variety case of… peasants migrating to the cities”. As well as problems with economic planning in urban industries and with urban infrastructure which hold back urbanisation, China’s Hukou system of residency permits severely restricts Chinese rural residents who wish to migrate to urban areas.


soru 05.24.07 at 4:11 pm

@sg: they do have one: it’s based on ‘wow, look at those factories and apartment buildings that weren’t there three years ago. Someone somewhere must know what they are doing’.

And that’s not ‘my’ theory: the original post said:

a single-party state that bases almost all of its legitimacy on rising income and development through export-driven growth

My point is this: what can replace it when that ‘wow’ factor goes away?


abb1 05.24.07 at 6:16 pm

I’m not arguing anything, I am saying that there are transitional periods (such as a typical industrial revolution, for example) where internal contradictions are so strong that social upheaval is pretty much inevitable and there’s only so much any government can do. Certainly democracy is not going to help in this situation, I don’t think, because there is probably no stable equilibrium that can be reached by compromising, making deals, which is what democracy is all about. I don’t know if China is in such a transitional period at the moment, it may very well be.


SG 05.24.07 at 11:28 pm

Well soru I missed it in the original post, but on re-reading, it’s an even broader brush there. Japan is “a single-party state that bases almost all of its legitimacy on rising income and development through export-driven growth”? I have no quibble with the single-party bit, but you have to spend 3 seconds in this country to get the drift of their shared sense of legitimacy, and it has nothing to do with rising income and development.

In fact, if such a statement were true of Japan wouldn’t that mean by your theory that it would score below average on most measures of suck (very well put, btw)? It doesn’t, so I’d take that as evidence that the assertion is wrong.

Similarly, I have a sneaking suspicion that if one were to investigate the Chinese sense of nationhood one would find a little more sense of shared legitimacy than that which you describe. So in this part of his argument, my guess is that Barnett is viewing China (and definitely japan!) through too liberal a filter. He can’t imagine that a non-democratic society could find a source of legitimacy and assumes they are all just thronging about waiting for democracy so they can become legitimate (in whose eyes? His, is whose). This neglects the evidence that a lot of the current strife in China seems to be in reaction to market reforms and in defense of the old system (i.e. communism) and in any case requires the ludicrous assumption that the revolution successfully united all of China for 50 years despite having no support. I suppose it could be true, but it could also very easily be liberal self-deception.

(and sorry for assuming it was your view).


Chris 05.25.07 at 2:23 am

soru and sg,

The legitimacy question is truly a maze, but a crucial one I think. You might be interested in some scholalry work that is discussing this question for the Chinese case. For instance the German Gunter Schubert is challenging the “implicit” Western understanding that non-democratic regimes are automatically illegitimate. He links the question to political reform in China. One of his articles can be found here.

“For most Western Scholars, this problem is unsolvable. China is destined to become democratic, as it is perceived as being deeply affected by discontentment among the people caused by unbalanced economic growth, flagrant cadre corruption and aggravating social cleavages. Serious protest and upheaval in the countryside and the ailing industrial centres, the formation of underground resistance by clandestine religious groups and the (alleged) estrangement of a growing middle class from Communist ideology and the Party’s power monopoly. In addition to these points, there are the tensions that exist between the central and the local state, which are set against a backdrop of legal fuzziness, fiscal competition, illegal rent-seeking and insufficient financial resources for many local governments. These are just some of the points made to illustrate the declining capacity of the state in contemporary China. According to certain predictions, the decline will eventually result in a fade-out of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Of course, no serious scholar can say when this will exactly happen.

But although China’s present-day problems often evoke the image of an authoritarian government struggling for sur-vival, a closer look at the effects of political structural reform since the Tiananmen tragedy might indeed suggest that Communist one-party rule is more stable and actually enjoys more legitimacy now than at any other time since the early 1990s.”

You might also be interested in a related academic debate about “authoritarian resilience” in China by scholars such as Andrew Nathan, Bruce Gilley etc.



soru 05.25.07 at 11:43 am

to get the drift of their shared sense of legitimacy, and it has nothing to do with rising income and development

Japan is fortunate, in that all the different sources of legitimacy are lined up:

ethnic, linguistic and liberal nationalism
rule of law
external threat (China, mainly)

and I may be forgetting some. The presence of democracy in the list of legimacies is enough to make it not suck – there is no actual need to behead the emperor.

Opposing them, you only have fringes like the RAF, Aum and that samurai author guy.

If those had been pointing in different directions, say:

it had not been legally a democracy before it was one pragmatically

the emperor had decided to get actively involved in politics and/or criminality

the government had passed laws confiscating the wealth of the rich

the major religion had an obvious interpretion that made the constitution blasphemously immoral

WWII had left it still governing Manchuria

it would no doubt feel like a very different country.

China does have many of those problems. For example, marxism does have an obvious interpretation under which ‘to become rich is glorious’ is not entirely kosher.

Democracy as a legitimising force does undoubtedly exist. It is hard to see how the chinese elite can avoid making use of it, other than by starting a war.


abb1 05.25.07 at 12:03 pm

It’s usually stated that the only source of legitimacy is the consent of the governed. So, it seems that something like a direct democracy would indeed count as a “legitimizing force”.

The current US government has about 33% approval and only about 25% think that the country is heading in the right direction; so it must be illegitimate.


soru 05.25.07 at 1:11 pm

@abb1: every so often, it’s a good idea to stop being a controversialist, and make some effort to say things that are true, rather than surpising.

Otherwise, the surprise gets rather lost.


abb1 05.25.07 at 1:29 pm

Soru, I’m not trying to be original; just like you I think that what I’m saying is true. Although I do indeed try to avoid being dogmatic and you should too.

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