Monday, 4 August 2014

Tiananmen Coverage

Google news popped this gem into my morning reads: "China's economic model dangerous", and I noticed it was from my local paper. I read through with a chuckle, surprised that it would make it's way onto a legitimate news site. After getting to work and opening up the print version, my annoyance at seeing it there on paper started to fester.

The article continues an issue I had with most of the coverage of Tiananmen's anniversary and China's economy in general: the lack of context and the failure to correct misconceptions. This seems to occur at two different levels: the first being a more abstract and philosophical level, the second being at a more factual level.

For example, the notion that there is a competition between authoritarianism and capitalism, and that we should hope that the Chinese economy falters. In order for 'our side' to win:
China's rise to superpower status by adopting a different model has cast some doubts about the merits of the model that has been promoted in the post-colonial era. Will the Chinese model supplant the one that emphasizes freedom and justice? We hear from some quarters that democracy and basic human rights aren't required to attain economic power. China has de-linked democracy from growth, with the accent on economics. Forget about rights.
What has coincided with China's economic rise? Was it more state control of the economy or a move towards liberalism? I don't see that as even being debatable. Politically reform towards democracy has not materially occured, but that isn't the same thing is it?

The problem is people compare it to America, to Canada, and say: "your markets are less liberal then ours therefore anything you do or accomplish is the result of your illiberalism". Should the relevant comparison not be China pre-growth? Or China 10 years ago? Or China last year? The move towards a market oriented economy doesn't seem debatable. The optimal speed at which this process occurs might be. But the direction is clear.

Think of where the extremely centralized economy had left China as they entered the 1980s and where they have come post-opening, post-reform.  Even after three decades of spectacular growth rates China remains: 93rd (IMF), 85th (World Bank, and 97th (CIA) in GDP per capita terms in the world. How does this happen? It requires starting from an extremely low base. This is the context that's missing from all of the talk of China's economy and the competition supposedly going on.

As far as Tinamamen is concerned. Shouldn't this matter? As of 2013 this ranks China about as rich as such economic powerhouses as Tunisia and Turkmenistan. In 1989? This table from the IMF estimates them around 121, but that's because they didn't have data for a bunch of countries. Look at their immediate neighbours. Pakistan, India, Rwanada, Sri Lanka, Uganada. Countries like the Sudan, Syria and Angoloa are have almost twice the GDP per capita levels as China had.

If we can at least acknowledge that poor countries are more susceptible to political turmoil then yeah, it probably does matter. No mention of this in the article of course (or of most we saw around the June 4th anniversary).

There was 1.2 billion people in China (that was about 23% of the global population at the time) of which approximately 84% were living on less then $2 per day. Per capita GDP was about $475 (after entering the 80s close to $221). (world bank) Is this relevant in our evaluation of the CPC's performance in 1989? After reading The Tiananmen Papers it seems obvious that the reform and opening process was front and center in senior leadership's discussions. If we accept that at face value, should we not also consider their progress on that front?

When most dictatorships crackdown and cite the well being of the country or stability. Is the typical outcome an increase in the well being of the country and stability?

I don't know, it just seems odd to not at least aknowledge this. Perhaps, one would believe that economic well being does not translate into human well being. Or perhaps that political reform is more important then economic reform. That's an entirely different conversation (and an incredibly interesting conversation) but isn't typically approached as a conversation in articles like these.

Take a look at this graph showing the poverty head count ratio:

I don't get how any article on the Chinese economy and Chinese progress can not conclude with acknowledging this incredible development. You can talk about inequality all you want but the fact that absolute poverty is being obliterated in this system needs to be addressed. And what kind of an asshole hopes that this progress stops? Of course this article turns to silly when the author brings in Mussolini and Hitler to compare China's current economic/political arrangement (I think that's what the author is trying to do?) or was the author comparing the 1989 crackdown to those folks? I don't know.
I was aghast to hear the alleged merits of the Chinese model being trumpeted by a few from the business class during the recent Indian election. I note that this is not an entirely new concept. Both Hitler and Mussolini achieved considerable economic prosperity with violent suppression of human rights. The result was widespread corruption, suppression of dissent, and aggressive militarism with disastrous consequences.
Really? Common sense should dictate an eye role. And this is why I was annoyed to see this article end up in a respectable paper.

And this goes to play on many of the other more factual misconceptions that seem to exist. Now maybe I'm way off. But I think people actually think there was a massacre at Tiananmen square. Like, in the square literally. I've met people that swear the tank guy gets run over. I've talked to people who think the death toll is measured in the tens of thousands. It's the image that exists, and articles that play on those beliefs annoy me.

The deaths didn't occur in the square. The tank stopped. The death toll estimates range from 200-2600.

Too many deaths to be sure. But again, put it in context. 1989, extremely poor country, a little over a decade removed from the Cultural Revolution (where students played a significant role). Students, with an Occupy Wall Street type of agenda (some asks were concrete and realistic, some were not, and there was no real central voice to negotiate with) held court in a dictatorship's main square in it's capital city for well over a month before any deaths occurred. Even when martial law was implemented, they went to great lengths in order to avoid any actual physical confrontation.

Even with Gorbachov visiting, signalling the thawing of relations between two super powers; a not-insignificant event, especially a 'face' oriented culture and a communist world built around pomp and displays of grandeur. The Chinese government scrapped their big state welcome in Tiananmen Square rather then impose a military crackdown on the protestors (after pleading for them repeatedly to avoid this embarrassment). Again, this, in 1989, in a dictatorship, in one of the poorest countries in the world, fresh off a long run of political upheavals, this almost seems surprising.

To compare the outcome to, what we'd expect today in Canada or the US or wherever, doesn't seem like a useful way to discuss the events in and around Tiananmen. While part of the blame has to fall to the CPC's PR handling of all things Tiananmen (it seems like the past 25 years should give the CPC sufficient political capital to acknowledge and move on from the events), at some level pushing discussions beyond perception and into the more nuanced and complex nature of the events, and how they fit into that era is on those with public profile; and us to push them on that.

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