Interesting piece by Martin Wolf in the FT today. His topic is a well-trodden one – How does communist autocracy live with market economy? – but it still makes for interesting reading. Inspired by two recently-published books, he argues that there are great similarities between the styles of government in imperial and present day China.
Mao and Deng become the "emperors" of the communist era and, just as emperors were marginalized from the decision-making process by bureaucrats, decentralized power is eating away at the might of the leadership. Fast-rising administrative costs and corruption – and analysis from the World Bank which suggests a sharp decline in the quality of governance between 1998 and 2004 – is presented as evidence of this.
As to what this might mean for China’s future, Wolf offers four possible scenarios:
- Smooth progression: economic reforms and growth initiate political reform and the emergence of a democratic society.
- Cash cow communism: a strong market economy develops under a reforming, yet still autocratic, communist regime.
- Death of potential: reform hits a road block, the economy stumbles and repression intensifies.
- Anarchy and liberty: a political crisis topples the government with democracy eventually emerging from the rubble.
Wolf positions himself closest to option four, without fully backing it, saying: "The market’s irresistible force is meeting the party’s immovable object. At some point, one of them must surely give."
This reminded me of comments made to me by a Chinese academic in an interview: "The communist party is still the dominant party at central and local level. China needs this kind of strong party to lead it towards modernization – that is the will of the Chinese people.
"Maybe the US thinks their model is the best in the world but every country has its own circumstances. Even if we copied the US system we couldn’t do so perfectly – China has to select its own system according to its own values."