China Rising?

My formative years were the 1980s. Like most other times in history, it was a scary time. The thing to be scared of, apparently, was Japan. You couldn’t so much look at the cover of a Time Magazine without seeing yet another sign that Japan was going to take over the world. Popular authors wrote bad novels, at the end of which they put in pages and pages of notes about how in real life, the enemy was buying all of our property… and the evidence was all around us – “the Japanese” bought Rockefeller center, and much of Hawaii, and that was just a start. It almost got to the point where I was checking under the bed and in the closet for Japanese people before turning out the lights and going to bed. Some in Japan, of course, were helping the run-up of these feelings – books came out of Japan with titles like “The Japan that Can Say No” and which advocated blackmailing the US by threatening to turn over vital technology to the Soviets.

Now, of course, Japan isn’t perceived as a threat so just about every country has good relations with them. But the concept of a threat is common. In the 1940s, there was some worry that Germany, or perhaps Japan would eventually take over the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the USSR. In the 1970s, polyester and disco were bigger problems than any of them damn foreigners, but on the other hand, them damn foreigners were worried about us – if you cracked open a Le Monde or a Der Spiegel, you couldn’t help but see stories about how the US was buying up everything – and forcing everyone to wear polyester. By the 1980s, it was Japan again. In the 1990s, we were happy – the US had established its hegemony again. Now, of course, the fear is that a bunch of fanatics living in the 14th century (and whose grooming habits predate even that) are poised to take over anything. (Granted, the fact that the President has worked things in a way that those clowns are actually winning two simultaneous wars against the US, but that’s a different story.)

But its not just the 14th century we’re worried about. We’re also scared of China. All y’all might recall that when GW took office, he referred to China as a strategic competitor, and his supporters talked incessantly about how Clinton had sold American military technology to China, at least until the GW administration gave the Chinese government 3 months to take apart and rebuild an EP-3. But I digress…

Anyway, whether China is going to be the next Superpower, or whether it will go the way that the 14th century is going to go has been debated by people who know a lot more than I. Still, that won’t stop me. I was reading this story by a guy who has a book on China coming out. His thesis is that China is going to be having trouble in the near future… they are at the limits of what they can export, decisions made by the central government are having horrible consequences to the environment, etc. But if I read the piece correctly, he argues that the biggest problem is the lack of property rights, or rather that the what property rights there are granted exclusively by the central government. It may call itself communist, but it seems to operate like Imperial China did.

Regular readers might recall I posted something similar about South America. I noted that names are often misleading – in South America, in many instances it was those that were labeled Marxist that wanted to ensure property rights for those who had lived on and cultivated land for generations, while those that called themselves capitalists were trying to preserve a feudal state with a hereditary aristocracy. I also noted that many of the problems – lack of development and even the perennial revolutions – that occur in South America are due to the fact that the folks who lived on and cultivated land for generations did not legally own that land – land ownership was in the hands of a few who were far away.

So part of this story is familiar. But how familiar is it? What are the next ten years going to look like for China? The next twenty?