Daniel W. Drezner

Going short on Tom Friedman’s China analysis

Today’s Tom Friedman column on China’s future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question:  [O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring ...

Today’s Tom Friedman column on China’s future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question: 

[O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party? 

Then, he makes a coherent argument in less than 800 words that the most populous nation in the world will have no choice but to liberalize and democratize. Friedman’s thesis:

The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level….

My reason for believing China will have to open up sooner than its leadership thinks has to do with its basic challenge: It has to get rich before it gets old….

The only stable way to handle that is to raise incomes by moving more Chinese from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more knowledge- and services-based jobs, as Hong Kong did. But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.

This argument is clear enough for the average New York Times reader to get it. It’s also clear enough for us foreign policy bloggers in pajamas online analysts to point out where and how he’s wrong. In particular, Friedman makes two large errors:

1) It’s not clear that China has to get to "the next level" of economic development in order to become the most powerful country in the world. China’s GDP could be larger than America’s while still possessing only 1/3  the per capita income of the United States. If the rest of China were to enjoy the infrastructure and living standards or, say, Shenzhen, China would be doing quite well for itself. And as Chinese consumers demand more goods and services, the domestic jobs that power the rise of middle-class professionals — teachers, lawyers, consultants , environmental engineers, travel agents, etc. — will start to emerge in large numbers. 

Just to be clear here — Friedman is right to say that greater liberty is likely to lead to more innovative growth. My point is that a population of a billion plus people allows the government to focus on intensive growth for an awfully long time and still prosper an amazing amount. 

2) In a world of network technologies and externalities, the best and most innovative technology does not always win — the technology used by the most customers develops the lock-in. China doesn’t have to have a technological edge, it just has to ensure that the largest market in the world embraces China-friendly technologies. Hey, come to think of it, you know what institution could ensure that occurrence? The Chinese Communist Party.

[Still, you hope Friedman is right and you’re wrong…. right? –ed. Well, in theory yes, but…… after reading this SPIRI paper on China’s new foreign policy actors, I’m not so sure. The common thread in that paper is that the more pluralist actors were also the most nationalist. It’s entirely possible that a freer China is also a more reckless China.]

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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