"So why don’t we apply the same argument as eagerly there?" Who are "we"? I apply it. And therefore I suggest you not hold your breath till "a low-free-speech nation becomes higher status"; it isn't going to happen. By the time it gains high status, China will be a moderate-to-high-free-speech nation (I predict).

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The world has emulated Western policies mainly because those nations were high status, not because their style of law or government was obviously more efficient.

Not to put too fine a point on it, your assumption is flawed at best. I seriously think you need to reconsider some of your assumptions on this one. I don't know how much experience you have living in a developing country (take India, for instance) but I certainly possess quite a lot and I can assure you that many developing countries gravitate toward adopting (emulating, if you insist) Western policies because those policies are more humane, promise greater individual liberties and personal freedom, provide greater scope for growth (in the most general sense), etc. It is somewhat unfortunate that you seem to be blind to many of the best things that the West has to offer the world.

(Note: I am a big fan of your blog, but on this one I felt you were being rather flippant. Not all Asians are mesmerized by the Chinese political structure or their economic model.)

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"As a journalist who lived and breathed China for years, I felt sure that the Communist Party, following its loss of credibility at Tiananmen, would fall to ashes. During the boom of the 1990s, I knew that economic modernization would force Chinese institutions to become accountable and democratic."

This is a typical misunderstanding by someone who hasn't really studied how the Chinese have done things. First off, one has to remember that, like Japan, China is a society where mianzi ("face") is extremely important.

Take Tiananmen. The typical western line is that China was supposed to go the way of the western Communist nations, and their government was supposed to collapse- but instead, they took a hard line and smashed the protests. Half-true, but you're ignoring what was going on inside Zhongnanhai in those heady days. The nationwide protests were NOT being seen as discrediting communism, but as discrediting Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening" policies, which were leading to chaos. The new Prime Minister, Li Peng (Zhou Enlai's adopted son), was a hard-line Maoist, deeply critical of Deng, and seen as likely to succeed him as the future head of state. As attempts at quelling the Beijing protests with local police and guard units failed, Li ordered PLA units from the Dongbei provinces, the heart of Maoist support in the wake of their industrial stagnation of the late 80's.

Li was plotting a coup. Deng, of course, was one of the canniest politicians in history, and saw this coming- thus he ordered Li to march his forces on Tiananmen, thus turning a would-be Maoist coup into a crackdown, and leaving Li with egg on his "face". Li's reputation never recovered- after the arrest of reformist Zhao Ziyun, the new President, Jiang Zemin, reduced Li to a paper-shuffler until his retirement. Li is to this day a national embarrassment; if I bring up his name in conversation in Shanghai, people laugh. So, through Deng's decisive action, a terrible situation (crackdown followed by Maoist coup) was turned into a better one (crackdown followed by Maoist embarrassment). Deng saved his program of reform and laid the Maoist ghost to rest, though he had to throw a lot of good people under the bus to do it. (Not that this was anything new to Deng, who had pretty much built his career on being the most quietly ruthless sonofabitch who ever lived.)

Likewise, there have been other significant changes that get underplayed because they don't fit into our usual models of "democracy". Take Zhu Rongji's reforms, in line with Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents". Zhu forced hundreds of old oligarchs into retirement, brought many "missing" sectors of society into the CCP, and did quite a bit to transform a creaky post-maoist oligarchy into a formidable technocracy. However, because these reforms were done in a typically "Chinese" way, they're quite opaque to western journalists and political scientists. (And what makes Zhu all the more fascinating is that, after serving his five year term- he quietly retired from all his posts and stepped off the stage. The Commie Cincinattus, indeed.)

Or take China's political ideology. Many think that China today has no political ideology outside of, say, bald-faced opportunism. Far from the case. The ruling ideology, Hu Jintao's "Scientific Development Concept", is a technocrat's dream come true. An expansion of Deng Xiaoping Theory, and based (loosely) in Marxist developmental thought, Scientific Development Concept essentially takes technocratic dictatorship to it's logical end- analyze problems, look for solutions, implement them on a trial basis, gather data, and based on those conclusions, roll them out for nationwide implementation. There's more to it than that, but I'm sick of typing this comment for now, and this would deserve a post of it's own.

In any event, though, China today is a very fascinating place, because they are trying to write a new rulebook. What will happen? Who knows...

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If China had been attacked on 9/11, they would have punished Afghanistan in a brief punitive expedition, then gone home. They don't do extended imperial adventures... why conquer a country for it's oil when they can simply offer technical aid to the nation, develop it's resources, and buy them off of them?

As far as military adventurism goes, I find China much less threatening than the US. They're amoral, but not aggressive. They prefer to wage their wars economically these days.

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What's wrong with this thesis is that the richest places in China don't seem to be angling for political liberalism much faster than the poorer areas- in fact, one could almost say the opposite. Wealthy Shanghai, Zhejiang, Nanjing, Beijing, etc. aren't exactly hotbeds of pro-democracy activism; on the other hand, grassroots democracy and a vibrant "demonstration" culture seem to be taking root in the poor interior areas.

On the other hand, the people in the large, affluent coastal cities can generally "buy" their freedom- illegal media and drugs, cell phones, passports, internet (and proxy servers), satellite TV, foreign tutors, attorneys, headhunters, gambling, sexual services- if you want it, you can acquire it in Shanghai, and fairly easily. As far as day-to-day freedoms are concerned, Shanghai and Shenzhen are probably more "libertarian", for most people (not, say, professional journalists), than a typical big city in the American nanny-state... no helmet laws, seatbelts, barely-enforced traffic laws, barely-enforced corporate regulations (which are easily bypassed with bribes), gambling, prostitution, knockoff goods, etc., etc. For some reason, this "police state" often feels as lawless as the wild west.

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Yes, we can. There is a functioning legal system in China that does hold corporate criminals accountable... provided the prosecutor has stronger party guanxi (relationships/connections) than the defendant. Even then, sometimes a prosecutor with weaker connections wins a court case. The system is highly flawed, but surprisingly functional.

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China vs. India is a very interesting comparison. Also China vs. India vs. EU, three nations of comparable size. Perhaps the 4th would be the Anglosphere (including Israel), given the near complete coordination by the anglosphere + israel post WWII.

My money is still on the anglosphere.

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China will surpass the US because it ignores notions of human rights and the farcical equal dignity of all human beings. If China had been attacked in a matter similar to 9/11 they would have invaded Saudi Arabia, ejected the existing populations from oil producing areas and begun pumping oil for themselves. A response we should have adopted. Would millions have died? Sure, but it's not like we have any moral obligations to them.

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Tails of Lekcess, I call it.

The Peacock tail is now mal-adaptive.

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Non sequitur response. Did Japanese people start wearing suits because Britain was high-status? Sure, probably. But Robin Hanson asks a different question: Did Japanese people change their economic policies because Britain was high-status?

Surely you can see how a Chinese official who wears a suit and listens to American pop music is nonetheless not thereby implementing Anglospheric policies.

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Why has no one mentioned India? Compared to China, its political system is inherently more stable, its population growth is greater, it has very respectable economic growth and it has no serious pressure points with the West.

There is some status effect in being successful. But there is also the reality of being successful. Western ways of doing things clearly were (mostly) more efficient: often much more efficient.

The fascinating question about Chinese history is not "when will it dominate?" but "why did it not?" As a broad generalisation, if it was invented before 500BC it was invented first in the Fertile Crescent + Egypt, if was invented from 500BC to 1500 it was invented in China, except that anything to do with horses when it was invented in Central Asia. After 1500 it was invented in the West. China is still absolutely playing catch-up in a situation where Western intellectual dominance has increased in the last century or so, not lessened.

The notion that, in some very important senses, the West was not successful or that Chinese history is going to be upward curves with no turning points are both very dubious bases for analysis.

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Shall we cut to the chase? Clearly, our generous but inefficient habits are a form of vebleinian signalling; the less effective the better because it shows we can afford it. (It would be quite interesting to learn whether this proclivity is humanly universal or merely cultural.)

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"The Chinese government is trying to figure out how to combine the explicit planning of their centralized agencies, with the implicit planning of the modern market ecosystem. They definitely don’t have it figured out yet. But my feel is that, even if they make a lot of stupid mistakes as they feel their way into the future, their greater propensity for thinking in terms of DECADES rather than years or quarters, is going to be a huge advantage for them…."

And I lived in Japan in the late 1980s when it was taken for granted on both sides of the Pacific that the reason a nation half the size of the US was crushing it economically, in industry after industry, and obviously on its way to ruling the world, was the huge advantage of having a powerful government agency (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) planning DECADES, even centuries in advance. American academics claimed that the US economy, lacking guidance by similarly powerful federal critical thinkers, was left in the unfortunate position of having people and companies making their own decisions about what to do with their own money. Without the kind of wise, long-term guidance that only federal agencies, national ministries, or central committees can provide, the US would be doomed to making short-term decisions---an unbearable handicap.

Japan's long-term plans don't seem to have been much of an advantage over the decades they planned for. The US, without long-term plans, rapidly adapted to the world as it actually turned out to be, with the quick, unplanned rise, and often fall and replacement of companies like Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, Netscape, Oracle, Google, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, ....

I'm not saying long-term planning is foolish. If you guess right, you may benefit significantly, but I'm not sure how often that can be expected to happen. (I'd be interested to know.) For now, whenever I hear about how China has a huge advantage because of their long-term thinking, I think it's deja vu all over again. I think the competitive risk from China comes more from the prospect of 1.3 billion smart, ambitious people finally FREED from the grip of long-term planners and allowed to make their own decisions.

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I think Robin is saying that government policies typically seek status moreso than wealth? I think there are stronger arguments for this position:

Governments themselves obviously do not seek status, but their elites do. Elites have no use for national wealth qua wealth unless they can siphon it off for their own uses. Most all nations have more wealth than the elites can consume, or have barriers preventing elites from consuming large amounts of it. So making their nation richer will not make themselves richer. However, making their nation higher status will increase their own status, both among their own people and among the world.

Of course making their own nation richer makes elites higher status, but I would argue that wealth is the byproduct of status-seeking in this case.

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I wrote an expanded, edited version of my previous comment and put it on my own blog at


The expanded version makes my point better...


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Have you heard about Ikea's recent troubles with opening stores in Russia? It's not a good place to do business unless you're a mafia.

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