Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: The Party - The Secret World of China

Westerners tend to have a very un-nuanced view of China. For instance, when Burton Malkiel came back from China, he was over-flowing with enthusiasm for China, complete with starting up a new fund, and taking all the signs of economic development that he saw there as a sign that capitalism had taken over China in a big way, and conflating capitalism with democracy in the way that only naive Westerners do. He was not completely wrong, but he was missing all the nuances that those of us who grew up in Asia saw.

When Steve Grimm reviewed: The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, I checked it out from the library since it promised to be a book that was not about the naive-un-nuanced view of China so often touted breathlessly in newspapers and magazines.

I was not disappointed. All the stories are there. The story behind the poisoned milk fiasco? It's there, and yes, it's tied to the 2008 Olympics in a way you might not expect. I wonder if the IOC ever considers that it has blood on its hands when it agrees to host the Olympics in places where there is not a long history of democracy and human rights. The fact that Baidu offers companies a chance to censor its search results are also covered. The Great Leap Forward and its cover-up? Documented in detail here. Why was reunification with Taiwan so hot a topic in the late 1990s/early 2000s and then now is almost never on the radar? Documented here, with all the subtle details that many Westerners over-look. Corruption and graft? All here. The story behind why Shanghai's skyline was completely rebuilt? Someone I know recently posted that she could not see any buildings in common between 1980 and now in Shanghai from a picture of the Skyline --- she naively attributed that to rapid economic development. The reality is far different and explained here in detail.

I grew up in Singapore, and saw first-hand how capitalism does not automatically lead to democracy, even though it can and does lift people out of poverty, which is in general a good thing. It's always annoyed me that Westerners (ABCs included) conflate economic freedom with liberty, without realizing that there's a second model at work in Asia, where economic freedom comes with strings attached. When Google went to China, I deliberately kept myself out of that effort. When Google left China, many people I know thought that it was a bad move. I personally applauded it as a willingness to stand by principle, with a nuanced understanding of the what's going on there that only Sergey Brin, with his experience growing up in a totalitarian regime, could have made happen.

All in all, I consider this a very important book. If you're a naive Westerner or ABC, you owe it to yourself to read this book carefully before visiting China and taking everything you see at face value. While I agree with Brad Delong that we do not want to go down in history as trying to prevent the lifting of millions out of poverty, especially in Asia/China, I think a good understanding of this book will lead you to realize what a Faustian bargain international trade is, and you will eventually come to agree with Dani Rodrik's view as expressed in One Economics, Many Recipes:
Think of labor and environmental standards, for example. Poor countries argue that they cannot afford to have the same stringent standards in these areas as the advanced countries... Democratic countries such as India and Brazil can legitimately argue that their practices are consistent with the wishes of their own citizens, and that therefore it is inappropriate for labor groups or NGOs in advacned countries to tell them what standard they should have... But non-democratic countries such as China, do not pass the same prima facie test. The assertion that labor rights and the environment are trampled for the benefit of commercial advantage cannot be as easily dismissed in those countries. Consequently, exports of nondemocratic countries deserve greater scrutiny when they entail costly dislocations or adverse distributional consequences in importing questions.

Needless to say, this book is highly recommended. Well worth paying full price for.
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