China Series Part 5: Is democracy over-rated?

This is the fifth in a five-part series on China. You can see the preceding parts here One, Two, Three, Four.

The achievements of China in the last two decades are incredible.

The share of China’s population living in poverty has fallen from 84 per cent to 13 per cent since 1980.

A nation with an average income of $205 in 1980 now has average income of $6000.

If the world’s aid programs had lifted 400 million people out of poverty, aid policy makers would barely be able to get out of bed for the pile of OBEs, Pulitzers, Nobels, Honorary doctorates, emmys, grammys and groupies littering their house.

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Beacon of hope (retired)

These crucial policy changes in China have come while “leading” democracies have spent billions of dollars on wars of whimsy in the middle east, blown up their financial systems, had great big shouting matches over threats to shoot themselves in the leg (i.e. government shutdowns), and put the greatest policy development efforts into “stopping the boats”.

When governments make policy with the “assistance” of the editor of the Daily Telegraph, the appeal of technocratism is huge.

That’s one reason why Australia’s biggest policy success of recent times has been monetary policy. It is set by an independent body, the RBA.

That’s also why Infrastructure Australia was set up, to try to wrest control of important billion-dollar investments out of the hands of here-today, gone-tomorrow MPs.

Just yesterday I read this story at the Federalist about the death of expertise, by Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security Affairs in the US.

“People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater.”

He cites the Dunning Kruger effect, which Wikipedia describes thus:

“unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude”

Are we too stupid and arrogant to be allowed to manage our own government? They say you get the government you deserve, and when I look at Australian governments at federal and state level, I conclude we must have been very bad indeed.

So. Should we look into benevolent dictatorship? The argument is an easy one to make when you are browsing World Bank statistics.

But one morning in late October, as I was about to pass under the Gate of Heavenly Peace in a cloud of smog, we saw a big bunch of protestors being dragged off to one side by Chinese police and secret police. I’d lived in China in 2003 and never seen this sort of thing before.

Then, minutes later, while we were inside the Forbidden City, a car blew up where we had been standing just before, killing five and sending dozens to hospital.

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That was frightening. The Chinese government blames the East Turkestan Islamic movement, based out in the majority-Uyghur west of China. They seek independence for a sliver of China near Russia. The Chinese goverment’s behaviour out there has been described by Amnesty as “years of attempted erosion of the ethnic identity of the Uighur people of the region by the ruling Han majority.”

You can’t as easily get away with that in a country with a free press and representative democracy.

Perhaps the most enduring image of Tiananmen square, for me, is these fire extinguishers, which are dotted around. When I saw them, I thought “What for? This square is made one-hundred per cent of stone. There is nothing flammable here.”

Image Then I looked around. Realised what the flammable material was. And I started to feel a bit sick.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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