Not to be a wet Mao Jacket, but…
I have my worries concerning Asia’s future – its economic future and even (if you like big words the way I do) its existential future.
What I don’t doubt is that, in the near term, the Asian economy is going to grow like a bamboo shoot. Some species of bamboo can increase in height by 36 inches a day – an inch every 40 minutes. If you set up your camp chair over a bamboo plant and take a snooze, you could be in for a surprise.
But just looking at Asia’s economic growth, without taking other factors into account, can lead to the “Zero Baseline Fallacy.”
The growth looks extraordinary, but what’s really extraordinary is where the growth started.
In 1978 – only a moment ago in history – China’s per capita GDP was $156.40.
China’s per capita GDP has increased by 4,409% since then. But 4,409% of hardly anything is still not a whole bunch.
China’s current per capita GDP is $6,895. America’s current per capita GDP is $52,195.
Starting from a Zero Baseline is like the “Irish Fitness Program” joke that the Irish used to tell when Ireland was being a “Celtic Tiger.”
Irish Fitness Program
Take two 50-pound potato sacks and hold them out at arm’s length.
Do this for one minute the first day, two minutes the second day, three minutes the third day, and so on, until you can hold the potato sacks at arm’s length for one hour.
Now put one potato in each of the sacks.
Furthermore, just looking at Asia’s economic potential – without taking other factors into account – can lead to the “Chinese Arithmetic Fallacy.”
China’s economy is huge. But China is huge. There are 1.38 billion people in China. A number as gob-smackingly large as 1,380,000,000 can fog business thinking. Just 1% of China’s population equals 13.8 million. Right now at Boeing headquarters there’s probably a group of top executives huddled in the boardroom telling each other, “If we could sell 787 Dreamliners to just 1% of…”
A more fundamental concern about Asia is democracy, or lack thereof. Several Asia experts in this issue of American Consequences have pointed out the “Command and Control” advantage that China, with its autocratic government, has over democracies such as the U.S. and India.
The advantage is real, but is it so advantageous?
Hitler vastly improved Germany’s depression-era consumer economy. But what ended up being consumed was Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Norway, etc.
Yes, Mussolini made the trains run on time. But where the trains were going was to take Italian troops to the front lines where they would be slaughtered.
Democracy is slow and frustrating, but to discount democracy is to violate the Churchill maxim: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”
What democracy has going for it is that it’s the only system under which there’s a hope of preserving and expanding human rights. And the free market is, first and foremost, a human right. Economic liberty is inseparable from liberty itself.
A system such as China’s, which allows citizens to trade most physical objects but forbids them to trade certain intellectual concepts, is like a system where everybody gets a car but nobody is allowed to learn to drive. Sooner or later there’s going to be a crack-up.
Democracy is also the only safeguard against central planning. Central planning always looks efficient and expert – from a distance. But central planning always ends up with an “efficiency expert” deciding it would be more efficient if everyone wore the same size underpants, selected by an expert. I am hoping, for my sake, that that expert doesn’t come over from the private sector at, say, Victoria’s Secret. A thong? That’s wrong.
I don’t fret much about what North Korea will do with its atomic bombs. Kim Jong Un is a murderer, but he’s not suicidal.
Long-term economic growth in democracies – particularly in English-speaking countries since the Industrial Revolution – beats anything on the historical record.
There isn’t much of a democratic tradition in Asia, and this is because of the barbarians. We’re the barbarians.
A certain rough democratic equality is common among barbarous peoples. It can be seen in the primitive tribes of the Arctic, the Americas, the Antipodes, Africa, and most especially among the primitive tribes that invaded and conquered the Roman Empire, which would be us “Westerners.”
The fall of Rome we’re taught to rue,
But it was we that Rome fell to.
Civilization was born in Asia some 9,000 years ago. This means the people of Asia have – give or take – 9,000 more years of being civilized than we do. I have never spoken intimately to a person from Asia who did not consider Westerners to be barbarians (though the sentiment is usually expressed more politely than that).
And it’s true. The World War II that the world had not long ago was based entirely on Western ideologies (including the fascism of Imperial Japan), and the worst tragedy that has befallen modern Asia – the gruesome depredations of Maoism – was also based on a Western ideology. We are guilty as charged.
But civilization has its discontents. Civilization leads to centralization, which leads to autocracy, which leads to absolutism. And absolutism is in absolute opposition to human liberty and human progress, whether absolutists know it or not.
Pol Pot knew it. Xi Jinping doesn’t seem to.
I have other worries about Asia. The continent contains three major “Trip Wires of War.” And that’s not counting North Korea or the perpetually warring Trump-word-holes of the Middle East.
The least worrying is a U.S.-China conflict. One of these countries has a grown-up for a leader. The other has a military led by grown-ups.
An India-Pakistan conflict is more of a 3 a.m. night sweat. India and Pakistan have already fought four wars since 1947, plus numerous military skirmishes and an ongoing armed standoff in Kashmir. Now they’ve both got nukes.
Pakistan could fall under control of Muslim extremists. India could fall under control of Hindu extremists. Whether you prefer Paradise or endless reincarnation, you may get your wish. You and everybody else in the world.
Then there’s poor, belligerent, unpredictable Russia sharing 2,600 miles of border with rich, peaceful, orderly China. You remember what happened to Senator Rand Paul with his next-door neighbor.
I touched on religious extremism in Pakistan and India. But India has another problem besides Hindu extremism. India has the second largest population of Muslims of any nation in the world – 176 million versus Pakistan’s 167 million. Then, sitting athwart trade routes, in the middle of everything, with the largest economy in Southeast Asia, is the country that has the most Muslims, Indonesia – 209 million.
The vast majority of Muslims are not interested in extremism any more than the vast majority of Democrats are interested in knocking Rand Paul off his rider mower. The RAND Corporation think tank regards Muslim extremists as being sort of like America’s filthy rich (whom you’re unlikely to encounter personally). RAND estimates that less than 1% of Muslims worldwide are at risk of becoming radicals.
So 176 million plus 167 million plus 209 million and add in the 21 million Muslims from China. That equals 573 million, times 1%…
So (the flip side of Boeing executives’ hope for 787 sales) I’ve only got 5,730,000 people to worry about.
Then there are Asia’s “failed states” – always a danger to peace and prosperity, as the failed states of Weimar Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the Confederate States of America have proven.
The Philippines could become a failed state, Myanmar seems to be trying to become one, and Afghanistan is already there. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia – the “Trashcanistans” – all have failed state potential. And, when it comes to a fully realized failed state, North Korea takes the cake… or it would if it could get any cake-making ingredients on the black market.
I don’t fret much about what North Korea will do with its atomic bombs. Kim Jong Un is a murderer, but he’s not suicidal. But I don’t like the example he sets in Asia and elsewhere.
Here’s how to be the head of a Trump-word nation without any economy or cultural influence and no significant conventional military might and still be a huge player – a Harvey Weinstein (with the same weight-loss program) – in the theater of international relations.
However, in my “Doubts About Asia,” I keep coming back to autocracy.
Well into Europe’s Renaissance and the European Age of Discovery, China was still the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world. Economic historians estimate that in the 15th and 16th centuries China accounted for between 25% and 30% of the world’s economy. By 1960 the figure was down to 5%. What happened?
Essentially just one thing – nothing.
During China’s Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), China’s autocrats decided to shut China off from commercial and intellectual contact with the outside world. Ships were burned. People were moved away from coastal regions.
The Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China for most of the 18th century, said, “Our land is so wealthy and prosperous that we possess all things. Therefore, there is no need to exchange the produce of foreign barbarians for our own.”
My biggest worry about Asia is that some new autocrat will have the same thought – and the muscle to enforce his thinking.