I did a post a few days ago about a recent article by Minxin Pei predicting China’s inevitable fall. At that time I talked about the article having generated “quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere.” The buzz is even louder now.
I posted Dr. Pei’s article because I found it thought provoking, but I did not sign on to its pessimistic conclusion. I suggested that those interested in these sorts of “big idea think pieces” on China should read “big idea” bloggers like James Na, Daniel Drezner and Thomas Barnett, whose views range all over the China optimist-pessimist map.
Barnett and Na took me up on my suggestion and ran posts on the Pei piece. Na liked Pei’s thesis. Barnett did not.
Barnett had this to say:
Pei is an old friend from Harvard, and one of the smartest guys I know. This article seems a summary of his new book on corruption in China. I’ll withhold judgment on the book, which I’m sure is good, but this article left me flat. It told me a lot of things I knew or suspected about China, but instead of telling a story, it comes off as a non-stop litany of scary facts. I could gin up a litany like this for any state, and many do regularly for the U.S., but I don’t know what to do with it except agree with the notion that most growing countries with such corruption afflictions typically need a good scare to reform themselves toward more pluralism and rule of law. Pei makes bold assertions about inevitable decay and cites the neo-Leninist character of the regime as the key culprit, but offers (at least not here) no larger sense of the “correlation of forces,” to use a Marxist phrase, so it just comes off like a U.S.-style political book that argues the downside with the same sort of imbalance and lack of context that characterizes the bullish, positive reviews of China, and frankly that sort of imbalance is atypical of Pei, who may be trying too hard to push the content as counter-intuitive.
I would need this account of the intransigence of Party hacks to be balanced against the stunning rise of the entrepreneurial class and civil and commercial law in China. Pei paints a “Deadwood”-like picture of rapacious capitalism and official corruption, but he seems to judge it from a historical standard that doesn’t take into account that much of current Chinese capitalism comes closest to late 19th century America, which was amazingly corrupt and rapacious. The big questions are missing here on trajectory, pace, fluidity, correlation of forces, etc., so I am left dizzy with stats but not much understanding or expectation.
To me, a great editor makes sure you don’t go down that path of explaining too much while skimping on narrative and context, but since it’s deeply unwise to judge books by summary articles, I’ll pass on saying anything more than this article both impressed me with its marshaling of facts but left me unmoved by its lack of contextual analysis.
And that disappoints, because Pei typically dazzles, no matter what the venue.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
On the other hand, Na views Pei’s article “as a wake-up call to all folks, particularly in the business sector, who are mesmerized by China’s economic growth” and he goes on to ask if “it is time for revolution yet?”
I will report back if Drezner checks in on this one as well.
What do you think?