Musings on the mainland
Gun-rights advocates have often insinuated that if the government saw fit to ban firearms, it would see fit to ban knives to curb other types of violence. Though skeptical of gun control, I had always laughed off these sorts of slippery-slope scenarios as far-fetched and improbable. Last fall however, I was studying abroad in Beijing during the 18th Communist Party Congress. For the duration of the congress, a meeting of about 3000 party officials from around the country, the sale of many basic household items was banned in Beijing. These included lighter fluid (to prevent self-immolations), balloons (to prevent leaflet distribution), and yes, scissors and knives (to prevent assassination attempts and other political violence). To make matters more comical, 110,000 civilian “volunteers” were recruited from around the city and paid 40RMB (7 dollars) a day to don red armbands and keep an eye out for “suspicious activity.” The two-week extravaganza reminded me yet again that as an American-born Libertarian, I had wandered far from home both geographically and ideologically.
It was during this trip however, that I was able to reflect on the common American perceptions of China, and how they stacked up against reality. As the world’s second largest economy and a “rising superpower” in the eyes of many Western intellectuals, China has not escaped mention by major American media outlets for a single day in recent years. But when I finally visited China for myself, I realized just how much comparative confidence I still had in the United States.
The late economist Milton Friedman had often emphasized that how people “vote with their feet” should not be overlooked. Reflecting upon this statement, I can only be proud of the fact that over 60,000 people from mainland China still choose to permanently immigrate to the U.S. every year. While I met several American expatriates who were working short-term in China, I did not meet a single one who had chosen to settle there permanently. If all one hears of is the overhyped Chinese “economic miracle” and the United States’ economic struggles, this phenomenon should appear confusing. If one looks beneath China’s thirty-year boom, however, one sees that for all the talk of China “surpassing the U.S.,” flaws abound in the Chinese economic model.
The lack of innovation in the Chinese economy was a constant theme in my conversations with Chinese natives. One student, an economics major at my host university commented that the United States would always be a step ahead of China because the Chinese only ever copied what the Americans did. The enormous market for counterfeit electronic goods in China seemed to affirm his statement, but the failure of China to innovate was not limited to the technology sector. When I asked my Chinese roommate to recommend Chinese television shows to me, he replied that although there were a few good ones, he watched mostly American shows. Before returning to his laptop to watch Prison Break, he joked that he found it humorous that a country of 1.4 billion people could not produce a single good show.
While I was abroad, I also learned that local officials in China were promoted or demoted based on their success in meeting targets for economic development and population control among other things. My roommate, who was a native of the rural Shaanxi province, spoke of how the seizure of village lands for development projects was a point of heated contention and even violent conflict at times between farmers and local officials. The seaside village of Wukan made headlines around the world when its villages revolted and drove local officials out of power over alleged abuses like illegal land-seizure. With no voice in the political process, Chinese citizens have few legal and institutional ways of fighting back.
Additionally, though the Chinese government has been given substantial praise for its ability to direct enormous amounts of investment into developments in a way that the U.S. could only dream of doing, many of these investments have led to enormous waste. For instance, I had the opportunity to ride on China’s newly constructed high-speed rails, the pet project for which the Communist Party has obtained the most bragging rights. I later learned that although high speed-rail tickets cost 35% of an average Chinese urban resident’s income, they were sold at artificially low prices set by the government. Many prominent Chinese economists like Huang Yiping of Peking University, have expressed doubts of China’s high-speed rails ever making a profit. While they serve a small sliver of China’s elite, the high-speed rails have continued hemorrhaging public funds and contributing to the national debt.
As I followed American politics on my laptop in Beijing, I often cursed the rampant pandering both candidates engaged in during the 2012 Presidential debates and lamented the inability of Congress to solve the looming deficit crisis. However, when I remember America’s core ideals of, individual freedom, human rights, and political equality, I am reminded of precisely why so many of the Chinese friends I had made expressed their hopes of coming to the U.S. one day. When I realize the amount of opportunity and social mobility still available in America and the amount of innovation that has taken place here, I can only feel a sense of deep pride.
During a particular discussion in class, one of my teachers, a Beijing native, lamented the fact the Chinese government’s abuses of power could not be adequately checked because one party alone controlled the state. He then expressed envy at the fact that Americans at least had a choice. Ever the cynic, I made an offhand comment on how two equally inept parties made neither for much of a difference or for much of a choice. He immediately objected, remarking that having just one more choice can make a world of difference. I thought on all that I had learned about China, and could only agree. Sometimes, another choice makes all the difference.