This piece first appeared in The Washington Post.
Forget the “Ground Zero mosque,” Michelle Obama’s Spanish holiday and even the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When future historians look back to the summer of 2010, the event they are most likely to focus on is China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy.
Mostly, this is a very good thing. The rise of China, and the related, albeit slightly slower, emergence of India, is the story of hundreds of millions of very poor people joining the global economy and getting a little richer. Gross domestic product per capita in those two countries was basically stagnant from 1820 to 1950. Then, it increased 68 percent from 1950 to 1973, and a whopping 245 percent from 1973 to 2002.
But we need to be careful not to draw the wrong lessons from China’s resurrection. The most dangerous one is that authoritarianism works.
That notion has become particularly tempting at a time when so many Americans, on the right and the left, are skeptical of the efficacy of their government. By contrast, many, particularly in the U.S. business and political elite, openly admire the effectiveness of China’s state-controlled version of capitalism. Indeed, a popular intellectual trend, as Stefan Halper, Ian Bremmer and others have noted, is to suggest that, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis, China’s economic model — a.k.a. “the Beijing consensus” — could replace the U.S. model.
That’s plain wrong. Centrally planned economies tend to be good at wrenching societies out of agricultural poverty into the industrial age — especially when the technologies needed to accomplish that shift have been invented elsewhere. Remember that in the 1930s, ’40s and even ’50s the Soviet model seemed viable, for precisely that reason.