Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Chinese capitalism is just another knockoff

Ian Bremmer
Mar 21, 2012 19:12 UTC

Is China’s system of capitalism better than that of the United States? That depends — do pigs fly? While I have no question in my mind that the U.S. is still the paragon of success when it comes to the capitalist system, lately a strange coalition of think-tankers, investors and politicians have been advancing the idea that China is eating our lunch when it comes to deploying capitalism.

More specifically, this bunch claims that China’s unique brand of centrally planned capitalism is working better than the U.S.’s overregulated, bloated, inefficient and slow-growing economy. They say that our capitalism has been so bogged down by our developed-nation cost structure that we’ll never again be a competitive center of investment for the great global pools of money in search of a safe investment out of which to make a parking spot.

Baloney.

China has indeed grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. That’s a huge credit to a country that has modernized and industrialized on a previously unseen scale. And because of its 1.3 billion citizens, China has quite a bit of growth (read: catching up) still to come. China’s style of governance leaves the country light on regulation. However, it’s also light on rule of law, transparency, freedom of speech and several other key features that make the U.S. economy go ’round. Just because the Chinese government can move a village and build a road without holding a single hearing doesn’t mean the free market has taken hold. Indeed, it shows the opposite: China’s economy is largely state-planned, state-owned and state-run. The government uses capitalism only as a tool to reach its ends, not as a true expression of a free market.

Worse, where the Chinese government compromises the free market, it does so to fulfill its own desires of effective control over the entire country. It’s capitalism of the state, by the state and for the state, where the state is the principal economic actor. That’s in marked contrast to where the U.S. compromises on “pure” capitalism, adding things like the social safety net, worker safety, product safety, health insurance and retirement planning.

While China has a lot more growth to go, there’s another problem with its unique system of capitalism: Its outputs are far more volatile, and far less predictable, than our own. Consider where the Chinese central bank chooses to park its own money — in U.S. Treasuries, perhaps the safest investment that can be made in large enough quantities. If the Chinese could find a better place for their cash reserves, they would surely try it, but they really can’t. And if other Asian countries thought China had it all figured out, why would they all — even the reclusive Myanmar — have warmly welcomed the U.S.’s recently announced plans to solidify its presence in the Asian sphere?

The world’s year of reckoning

Ian Bremmer
Jan 30, 2012 17:11 UTC

DAVOS–If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012, at least where the World Economic Forum is concerned, is the year of the reckoning. Through the events of the Arab Spring, major power vacuums have been created in countries all over the Middle East. More governments, such as Syria’s, are likely to topple. But the time to start thinking about what’s next for countries like Egypt is already here.

The thing is, it’s coming at an inconvenient time for Western democracy. Having long held themselves as the global models for governance and economic structure, Western Europe and the U.S. have in recent years shown their warts as never before. That has opened the door for state capitalist models — like China’s — to take the stage. And the simple fact that new models for how countries and economies should work are even being considered is a blow to the Western world’s power and prestige. Obviously, well before the G-7 system broke down, China was already on a path of state capitalism, and that has turned out to be a successful course for that country to chart. But here’s the problem: While it has led to wealth and a rise in living standards for the Chinese, it hasn’t led to more democracy.

Here at Davos, and in capitals around the world, the paths countries should chart for themselves in the future is always topic A, and what we’ve learned over these last years is that transforming those countries and indeed the world is about a lot more than simply swapping out the players who legislate and lead. Look at the precarious situation in Egypt. Consider Putin’s long hold on power in Russia. For that matter, look at the situations in many countries on the euro zone periphery. Going down that list, nations that have simply replaced one power-grabbing leader with another are in trouble. (In Russia’s case, that leader has simply replaced himself.) Countries that have revolved leadership without addressing deeper institutional weaknesses are not setting themselves up for success in the long run.

Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

Ian Bremmer
Dec 21, 2011 17:31 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

Why the U.S. is not—and never will be—Japan

Ian Bremmer
Nov 18, 2011 20:23 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Though I’ve already written about the recent Munk debate in Toronto elsewhere, it’s worth taking some space to expand on my position, and why the U.S. truly is not going to experience a Japan-style lost decade of economic stagnation.

(The debate was on this resolution: Be it resolved North America faces a Japan-style era of economic stagnation. I joined Larry Summers in arguing the Con side against Paul Krugman and David Rosenberg.)

Let’s start with the political realities: Japan experienced 50 years of single-party rule. In the last 22 years, the country has had 17 prime ministers. Recently, the Democratic party there defeated the long-time incumbents, the Liberal Democrats, only to find that they had no idea how to govern the nation. They had no idea how the ministries worked, no relationships with industrialists or financial institutions, no grasp on the levers of power in society, and no strong policy apparatus. If the U.S.’s political situation looks bleak, consider that alternative.

from The Great Debate:

What is the best strategy against Chinese cyberattacks?

Ian Bremmer
Jun 9, 2011 17:20 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

All eyes should be peeled on China, but not for the reason you think. While the biggest structural risk right now is global rebalancing, especially between China and the U.S., there is another important threat from China: cyberwars. Cyberattacks are one of the biggest fat tails (along with climate and North Korea).

It’s no surprise that the latest Google hack attack came from China. The presumption is that the vast majority of cyber attacks hitting the U.S. are coming from the Chinese government. It’s very hard to know where threats are originating – country-wise and/or person-wise -- because it’s very difficult to go back and figure out the paper trail. But at a minimum, there is an environment in China that tolerates cyber attacks.

Proprietary information around technologies – gaining profit shares, increasing revenues – allows a country to be much more economically competitive. China has leverage because everyone wants to get into China. If you want to make something in their country, you have to share the technology.

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