Opinion

Ian Bremmer

China and America’s related, but inverse, dilemmas

Ian Bremmer
Jul 3, 2013 19:45 UTC

As protests sweep the developing world and Europe struggles through an austerity hangover, China and the U.S., relative to their peers, look like the best in class. They are both comfortable with their modest growth rates (compared to their norms of the past decade), and insulated from the kind of social unrest we are seeing in Egypt, Turkey or Brazil. But both countries have a deeper intractable challenge that will, in the longer-term, get worse. What’s interesting is that they’re the inverse of each other: in the U.S., wealth and private sector interests capture the political system. In China, politicians capture the private sector and the wealth that comes with it.

The U.S.’s struggles with lobbying, pork-barrel spending, and the corporate sector’s general overlord status in Washington are well documented. Campaign finance reform is long past. Corporate personhood is well-entrenched. Super PACs are ascendant. A representative democracy is being crowded out by a capitalist one.

The cycle is hard to break. Politicians’ interests become aligned with those of the corporations that help them get elected. But even more troubling is that so many American politicians are gearing up to join the lobbying machine after they retire from government. In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, the figure stands at half of senators, and 42 percent of the House.

China has a related but different problem: its politicians control too much of the money themselves. Politicians and elites in China enrich themselves, their friends, and their families by managing and siphoning China Inc. — China’s state capitalist enterprise. Chinese industry is controlled by the state, and thus it’s the property of the people who run the state. Last year, state-owned enterprises and affiliated businesses accounted for over half of Chinese economic output and employment. There were 70 mainland Chinese companies on the 2012 Fortune Global 500 list; 65 of those were state-owned.

As an example, look no lower than China’s People’s Congress. The United States’ House of Representatives and Senate has no billionaires. China’s parliament has 83. According to Bloomberg, “The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices.” If you’re part of the state, state capitalism is the best — even if the system is centralized, corrupt and calcified.

Are state-led economies better?

Ian Bremmer
Jul 3, 2012 16:16 UTC

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

As Europe’s leaders struggle to restore confidence in the single currency and America’s economy limps ahead at a painfully slow pace, China’s economy continues to power forward at its now characteristically strong clip. For the past three decades, China has been the world’s fastest growing economy—and within the next several years, the People’s Republic will overtake the United States as the world’s largest. Some economists have even argued that, measured by purchasing-power parity, China has already pulled ahead. Such prognostications, accurate or not, have led to dire warnings that liberal capitalism’s best days are behind it, that the future lies with authoritarian market managers who are able to relocate populations and move mountains by decree. For the moment, at least, state-managed capitalism appears to be triumphant.

Such appearances, however, are misleading. The appeal of state capitalism lies in its ability to withstand the occasional crises that afflict market systems, thus shielding the general population from politically inconvenient disruptions. It is a system in which the state uses state-owned enterprises, national champion firms, sovereign wealth funds, and politically loyal banks to dominate the process of domestic wealth creation. To be sure, this is not communism; significant segments of state capitalist economies are in private hands. But the state plays the largest role in ensuring that market forces serve political ends—by ensuring that, profitable or not, businesses invest in projects that bolster social stability and protect the ruling elite’s political control.

China is not the only state capitalist economy producing impressive results. As the Arab world continues to contend with the risks of political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stockpiled the cash they need to maintain stability by controlling much of the wealth produced by national oil companies. Even some emerging democracies have begun to flirt with limited forms of managed capitalism. Brazil’s private sector remains crucial for the country’s expansion, but its government leans on state-owned energy firm Petrobras and privately owned mining champion Vale to help create jobs. President Dilma Rousseff’s government won’t milk cash from these firms as President Hugo Chávez has done with state-owned oil company PDVSA in Venezuela, but Petrobras is already at risk of becoming a much larger, less efficient, and thus less profitable company.

The secret to China’s boom: state capitalism

Ian Bremmer
Nov 4, 2011 18:45 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the world since the 2008 financial crisis can be summed up in one sentence: Security is no longer the primary driver of geopolitical developments; economics is. Think about this in terms of the United States and its shifting place as the superpower of the world. Since World War II, the U.S.’s highly developed Department of Defense has ensured the security of the country and indeed, much of the free world. The private sector was, well, the private sector. In a free market economy, companies manage their own affairs, perhaps with government regulation, but not with government direction. More than sixty years on, perhaps that’s why our military is the most technologically advanced in the world while our domestic economy fails to create enough jobs and opportunities for the U.S. population.

Contrast the U.S. and its free market economy with China’s system.  For years now, that country has experienced double digit growth. Many observers would say that China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, and especially since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been responsible for its boom. They would be mostly wrong. In fact, a new study prepared for the U.S. government says it’s not capitalism that’s powering China, but state capitalism — China’s massive, centrally directed industrial policy, where the government positions huge amounts of capital and labor in economic sectors it intends to nurture. The study, prepared by consultants Capital Trade for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reads in part:

In a world in which central planning has been so utterly discredited, it would be natural to conclude that the Chinese government and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party have been abandoning the institutions associated with the communist economic system, such as reliance on state‐owned enterprises (SOEs), as fast as possible. Such conclusion would be wrong.

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