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.