The Next Great Transformation

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Articles

By one estimate, China has been at the top of the global economy for 18 out of the last 20 centuries. That’s an impressive track record, whatever you might think of imperialism, communism, and all the other systems that have prevailed in that vast country over the centuries. Even President Obama made a nod in China’s direction in last week’s State of the Union address. “We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century,” he said. “And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient.”

Translation: China is kicking our butt.

The common wisdom is that the Chinese economy has prospered in the last two decades despite rather than because of communism. Only after Beijing began to privatize agriculture and embrace market mechanisms did the Chinese economy begin to post double-digit growth. Once the free market came to China, how could the country fail to succeed with its history of global economic dominance and 1.3 billion energetic citizens? Meanwhile, the Chinese government, according to this conventional view, is all dead weight: corrupt, censoring, and clinging to its poorly performing state-owned enterprises.

But what if the Chinese government, for all of its defects, has been part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

Learning from its neighbors in East Asia, the Chinese government made shrewd investment choices from the 1980s on. The often heavy hand of the government was able to redirect resources in a more targeted way than the invisible hand of the market. In 1998, for instance, Beijing announced massive investment in higher education. Over the next four years, writes Robert Fogel in Foreign Policy, “enrollment in higher education increased 165 percent, and the number of Chinese studying abroad rose 152 percent.” A better-educated workforce translated into greater productivity.

Even more dramatic was China’s 863 program, its great leap forward in technology launched in 1986. In 2001, because of its dependence on dirty coal and imported oil, the government decided to focus this program on renewable energy. “In 2006, Chinese leaders redoubled their commitment to new energy technology,” writes Peter Osnos in The New Yorker. “They boosted funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the United States. China doubled its wind-power capacity that year, then doubled it again the next year, and the year after. The country had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing more solar cells than any other country.”

Now, let’s upend another piece of conventional wisdom. China’s success isn’t because it became “more like us” in adopting liberal market reforms. Rather, China’s transformation is a wake-up call that we have to become more like them.

What the world needs now, in other words, is a second great transformation.

At the end of the 1920s, the global market economy collapsed. As historian Karl Polanyi argued in his landmark work The Great Transformation, liberal, communist, and fascist governments all responded to this collapse in the same way: by subordinating the economy to the imperatives of the state.

Today, with the global economy in a tailspin, we face a similar situation. The current crisis has pulled back the curtain to reveal the same flaws in the global market economy that Polanyi diagnosed in the 1940s. The additional challenge is the global environmental crisis. This time around, we cannot afford to simply grow our way out of this problem. Instead, governments of very different ideological hues must all subordinate the economy to the imperatives of the environment.

As he demonstrated in his State of the Union address, Obama understands the importance of the Chinese approach to our energy and environmental crisis. But he has only half-heartedly applied these lessons to the U.S. economy. His budget freeze deprives the U.S. government of the tools necessary to effect a great transformation.

This isn’t a horse race. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether China or the United States has the larger economy in 2025. What matters is whether the world’s largest economies will together usher in a new economic model. This great transformation will rely on the great lever of the state to shift resources toward energy efficiency and sustainability, and direct both global and national markets toward optimal outcomes for the planet.

The state is not by definition benign. Beijing’s treatment of dissidents and Tibetans is no more appetizing than Washington’s treatment of detainees and Afghans. But China has begun the difficult task of rehabilitating the state. That must be the Obama administration’s long-term goal as well. As long as “government” remains a dirty word in the United States, forget about deep transformation. We’ll just be stuck with business. As usual.

Pacific Pushback

One of the most unpleasant prerogatives of the state is the overseas sale of weapons. The United States routinely decries the conduct of other weapons-selling states such as North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. But the United States remains the Wal-Mart of arms merchants. It has been quietly adding more fuel to the fire in the Middle East with $25 billion in arms sales in the last two years. Over in the East, meanwhile, Washington’s recent announcement that it will sell $6 billion of weapons to Taiwan has got the Chinese up in arms. In a rather delicious turnabout, Beijing has announced that it will slap sanctions on U.S. companies that are involved in this deal.

And how do the U.S. media react to Beijing’s discomfort? China has become “strident” and adopted a “new triumphalist attitude,” writes John Pomfret in The Washington Post. Because it’s angry at the United States for pouring billions of dollars of arms into an often-hostile territory on its border? What country wouldn’t get a little strident in the same situation?

Another example of Chinese stridency is in South Asia. As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Conn Hallinan points out, despite a burgeoning trade relationship, India and China have been inching toward war. But here, too, Washington is part of the problem. The U.S. strategy of cultivating India as a key ally in Asia to balance China appears to be backfiring. “Some Indian analysts go so far as to say that China has now replaced Pakistan as India’s greatest threat,” he writes in China and India Battle over Thin Air. “And indeed, Beijing has been uncharacteristically assertive in pushing its claims to a sizable chunk of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. Why are the two huge Asian nations facing off over ground that all but the hardiest of goats avoid? The answer involves both colonialism’s bitter legacy and current U.S. efforts to maintain its pre-eminent role in the region.”

Elsewhere in Asia, 6,000 Japanese gathered in Tokyo over the weekend to protest U.S. military bases. They want the United States to close down the aging Futenma base in Okinawa. And they don’t want the United States to proceed with plans to build a new base near the Okinawan city of Nago. Last week, local elections in Nago brought in a new mayor who is also opposed to the planned base.

When will Washington wake up to the new realities on the ground in Asia?

Impunity 1, Justice 1

In Peru last month, justice was finally served. The Supreme Court convicted former president Alberto Fujimori in four cases of human rights abuses. He faces 25 years in prison.

“The trial of Alberto Fujimori was a milestone in the struggle against impunity in Peru, setting a new standard for the Peruvian courts,” write FPIF contributors Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta Youngers. “It’s the first time that a democratically elected head of state in Latin America has been found guilty of crimes against humanity. It’s also the first time that a former president has been extradited to his home country to face human rights charges. Other trials against former heads of state, such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor or Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, were carried out in internationally constituted courts. With the Fujimori verdict, Peru has established an important precedent: National governments can hold their former leaders accountable and not even a former head of state is above the law.”

No such luck for Sri Lanka. Last week, the man responsible for last year’s assault on the Tamil Tigers, Mahinda Rajapaksa, won re-election as president.

“Last May, President Rajapaksa promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to investigate allegations of laws-of-war violations,” writes FPIF contributor Arthur Dewey in War Crimes in Sri Lanka. “No action was taken, however, until November, when the publication of the State Department report compelled Rajapaksa to appoint a six-member committee of “experts” to “examine [its allegations] carefully.” The committee’s only mandate was to provide recommendations to the president in December (now postponed to April), and its members do not appear to be independent-minded.”

Another Batch of Grades

Obama saw his overall grade-point average rise a bit this week, as his report cards on gender, multilateralism, and human rights came in.

The president’s highest mark so far comes from his policy on gender. Although acknowledging that the administration’s policies on war and the global economy have had negative impact on women, FPIF contributors Christine Ahn and Susanna Handow give the administration a B for its focused attention to gender issues. “Perhaps the most tangible evidence of the administration’s support of women through U.S. foreign policy is the additional $1.66 billion allocated through the foreign operations budget of the State Department for programs directly targeting women and girls,” they write. “The Obama administration also emphasized the need to integrate gender and women’s empowerment across all foreign aid programs. They’ve even tacked on $3.1 million to create a new Office for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.”

Just a notch below that grade is Obama’s mark in multilateralism: B-. “The Obama administration has aligned the United States publically with the United Nations and its surrounding multilateral structures,” writes FPIF senior analyst Ian Williams. “In one of the few concrete steps it’s taken, Congress honored the White House request to pay U.S. arrears to the UN for the first time in 30 years. Admittedly, Washington still pays nine months in arrears, and there are huge debts for peacekeeping contributions. But the payments are a big step forward from when any dyspeptic legislator with a grudge against the world could use the UN as a whipping boy.”

Finally, the administration earned a high C on human rights. “Obama’s failure to more boldly address human rights concerns has alienated much of Obama’s progressive base of support,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes. “The right wing, meanwhile, disingenuously portrays Obama as retreating from his predecessor’s supposed support for democracy and human rights. Although the Bush administration provided even more assistance to governments engaged in human rights abuses and used pro-democracy rhetoric largely as a ruse for empire, Obama’s lukewarm support for human rights has enabled right-wingers to seize the moral high ground. As a result, the perceived weakness of the Obama administration’s human rights record raises important ethical and political questions.”

FPIF, February 2, 2010

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