Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 3, March 2018
By Richard Hornik
One of the peculiar pathologies of western businessmen active in China is an almost religious reverence for its lack of due process, enthralled by the combination of free(ish) markets and political stability proffered by China’s Market-Leninism (a term coined by Nicholas Kristoff). What they miss, however, is the price that must be paid for such short-term control, and during the course of Chinese history that price has proven to be very high.
The latest convert to this envy for authoritarian efficiency is Tesla’s Elon Musk who has spoken and written extensively about China’s ability to conceive, approve and build enormous infrastructure projects in a matter of a few years – or less. No zoning rules, environmental regulations, cost-benefit analyses — much less property rights — can stand in the way of the gleaming high-speed rail lines, shiny new airports, massive harbors and 12-lane highways and bridges that have covered the Middle Kingdom in the past two decades. Likewise with housing developments and mega industrial installations like petrochemical plants, steel mills and refineries.
The fact that many of these projects made little or no economic sense and often created enormous capital, environmental and human costs for decades to come does little to take the shine off the power to command society and the economy to do the bidding of a brilliant meritocracy. Japan went on a similar splurge in the last three decades of the 20th century, also directed by brilliant technocrats, ending in two decades of economic stagnation, but at least Japan had its flawed democracy to serve as a break and a safety valve, something missing from authoritarian regimes.