The Price Of Paramount Power: Xi Jinping’s Ascension Could Make China A Much Riskier Place To Do Business

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[1].  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.

A vendor (R) takes a nap next to posters showing the late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong (C) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) at a market in Beijing on May 15, 2016. Fifty years after the Cultural Revolution spread bloodshed and turmoil across China, the Communist-ruled country is driving firmly down the capitalist road, but Mao Zedong’s legacy remains — like the embalmed leader himself — far from buried. Credit: AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI / Getty Images

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We Need a New Approach to China Even if We don’t Care About Human Rights and Free Trade

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2018

By Ho-fung Hung, Ph.D.

Obama era officials Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner recently published “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations” in Foreign Affairs, arguing US’ assumption underlying its China Policy over the past several decades has been wrong. They admit that China has not changed in the direction most China hands in the US had expected. Rather than becoming more liberal and democratic, it became more authoritarian; rather than more opening to trade, it became more protectionist. They call for a reorientation of Washington’s approach to China. This article has triggered some internal debate and soul searching in the China watchers’ community.

It is understandable that many who expect China to embrace liberal democracy and more economic openness have been disappointed. What is missing in the discussion is that even many realists and corporations who do not care too much about the ideals and principles of economic and political liberalism are frustrated with China too. Over the last few years, another China reckoning is that China is unable, or never intended, to deliver and keep its promises even on many economic and geopolitical issues that are unrelated to the sensitive areas of political reform and change.

Graffiti depicting a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong with Chinese yuan signs in his eyes, on a wall in Shanghai on March 1, 2017. Source: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images.

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China’s Sociopathy, and its Cowardly Watchers

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2018

By Paul Midler
227 pp. Wiley. $25.00

Paul Midler’s What’s Wrong With China doesn’t disappoint. Anecdotes, theories, and historical curiosities fall from its pages in answer to its titular question. Midler’s stories of caution are current, enjoyable, accessible, historically grounded, and witty. But the deeper importance of the book is that Midler, as a sharp and knowledgeable outsider to academic China studies, can criticize, revive, and develop theories in a way that staid academics would never dare. In a field careful about even mentioning sensitive topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, Midler’s latest book is a bulldozer with bumper-stickers to offend almost anyone. Which is why it’s a great read. The field is being shaken up by President Trump’s tweets, President Xi’s disconnect with how his increasingly totalitarian government is perceived abroad, and now by Midler.

Guangdong, China, in 2011. Source: Paul Midler.

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