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David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog


I'm in China this week, where I talked about my book at a conference at the CEIBS business school in Shanghai and a gathering of the China Association of Microfinance in Beijing.

I took time off for tourism; the highlight was a group hike along an unrestored and relatively unvisited section of the Great Wall (snaking to the right of me in the picture; click for larger image). The scale of the Wall (actually a set of walls built in various ways at various times) boggles the mind. Most of what remains is the Ming Dynasty wall, which runs some 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles). At least where I was, northwest of Beijing, it is a rampart wide enough for four soldiers to walk abreast; it traces an undulating contour along the peaks of steep mountains, and is dotted with watchtowers spaced two arrowshots apart. It is hard to comprehend the effort it took to build. Certainly no European government in the 15th or 16th century could have managed it.

I was fortunate in my choice of day to walk the Wall. The haze, some mix of humidity and pollution, wasn't thick enough to obscure the layers of mountains in all directions. The Beijing region is like that of Los Angeles, home to a growing number of cars, power plants, and factories whose emissions are usually trapped locally by mountains and prevailing winds.

The previous day I had taken the new fast train up from Shanghai. The display at the front of my car showed us going 300 kph (186 mph) most of the way, a speed that makes Chinese rail service the world's fastest. Aside from the deceptively unremarkable way in which 1,000 miles of territory slipped by in 5.5 hours, what struck me most was the scale of construction on display outside the windows. Rarely was I out of sight of a power line crossing our track. The train ran on an elevated causeway rapidly built as part of the government's stimulus response to the global economic slowdown. For the first half hour or so out of Shanghai, high-rise apartment buildings were constantly in view. These were evidently built in clusters of 6, 10, or 20 at a time, the towers in each cluster all the same design. Thousands of these buildings went by, each with upwards of a hundred apartments. I assume most were not there 10--15 years ago; in there place must have been farms and villages. The government would have removed all the old residents, with compensation and without consultation.

On the ride, and throughout the trip, I read Francis Fukuyama's new Origins of Political Order, which contains much insight about China's past and present. It is a remarkable book, modest in tone, sweeping in scope. Fukuyama traces political development from ancient times to the French revolution in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. He shows how slowly political institutions typically evolve, thus how much continuity there is over time. In his analysis, China was the first modern state, and it has had a strong government for most of the last 2,500 years. India, in comparison, has rarely had a strong state in the last 2,500 years; even today, the Indian state struggles to govern.

On the other hand, India, along with the Middle East and Europe, historically had something that China lacked: rule of law, meaning accepted constraints on sovereignty. In India, the Brahmins interpreted religious law---and constructed a social order that put them above all others, including warriors and kings. In China, the emperor's word was supreme. There was no higher authority, moral or religious. Nor were there mechanisms of accountability---ways for nobles or citizens to check the emperor's power. So while China possessed---indeed invented---one characteristic Fukuyama sees as defining the modern liberal government, an effective state apparatus, it lacked the other two, rule of law and accountability.

Accustomed as I am to the speed of China's economic development, it has been striking to realize that the country's political order is in major respects ancient. "Chinese rulers," Fukuyama writes, "are not constrained by either a rule of law or democratic accountability; if they want to build a huge dam, bulldoze neighborhoods to make way for highways or airports, or mount a rapid economic stimulus package, they can do so far more quickly than democratic India." Today the Communist Party is supreme. There is a continuity between the Ming Dynasty's conscription of a million or more people to build thousands of miles of Great Wall and the current government's construction of thousands of miles of elevated high-speed rail in a few years.

And there is historical continuity in the government's lack, indeed zealous suppression, of accountability. Foreign visitors quickly discover that sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wordpress are blocked, while Google, which no longer cooperates with the censors, is slow, unreliable, and patchy. But the government must be torn between controlling the information environment and modernizing, for it has allowed the Twitter-like Weibo service to flourish. Somehow, millions of peoples now use the tiny keyboards on their phones to feed 140 Chinese characters at a time into the service. Of course, you can pack a lot more meaning into Chinese characters, making the updates more fulsome than tweets. Weibo has made it easier for people to communicate openly about sensitive subjects, such as the escape of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest to the U.S. embassy. Users play cat and mouse with Weibo censors, making oblique references to avoid blocked words. News travels fast in a way inconceivable during the Ming Dynasty.

U.S embassy Beijing air pollution monitorIn Beijing I am staying with American friends. The father in the family works at the U.S. embassy here, so their flat is in a building across the alley from the embassy. As I type, I can spy on the roof of the embassy a little device that greatly annoys the government of China. It monitors air quality, especially "PM 2.5" or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, which penetrate deepest into the lungs. The monitor posts hourly to a Twitter feed. At present, the PM 2.5 level is 175 which is rated "very unhealthy" in 24 hour exposures. As I lift my eyes to the horizon (composed of hihg-rises) I see a white pall over the city. The sky is white, not blue. Chinese, of course, cannot access Twitter, but too much information flows across China's Great Firewall for these readings to be blocked out, and so they enter Wiebo and are broadcast across it. "Particularly smoggy days now set off a surge in mentions of 'PM2.5'."

Look deeply into the story of this gizmo and you'll find a centuries-old American political inheritance of rule of law and accountability. The U.S. government states that it installed the monitor to inform its employees about how long it is safe to be outside. Chinese government data on air quality are scarce and unreliable. Meanwhile, a "no double standard" regulation requires that any information the State Department shares with its employees also be shared with the public. The rule was adopted after the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. State had warned its employees of information pointing to an attack, but did not inform the public. Last month, China's vice minister for environmental protection charged the U.S. with violating international law governing diplomatic and consular relations, but declined when asked by a reporter to explain exactly how. The State Department has no plans to stop, and arguably can't. To impose a double standard or stop collecting the data altogether would cut against the rules and accountabilities of the polity in which it operations.

In fact, it is expanding the project to other cities. The Chinese student who accompanied me to the Shanghai train station told me he thought this is one of the best things the American people have done for the Chinese people. How's that for foreign aid? (Good coverage here.)

The fast train I rode was supposed to have gone faster---350 instead of 300 kph. But a fatal collision one year ago revealed widespread technical problems and hints of corruption in assignment of construction contracts (to no one's surprise), and cast the government in a terrible light. Japanese and French high-speed rail have had no fatalities in decades of operation. In China, the damaged cars were hastily buried. Hours after the search for survivors was halted, a two-year-old girl was found alive. Covering the tragedy, the press defied directives from the propaganda ministry. According to Wikipedia:

Qiu Qiming of CCTV program 24-Hours launched into an on-air tirade about Chinese society: "If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that's safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall apart? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind."

I join Qiu Qiming in condemning the Chinese system. The problems he cites are real and serious. Lack of accountability and rule of law (and, Fukuyama would add, patrimonialism, which is when officeholders put the interests of their families ahead of the duties of their office) undermine the Chinese state and harm its subjects. The white haze of Beijing brings daily proof.

Yet I recall Churchill's quip that democracy is merely the least worst form of government. Right after the train wreck, journalist Lloyd Lofthouse pointed out that democratic India's rail system is far more dangerous than China's going by the accident and fatality numbers. Since 2007, America's passenger trains have suffered more accidents than China's, despite a radically smaller passenger volume. And life for hundreds of millions of Chinese is far better than it was a generation ago.

On balance, I'd rather live in America, where we have, among many things, less risk of the bad emperor problem (think Mao). I hope that economic development in China will eventually translate into political development, as Chinese people wrest more accountability over their government. The Great Wall could not save the Ming Dynasty from a terrible emperor: the neglectful reign of Shenzong (1572--1620) sent the dynasty into permanent decline. The fall came in the 1640s when elements of the military rebelled and invited in the very Manchu army the Wall was meant to keep out. In the same way, I think the Great Firewall cannot stop Chinese from forming subversive and ultimately transformative linkages with foreigners. For now, China is an awesome and a scary country.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.