China All Things to All Pundits: Mostly a Rhetorical Trope and Fairy-Tale Boogeyman

"They wouldn't do that in China"



New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may be the most prominent pundit to whine publicly about why the United States government (technically a Constitutional republic) isn't operated more like the Chinese government (technically a totalitarian Communist state), because he talked to a taxi driver or something, but Friedman isn't the only one. Using China, one of the world's most populous countries and now the second largest economy in the world after the U.S., to make domestic political points is an American tradition. For example, if Chinese officials are reading Hayek to understand why their governments can be so inefficient, maybe American ones should too.

On The Washington Post op-ed page, James Palmer, who lives in Beijing, explains this phenomenon:

The people telling these tales aren't interested in complexities or, really, in China. They're making domestic arguments and expressing parochial fears. Their China isn't a real place but a rhetorical trope, less a genuine rival than a fairy-tale bogeyman…

And because China is so vast, its successes can be attributed to whatever your pet cause is. Do you oppose free markets and privatization, like John Ross, former economic policy adviser for the city of London? Then China's success is because of the role of the state. Do you favor free markets, like the libertarian Cato Institute? Then China's success is because of its opening up. Are you an environmentalist? China is working on huge green-energy projects. Are you an energy lobbyist? China's building gigantic pipeline projects. Are you an enthusiast for the Protestant work ethic, like historian Niall Ferguson, who describes it as one of his "killer apps" for civilizations? Then credit China's manufacturing boom to its 40 million Protestants — even though they're less than 5 percent of its 1.3 billion people.

With a massively changing country, correlation and causation are easily confused. China's boom years in the 2000s, for instance, correspond nicely with an explosion in the number of pet dogs; perhaps some canine enthusiast is even now explaining how this is evidence that Bo, not Barack, should be making policy.

That gives me an idea. Read the whole column here.