NEW YORK – Is the rest of the world getting China wrong yet again? Maybe the country is not doomed to live out unending top-down rule. What is history, after all, but the realization of the wills of countless unpredictable human beings.
Past mistakes about China are too numerous to mention. When it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, many thought China would liberalize. Since Japan, Taiwan and South Korea had all gone on to become full-fledged democracies after periods of autocracy, the pattern was clear: Once they were fairly wealthy, the growing middle classes demanded a say in their government. At the time, it hardly seemed crazy to believe China might go down a similar path.
That turned out to be wrong. It was also conventional wisdom, circa 2010, that China was due for an economic crack-up. That didn’t happen, either.
China’s history of surprising outsiders goes even further back. Before 1979, it was hardly obvious that China would undertake serious economic reforms and usher in the longest and largest period of economic growth in world history. The Chinese Communist Party — which itself had presided over the deaths of tens of millions in the famines and chaos of the Cultural Revolution, shocking even those most skeptical and pessimistic about its intentions — just did not seem open to liberalization. The party’s very existence was in a sense surprising, as Karl Marx predicted that successful communist revolutions were mostly likely to come in industrial capitalist societies. But in China the party took power in what was largely an agrarian society.
Earlier yet, it was hardly obvious that a country as large as China would lose the Opium Wars so decisively to a relatively small British naval fleet, and end up having to cede Hong Kong. Nor was it widely understood in the 17th century that China was undergoing a new age of stagnation and would be so radically overtaken by the West.
All of which leads me to quote perhaps the wisest single statement ever made about China: “China will always surprise us.”
Or consider Hong Kong. Not long ago it was practically a cliché that Hong Kong was a territory of apathetic, spoiled wealthy people, not very committed to self-rule or democracy. That too has been shown to be false, as 1.7 million people took the risk of participating last weekend in a peaceful anti-government march.
Of course, very few Westerners predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, or for that matter the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and the subsequent rise of Islamic radicalism. So I have become a little skeptical of the latest groupthink about China — namely, that China isn’t going to liberalize again. To be sure, there is plenty of evidence for that view.
But has China suddenly become so predictable? Are events there now no longer contingent on the exercise of human will? Modern China is one of the most unusual and surprising societies humankind has created. There are no good models for it, nor are there data from comparable historical situations.
There is, unfortunately, a tendency for Westerners to impose superficial narratives on China and the Chinese, often based on scant observation. One current example is the cliche of the hardworking Chinese student; the reality is more mixed. Not so long ago the cliché was that China could copy things but not innovate on its own; China is now far ahead of the United States with its retail payment system, and is threatening to become the world leader in quantum computing and parts of the biosciences. And of course there was the hoary cliche in 19th-century America that the Chinese were lazy, shiftless and addicted to opium.
The deeper reality is that China, like all of the world’s major civilizations, is large, complex, and hard to understand. This is not to say that generalizations about China are always wrong — only that, just as past narratives have been wrong, so might be current ones.
For myself, I don’t have a coherent story about how the Chinese might move to greater liberty in the next 10 to 15 years. But I do think the actions of the current regime can be read as signs of vulnerability rather than entrenchment. Taiwan and Hong Kong, despite its current crisis, remain strong examples of the benefits of liberalization. Meanwhile, the notion of the internet — even with censorship — as a liberalizing force has been too quickly dismissed, especially in an America that has fallen out of love with Big Tech.
Which leads to a reality even deeper than China’s unpredictability: people’s continuing capacity to respond to current events and shape their futures for the better. As you listen, watch and read about China, keep in mind this essential human quality.
Tyler Cowen, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.