Why Nations Fail
From The American Conservative; By Ron Unz | April 18, 2012; Original Article.
Transforming a country in little more than a single generation from a land of nearly a billion peasants to one of nearly a billion city-dwellers is no easy task, and such a breakneck pace of industrial and economic development inevitably leads to substantial social costs. Chinese urban pollution is among the worst in the world, and traffic is rapidly heading toward that same point.
China now contains the second largest number of billionaires after America, together with more than a million dollar-millionaires, and although many of these individuals came by their fortunes honestly, many others did not. Official corruption is a leading source of popular resentment against the various levels of Chinese government, ranging from local village councils to the highest officials in Beijing.
But we must maintain a proper sense of proportion. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles when it still had the most notorious smog in America, I recognize that such trends can be reversed with time and money, and indeed the Chinese government has expressed intense interest in the emerging technology of non-polluting electric cars. Rapidly growing national wealth can be deployed to solve many problems.
Similarly, plutocrats who grow rich through friends in high places or even outright corruption are easier to tolerate when a rising tide is rapidly lifting all boats. Ordinary Chinese workers have increased their real income by well over 1,000 percent in recent decades, while the corresponding figure for most American workers has been close to zero.
If typical American wages were doubling every decade, there would be far less anger in our own society directed against the "One Percent."
Indeed, under the standard GINI index used to measure wealth inequality, China’s score is not particularly high, being roughly the same as that of the United States, though certainly indicating greater inequality than most of the social democracies of Western Europe.
Many American pundits and politicians still focus their attention on the tragic Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, during which hundreds of determined Chinese protesters were massacred by government troops. But although that event loomed very large at the time, in hindsight it generated merely a blip in the upward trajectory of China’s development and today seems virtually forgotten among ordinary Chinese, whose real incomes have increased several-fold in the quarter century since then.
Much of the Tiananmen protest had been driven by popular outrage at government corruption, and certainly there have been additional major scandals in recent years, often heavily splashed across the pages of America’s leading newspapers. But a closer examination paints a more nuanced picture, especially when contrasted with America’s own situation.
For example, over the last few years one of the most ambitious Chinese projects has been a plan to create the world’s largest and most advanced network of high-speed rail transport, an effort that absorbed a remarkable $200 billion of government investment. The result was the construction of over 6,000 miles of track, a total probably now greater than that of all the world’s other nations combined.
Unfortunately, this project also involved considerable corruption, as was widely reported in the world media, which estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars had been misappropriated through bribery and graft. This scandal eventually led to the arrest or removal of numerous government officials, notably including China’s powerful Railways Minister.
Obviously such serious corruption would seem horrifying in a country with the pristine standards of a Sweden or a Norway. But based on the published accounts, it appears that the funds diverted amounted to perhaps as little as 0.2 percent of the total, with the remaining 99.8 percent generally spent as intended.
So serious corruption notwithstanding, the project succeeded and China does indeed now possess the world’s largest and most advanced network of high-speed rail, constructed almost entirely in the last five or six years.
Meanwhile, America has no high-speed rail whatsoever, despite decades of debate and vast amounts of time and money spent on lobbying, hearings, political campaigns, planning efforts, and environmental-impact reports. China’s high-speed rail system may be far from perfect, but it actually exists, while America’s does not.
Annual Chinese ridership now totals over 25 million trips per year, and although an occasional disaster - such as the 2011 crash in Weizhou, which killed 40 passengers - is tragic, it is hardly unexpected. After all, America’s aging low-speed trains are not exempt from similar calamities, as we saw in the 2008 Chatsworth crash that killed 25 in California.
For many years Western journalists regularly reported that the dismantling of China’s old Maoist system of government-guaranteed healthcare had led to serious social stresses, forcing ordinary workers to save an unreasonable fraction of their salaries to pay for medical treatment if they or their families became ill.
But over the last couple of years, the government has taken major steps to reduce this problem by establishing a national healthcare insurance system whose coverage now extends to 95 percent or so of the total population, a far better ratio than is found in wealthy America and at a tiny fraction of the cost. Once again, competent leaders with access to growing national wealth can effectively solve these sorts of major social problems.
Although Chinese cities have negligible crime and are almost entirely free of the horrible slums found in many rapidly urbanizing Third World countries, housing for ordinary workers is often quite inadequate. But national concerns over rising unemployment due to the global recession gave the government a perfect opportunity late last year to announce a bold plan to construct over 35 million modern new government apartments, which would then be provided to ordinary workers on a subsidized basis.
All of this follows the pattern of Lee Kwan Yew’s mixed-development model, combining state socialism and free enterprise, which raised Singapore’s people from the desperate, abject poverty of 1945 to a standard of living now considerably higher than that of most Europeans or Americans, including a per capita GDP almost $12,000 above that of the United States.
Obviously, implementing such a program for the world’s largest population and on a continental scale is far more challenging than doing so in a tiny city-state with a population of a few million and inherited British colonial institutions, but so far China has done very well in confounding its skeptics.
This is a six-part article:
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