With a US unemployment of 9%, many western observers see China’s 10% GDP growth and find themselves looking to the East with envy. Many are asking, what are we doing wrong and what is China doing right? The answer is complicated. There are and will continue to be comparative advantages for the US and China. At the same time, the differences among resources, demographics, and regime structure seem insufficient to explain why America, which is still more developed and more innovative than China, is worryingly behind in areas such green energy. In comparing this alternative regime to American democracy, understanding China’s ability to efficiently enact policy, one of its most important comparative advantages, is essential to finding ways to facilitate policy implementation in the US. The comparison reveals that possibilities include altering incentives, moderating government, and streamlining decision making processes.
Which of China’s Advantages are not Advantages?
China’s ability to govern without bureaucratic gridlock is the result of centralization of national policies with minimal dissent. With the economic development as its priority, the Chinese government suppresses civil rights such as the freedom to assemble in order to maintain authoritarian rule. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all utilized various degrees of authoritarian rule to advance rapid development from the ‘60s to the ‘80s and each grew monumentally. Korea’s economy quadrupled in size over 20 years.
While authority may be efficient in establishing industries and laying an economic groundwork, Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that transition to democratic order may facilitate innovation. She points out that the US is still making technologically advanced products. The US economy may not be growing as fast, but the democratic approach stimulates innovation. China’s authoritarian approach, combined with the furtive nature of many of the government’s activities, including disregard for intellectual property, creates an environment that fails to produce valuable innovation
China’s growth is also the result of various factors that the US cannot replicate. A major contributor has been China’s large workforce. By some estimates, 300 million people have been pulled out of poverty by China’s development. Jobs have disappeared from American soil as companies have been outsourcing jobs to countries with cheaper labor like China. China has also maintained a more isolationist foreign policy than we have, from which it has benefitted economically. By refusing to intervene in the affairs of other countries, China has gained several trading partners that used to primarily deal with the US. For example, Taiwan, Korea and Japan have worked towards forging economic links despite political disagreements.
America’s Gridlock, China’s Streamline
While some elements of China’s economic success are uniquely Chinese, the US can better leverage its ability to innovate and create jobs by overcoming political gridlock. Levels of party polarization (see graph) are at historic highs. Kamarck pointed out that disagreement in the US “goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton.”
During the Great Depression and World War II, however, disagreement was low. The crises motivated united action, produced formative legislation, and empowered crucial industrialization. Nevertheless, polarization has been rising since the end of the Cold War. This polarization allows politicians to advance their careers by playing off the negative image of Washington and by attacking the opposite party.
This stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese system. In China, the secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party remain in power for at least 10 years. They are given leeway to formulate long-term policies. The government is able to invest with a big-picture view, such as funding the green energy industry, which has a large upfront capital cost, and develop such industries over the course of many years as government stability and commitment is ensured.
How do we Transfer this Mindset to America?
Term limits have been suggested as a solution to reduce incentives for careerism and to increase bipartisanship by removing incentives to stay reelected. Julia Azari, professor at Marquette University, spoke with the HPR and did recognize that term limits would create “useful turnover,” and that they have been imposed on presidents “without the sky falling.” Brookings Institution scholar and author of Demosclerosis, Jonathan Rauch, told the HPR that people would still look to serve constituents because that is what they were elected to do. Removing lobbyists would free up the decision making process by removing the clamoring voices of more actors but is an impractical solution. With fewer actors, the rate of decision will speed up. In Demosclerosis, Rauch describes the influence of lobbyists on the system as “parasitic,” since companies actively fend Washington off. Companies also buy into the Washington lobbyist system, since securing legal benefits that may undercut competitors is a worthwhile investment. Unfortunately, Rauch points out “this is an aspect of the system you can’t change. It’s actually the downside to a positive aspect of our government: its responsiveness to the people.” Lobbying is an inherent part of democracy. Controlling lobbyists involves a tradeoff with democracy. A middle-of-the-road solution may be in order regarding lobbyists.
More realistic solutions to political gridlock in the US include changing incentives for members of Congress. Kamarck pushes reforms to remove candidates representing polarized interests. Primaries would be opened up to all voters, which would mean more centrist candidates would compete for the presidency. She also advocates voting for the Speaker of the House be done by the entire organ.
While solutions are unclear, Azari reminds us that the American people are the “elephant in the room” in terms of problems for America’s democracy. “The people,” she said, “have not made their opinions clear enough.” Legislation attempted under the democratic super-majority received public backlash. The people have not made themselves clear. On one hand, this would suggest a route that forgets the people and follows a more republic-based path. On the other, means of clarifying the public opinion must be pursued.