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Democracy & Technology Blog Old School Kagan

Maybe it’s a generational thing. But the U.S. is going to have to overcome some of its most deeply rooted Cold War notions if we are to develop effective new international strategies for the decades ahead. Robert Kagan’s continuing assertion that Russia and China are menacing “autocracies” is a case in point.
As Ross Douthat, a conservative writer for The Atlantic, notes:

I’ve griped about this before, but he keeps doing it, so once again – Robert Kagan’s column about “the surprising resilience of autocracy in China, Russia, Venezuela and elsewhere” is at least somewhat undercut by the fact that neither Venezuela nor Russia are really autocracies, as the word is actually defined, and China certainly isn’t one.

Kagan’s criteria for an “autocracy” are curious. For example, he writes that

Autocrats create state power over which they can exercise a monopoly, like the security forces.

Are there nations, even liberal democracies, where the government does not exercise monopoly control over its “security forces”? Maybe I misunderstand.
More broadly, China does not fit Kagan’s template for liberal representative democracy. I’ll grant that although there are millions of Chinese blogs and regular Chinese are more than happy to talk frank politics with me even within the walls of the Forbidden City, China surely has a way to go on all sorts of freedoms in the press, assembly, and the rule-of-law. But to call China autocratic in the tradition of Mao or even lesser dictators simply misunderstands the facts on the ground. In China, there are many factions within the government superstructure. Essentially the CCP is composed of a large number of competitive individuals and even “parties” — small p — within THE PARTY. There are liberals, hardliners, coastal westernizers, inland populists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, capitalists, and socialists. What there is very little of any more is broad reverence for Mao and his reign.
The process of how China sorts out its political and policy decisions is still pretty opaque, but one thing’s for sure: it’s very competitive. Beyond the internal political architecture and dynamics of the top leaders, which are still difficult for us to fully grasp, Kagan dramatically underestimates the importance of economic freedom in China. After all, many of our important Western institutions of free speech and the rule-of-law, for instance, were important precisely because they helped protect our economic freedom from overreaching monarchs — or even predatory democratic mobs. Most of our lives are fairly consumed with work — production — because it allows us to provide for our families, take advantage of life’s enjoyments, and maybe even to create something. I do not demean or minimize the importance of free speech, but most of us are not political editorial writers. Economic freedom thus encompasses a huge proportion of what we enjoy as the traditional Western “liberties.”
Kagan says you can’t have the rule-of-law without elections. But China is innovating in a number of unconventional ways. Again, for example, at our Telecosm conference two weeks ago, an impressive panel on intellectual property highlighted the changing nature of IPR in China:
— China was No. 3 last year in worldwide patents behind the U.S. and Japan (by nation).
— Huawei, China’s large telecom equipment company, was No. 3 last year in worldwide patents (by company).
— There were more IPR lawsuits in China last year than the U.S.
— Foreign companies win ~90% of the IPR suits they bring in China.
— China has a very long way to go on low-end counterfeiting, but there has very recently been a “sea change” in China’s attitude toward high-end technology IP.
At other times I have highlighted China’s capitalist innovations in tax and monetary policy.
Kagan is frustrated by China’s deft handling of its transition from Mao’s Communism to the successful capitalism of Deng, Jiang, and Hu. He would rather THE PARTY had collapsed. Whether China would enjoy its current freedoms if the party had collapsed is an interesting question for another day. But Kagan is viewing China and the world from the perspective of 1960, not 2007. For now I’ll happily take the combination of (1) a broad and deep economic liberalization and (2) a slow and steady march toward increasing political openness, competition, cooperation, and law within the current party that is “Communist” in name only.
Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.