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How China Broke the Asian Model

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Chinese leaders claim to have discovered a new path to economic growth is questionable. The first steps in China’s post-Mao economic reform followed a formula recognizable to anyone familiar with East Asia’s previous economic miracles.

Many of the first factories in southern China were established by overseas Chinese investors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere. They were carrying a model that had worked in those countries in a new, low-cost environment. The fact that China has continued to grow at double-digit rates for decades is remarkable.

China was never going to be an ally of the United States. But, until recently, he was very careful to avoid openly challenging American power in the Pacific region.

But it is not without precedent. Japan achieved a similar feat for many years after World War II. South Korea was poorer than parts of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s, but today it is a wealthy country.

But while the Chinese model economy is derivative, the politics are new. Unlike Taiwan or South Korea, which moved from one-party states to democracies as they got richer, China under Xi strengthened the dominance of the Communist Party.

When Chinese commentators talk about offering a new model to the developing world, they also have a political proposition in mind. Why not adopt the order of Chinese-style authoritarianism rather than the chaos of Western-style democracy?

China has also questioned the geopolitical environment that has served as the backdrop for Asia’s rise. The original Asian tigers were all American allies. In the context of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States saw the benefits of opening its market to exports from its East Asian allies.

Washington was also willing to tolerate their protectionist policies longer than it could otherwise.

The emergence of Asian economic competitors has never been an easy proposition for Americans. There was panic about the rise of Japan in the 1980s. But the backlash was manageable because Japan was an ally and another democracy.

China was never going to be an ally of the United States. But, until recently, he was very careful to avoid openly challenging American power in the Pacific region. That changed under Xi, as China built military bases in the South China Sea.

As an authoritarian country, increasingly open to its ambition to challenge the military, political and economic might of the United States, China belatedly provoked a backlash in Washington. The Trump administration has largely focused on the national trade deficit with China.

Under Joe Biden, however, the backlash became more explicitly ideological. The new president frequently says that the United States and China are locked in an ideological and political struggle to provide the model for democracy or authoritarianism in the 21st century.

The Chinese government has reason to hope that the United States left it too late to rethink its support for the Asian growth model that facilitated China’s rise. China is already the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. The country now has a huge domestic consumer economy, which offers an alternative source of growth to the export markets that were so essential in the early decades of China’s rise.

China has also just become the world’s largest recipient of new foreign direct investment. Chinese companies are expanding all over the world. The US and Chinese economies are so deeply intertwined that true decoupling would be extremely difficult, if not unpopular with many companies on both sides.

Despite this, Xi took a great risk by openly defying American power. During the first decades of China’s rise, the consensus in Washington was that China too would liberalize politically as it grew richer. The United States has therefore taken an encouraging and permissive stance towards China’s rise, similar to its approach towards other East Asian tiger economies.

In the case of China, the US authorization has now been withdrawn. The United States is restricting China’s access to certain advanced technologies and is organizing its allies to push back Beijing.

In this new geopolitical environment, Xi really needs to find a new Chinese model separate from the East Asian model if China’s rise is to continue unabated.

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