September 26, 2005


China must wait for democracy (Spengler, 9/27/05, Asia Times)

[C]hina must learn to rule cities that are mushrooming into the largest urban concentrations the world has ever known, populated by poor migrants speaking various dialects. By far the largest popular migration in history is in flow tide between the Chinese countryside and coastal cities. In the mere span of five years between 1996 and 2000, China's urban-rural population ratio rose to 36%-64% from 29%-71%, and the UN Population Division projects that by 2050, the ratio will shift to 67%-33% urban. Chinese cities, the UN forecasts, will contain 800 million people by mid-century. By 2015, the population of cities will reach 220 million, compared to the 1995 level of 134 million.

Well over half a billion souls will migrate from farm to city over the space of half a century. All of them will be quite poor. China claims 80% literacy, but as countryside reads less than the city, it is a fair guess that a third of the migrants will be illiterate, and many of them, again perhaps a third, will not be able to understand a political speech in Mandarin, the largest dialect. No historical precedent exists for a population transfer on this scale, and to conduct it peacefully would be a virtuoso act of statecraft. To require China to adopt a Western parliamentary regime in the process is utopian. [...]

The contrast between China and Iran is instructive. As I observed elsewhere (Demographics and Iran's imperial design, September 13) Iran's demographic trainwreck pushes its government toward monstrous measures at home and adventures abroad. Its new president Ahmadinejad recently proposed to forcibly relocate 30 million rural Iranians, reducing the number of villages to only 10,000 from the present 66,000. China requires no such plan, for its high economic growth rate encourages underemployed peasants to find more productive work in cities. China's problem is to constrain migrants from the countryside, where up to 200 million farmers have little effective employment. Iran already suffers from an 11% unemployment rate. Ahmadinejad will dump the footloose young men of Iran into the army, taking a page from Hitler's book.

As long as China's economic growth continues to produce jobs, guiding the country through this great migration will command the undivided attention of the Chinese government. Except for securing supplies of energy and raw materials, nothing that China might undertake in the sphere of strategic policy will mar or bless this, its principal endeavor. It has no incentive to undertake foreign adventures. With no hope of achieving the required economic growth, by contrast, Iran's leaders hope to seize a regional empire, tempted by the oil riches of neighbors who also have a large Shi'ite Muslim population. [...]

The faith that underlies constitutional politics as it originated in the Anglo-Saxon world stemmed from a religious faith. America did not assign democratic rights to its citizens because it aspired for a more efficient market for public goods, but rather because Americans believed in a God who championed the poor and downtrodden, who could not help but hear the cry of the widowed and fatherless. It is possible that an enlightened but non-religious view of the rights of man, on the French model, might produce the same political result, but no sane person would want to repeat the political experience of France.

I do not propose that the Chinese must become Congregationalists before they can practice democracy. But political faith presumes a deeper sort of faith in the inherent worth of the humblest of one's fellow-citizens.

Odd of Spengler to both recognize the importance of demographics and underestimate it in the same breath. not only is the population transfer he refers to destabilizing but the enormous number of excess males makes it more likely that China will need to go to war than that Iran--which has a normal gender ratio--will. Likewise odd is that he underestimates the similarity of Shi'ism to messianic Judeo-Christianity and therefore the degree to which it can serve as a solid foundation for American-style democracy. The comparison of Iran to China would appear to favor the former quite strongly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2005 6:35 AM

It is more likely that that imbalance of males will create a civil war, than that it will create foreign wars.

Posted by: Brandon at September 26, 2005 12:20 PM

Perhaps instead of sending their superfluous men to war, both China and Iran can better spend their money on vast public works projects. Roads, bridges, etc. to pave (pun intended) the way for the cars that will be needed by all the newly middle class people moving up the economic scale.

Posted by: erp at September 26, 2005 4:37 PM

One often forgets to ask whether Iranian-style Shi'sm (i.e., overtly political) is true Shi'ism, or, as the Ayatollah Sistani apparently claims, heretical.

Gosh, the possibilities for strife are endless.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at September 26, 2005 5:27 PM

Khomeinism is indeed heretical, which is why the Iranians fear a successful Iraq.

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2005 5:36 PM