Thursday, July 06, 2006

Simplistic nonsense the BBC way

Not content to take on one huge, complex country at a time, the BBC news people are currently doing a comparative study of India AND China. When I say 'comparative study', I mean that in the television sense of the phrase. That means virtually no data except cherry-picked anecdotage from those two countries media, plus similarly scanty personal observations of BBC correspondents from those two countries.

The main thrust of the BBC's program is that China and India are the superpowers of the future, and that about Thursday week they will (hallelujah!) overtake the US as the premier power on the earth. The question that seems to exercise the BBC minds most is, which one will overtake the US first?

That seems mildly presumptuous. First of all, how on earth did teensy weensy Britain, with it piddling little population, become a superpower in the 18th and 19th centuries? Why has Nigeria, with 100m people never been able to exert influence beyond say, Mali? Perhaps (it is my humble suggestion) huge population is not an automatic guaruntee of economic success nor military dominance. India has had a huge population since virtually the end of the last ice age. And yet its economy was smaller than California's until recently.

Becoming a superpower is just not a straightforward thing. Many planks are necessary to support a great nations ambitions. At the top of the list is good governance: a constitution (whether written or not) which is flexible, effective and able to withstand pressure; a high level of public spirit at all levels of society; effective law enforcement; justice dispensed impartially; a strong conception of private property and the means to enforce it; a willingness in the populace to participate in military efforts, even when they are long and brutal.

Without good governance, a society with pure economic muscle quickly flies of the rails into social disorder, unrest, violence and class warfare. The Soviet Union is a good recent case. Virtually none of elements of good governance existed in the USSR and the millions of Russians and other nations who were expected to do all the heavy lifting gradually lost interest in sustaining the system which gave nothing back.

China is going through exactly the same process right now. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people (I heard the estimate of 300 million) have lost most or all that they had in the industrial transformation that has occured in their country. The older folk may just go off to a deserted place somewhere and die, but the younger ones will fight. Not just that, but many of those who have gained during the same period are at risk of losing their new-found property because there is no institution in China capable of defending their property rights. The friction caused by this will be tremendous. I make the prediction now that if China survives the environmental hell it has created for itself, it will only be a temporary reprieve. In the next 15 years there will be catastrophic social unrest in China, perhaps beyond a scale we can imagine.

India is much better of in respect of governance. It is a functioning democracy, and has a functioning court system capable of enforcing property rights. It also has public education and government programs to enable the poorest people. What it doesn't have is infrastructure to leverage the huge manpower theoretically available, and the general wealth of the Indian population is small. Rich economies have large numbers of rich people- that is the most reliable evidence of their success. At the moment, India has a tiny proportion of beneficiaries of the new industry. Will it grow? Only time will tell. So my prediction for India is much more positive- I predict that in 10 years India will have developed into a middling economic power in a completely sustainable way. I also predict that it will not want to develop huge military power. Its immediate neighbors are either huge (China) or much smaller (Pakistan, Bangladesh). China has no motivation to invade India. Pakistan has motivation, but will never have the means. Bangladesh has neither. So I predict India will become a regional power, stable and responsible and politically mature. That makes it much more likely to be an ally of the US rather than a competitor.

Its interesting that the last time I heard someone cheerleading China as the future replacement of the US as world hegemon, it was Robert Mugabe. BBC journalists and Robert Mugabe singing from the same hymn book. Interesting.

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