Update: On Twitter it came to my attention that some think that this post is about growth Actually, my point is that the Communist period, and Mao’s period of domination, with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, probably are huge decrements to utility over the 20th century which the Chinese are now just compensating for. I think a KMT China, even if it unified less quickly and thoroughly than China, would probably have resulted in a far more prosperous China far earlier than in our “timeline.” Perhaps not as prosperous as South Korea, and definitely not Japan, but still quite prosperous over the past three generations in comparison to Communist China when state socialism was the dominant motor of the economy. Ergo, look not at the growth itself as opposed to the “area under the curve” from 1950 on.
Organized international Communism was responsible for on the order of tens of millions of deaths in a direct and concerted fashion, conservatively estimated. It also resulted in decades of repression for those who lived under it, but did not die under it. It fell with the Soviet Union, and today post-Communist (e.g., Russia) and quasi-Communist (e.g., China) nations are trying to move on beyond what was by and large a failed experiment in social engineering, with the failure resulting in massive levels of mortality and reduced life satisfaction on the part of those who lived under Communist regimes.
But can we move on? I have noted before that over the past generation in the aggregate Chinese economic development has resulted in the greatest reduction in poverty in the history of the world. With the economic crisis which is starting to afflict China, in all likelihood a deceleration from the very rapid growth phase induced by increased labor and capital inputs is upon us, and people are wondering about the long term trajectory of the nation. The problem is that China may grow old before it grows rich. The Chinese total labor force already peaked a few years ago. Over the next few decades its dependency ratio will shift in a direction similar to Japan’s. I am hopeful that the Chinese can meet their demographic challenges, and there are those who are optimistic. But we really don’t know.
And yet it has been brought to my attention that one could argue the Communist period in China is the cause of our current predicament. Compare the wealth trajectories of South Korea and Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. It may be that for various reasons (e.g., Japanese investments in Korea and Taiwan, as well as differences between China’s Han population and the Fujianese preponderant in Taiwan) China under a non-communist regime would never have been as wealthy as South Korea or Taiwan are today. But does anyone doubt that China would be wealthier far earlier without the convulsions of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and grinding poverty of the 1970s? A billion people experienced deprivation due to the miscalculations of elite intellectuals in the mid-20th century, when Communism fused with nationalism was on the march. That’s behind us. But the late economic start for China is something we continue to live with today. We might have avoided this problem of China growing old before it grows rich, if it had a 30 year head start toward entrance into the modern economy. The world might have been a very different place…. (in fact, a best case scenario is that a dynamic China would have prodded India’s Permit Raj to liberalize earlier than the 1990s).