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The Myth of Chinese Elite Competence

By Taylor Marvin

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan has a great piece absolutely demolishing Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ calls for increasing America’s “national intelligence” through the powers of the internet.

What’s most interesting about Adams’ post isn’t its dripping narcissism – or, as Nolan points out, Adams’ seemingly complete ignorance that Wikipedia exists –  but instead is its gushing adoration of perceived Chinese efficiency. After dismissing American public policy as “a weird stew of religion, politics, and randomness,” Adams remarks:

“China has a political system that seems to produce intelligent decisions. You might criticize China’s leadership for being heartless and brutal, but that’s a separate discussion. If you consider how effectively they pursue their country’s interests, their national intelligence seems quite high.”

There’s a common meme in the West that China’s government, unbound by democratic consensus requirements, is inherently more efficient than its democratic peers. Fortunately for the United States, and democratic governance overall, there doesn’t seem to be much support for this argument outside of highly visible PRC public works projects.

It’s difficult to assess the Chinese Communist Party’s record “effectively [pursuing] their country’s interestes,” because the interests of the Chinese elite don’t necessarily coincide with the country’s, and it’s unclear exactly what the Chinese leadership’s goals actually are. However, we can say that domestically the PRC leadership seeks to preserve the Communist Party’s dominance in Chinese society, ensure continued economic growth, and prevent social unrest. Internationally China seeks to protect its access to international markets, extend its exclusive economic zone to encompass the entire South China Sea, and eventually replace the United States as the hegemonic power in the Western Pacific. Contrary to the perception of the Chinese government as an unusually intelligent decisionmaking body, on all of these fronts China’s actual record is mixed.

The meme of Chinese efficiency is based in the idea that authoritarian governments are more efficient than democracies, with the dominant example being China’s massive public works projects. Here the perception is largely true: NIMBYism and environmental impact reports are less likely to slow down projects in societies with little property rights. But conflating rapid construction with “intelligence” is problematic. China’s high-profile public works successes have come at less visible costs, like the displacement of millions of people, shoddy construction, and poor planning. The Chinese leadership’s ability to plan in the long term is also questionable. While China’s reluctance to slow industrialization is understandable, China’s massive pollution problem and inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have severe consequences for future growth — an extreme discount rate that seems incompatible with any definition of high “national intelligence.”

On the international stage this record isn’t much better. In the last decade China’s foreign policy has encouraged Japanese rearmament, begun to replace Pakistan as India’s great strategic adversary, and encouraged stronger ties between the US and regional rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines. On occasion Chinese foreign policy appears to be dictated by the People’s Liberation Army leadership, not the civilian foreign ministry. In nearly every recent international incident China has favored stoking public nationalistic fervor for immediate domestic gains over long-term geostrategy. Despite its secure hold on Tibet, China greets any accolade granted to the exiled Dali Lama with embarrassing tantrums beneath a great power. These are not the actions of a secure foreign policy elite.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid any existential challenges since its ascendence. However, this security is more due to the last three decades’ phenomenal economic growth rather than a propensity towards selecting highly skilled political leaders. A common corollary to the meme of Chinese competence is the argument that governments dominated by engineers — China — are inherently more efficient than those dominated by lawyers — America. This isn’t to say that political leaders’ aptitude isn’t related to their training prior careers; suggesting a relationship is reasonable, though prohibitively difficult to empirically test. But the idea that China’s engineer dominated political elite is inherently more efficient and far-seeing than other governments is ludicrous. Reaching consensus in a 25 member Politburo will always be easier than satisfying the de facto supermajority requirement in the US Congress, regardless of politicians’ backgrounds. When focused on China the engineer vs. lawyer question is really just an embarrassingly reactionist argument in favor of oligarchy.

While small decision-making bodies are inherently more — in a limited sense — efficient than more diffuse governments, there’s little evidence that the modern Chinese Communist Party is a particularly effective selection method for high office. As People’s Liberation Army Navy analyst Feng recently noted, “the current Chinese leaderships are a group of dull, gutless technocrats who continually get out-maneuvered in the international arena by their American counterpart.” The recent overthrow of Bo Xilai was an embarrassingly public indication of how bitter power struggles within the Communist Party leadership can be; the uncertain succession mechanisms inherent to oligarchic autocracies are an enormous liability largely absent from mature democracies.

Adams appears to understand that cheerleading autocracy is repugnant, and half-heartedly covers himself by denouncing the Chinese Communist Party as “heartless and brutal.” But state brutality isn’t severable from discussions of state efficiency, because government brutality is an enormous long-term drain on growth. As mentioned earlier, China’s autocracy incentizes protecting the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the state. When these coincide — as during the Deng Xaioping-era economic reforms — the country benefits with the state; however, it is in the nature of autocracy for these to diverge. Today the Chinese state has cemented one of the most unequal societies on Earth, and is entirely unwilling to meaningfully address the massive corruption, incompetence, and abuses of the local-level Party — all of which retard economic growth, in addition to their brutal human toll.

Governance is difficult, and the American model certainly suffers from massive structural problems. The Chinese state also deserves commendation for presiding over unprecedented economic development, one of the best improvements in the aggregate human condition in history. But making ludicrously comprehensive arguments about China’s “national intelligence” is just silly.  Aside from the obvious problems with excusing state brutality, this distressingly popular meme doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Adams’ making an embarrassingly obvious “grass is greener” mistake — he’s familiar with problematic American governance but doesn’t know much about China, so Adams assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is better than what he’s accustomed to. America’s decline relative to China is grounded in the fact that there’s four Chinese citizens for every American, rather than a magically intelligent Chinese state.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your criticisms make perfect sense if one starts by not understanding the article being criticized. My favorite part was when you decided to give the term National Intelligence your own nonsensical definition so you could criticize it. Nice touch.

    If you’re trying to prepare for a writing career with one of the bottom feeding sites such as Gawker, Jezebel, Salon, and Huffington Post that manufacture “news” by removing context from the otherwise ordinary, you’re doing a fine job.

    Here’s some more context you missed:

    July 9, 2012
  2. admin #

    @Scott Adams,
    You argued that China’s national intelligence “seems quite high” by virtue of its leadership’s effective pursuit of its national interests, and I used your argument as a springboard to challenge this common perception. Given your assessment of Chinese Communist Party policymaking, I don’t see how this is a “nonsensical” discussion.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Taylor Marvin

    July 9, 2012
  3. admin #

    I love your work on Dilbert, by the way.

    Taylor Marvin

    July 9, 2012
  4. KM #

    @Scott Adams,

    You define national intelligence as, “…how effectively a nation as a whole can make decisions and navigate its position in the world.” Considering China “as a whole” doesn’t make decisions then their national intelligence must be pretty low by your own definition of the term.

    You then argue that the only real hope for furthering national intelligence is by keeping citizens informed through the internet. This is pretty difficult in China, a country with some of the most strident internet regulations in the world.

    The Chinese government may or may not pursue their county’s interests effectively, and as many of the examples above indicate, they may in fact not. They do not however possess great national intelligence according your definition. Adams, forever the comedian…


    July 9, 2012

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