Twofish's Blog

July 29, 2007

Minxin Pei’s Reflex

Filed under: china — twofish @ 5:05 pm

Minxin Pei has written the same article over and over again over the last 15 years.

1) Problem X is due to China’s bad Leninist party-state (i.e. BAD) government structure

2) To solve problem X,  China has to move to a perfect *GOOD* government.

3) Without solving problem X, China is doomed.

There are problems with this reflex

1) Something that Minxin Pei never seems to reflect on is that problem X eventually appears to get solved without dismantling the Chinese state.  Problem X in the past has been economic growth, the bad banks, rural land-sales.  Pei seems to think that the problem with bad food is *unsolvable* within the current Chinese system, but he has said that about all sorts of other problems, that turn out to be solvable.

2) The other thing that is missing is that Pei seems to lack details.  All you have to do is to snap your fingers, China becomes democratic, and the problems are solved.  There isn’t any thought about the real trade offs and difficulties involved.

3) Everything is black and white.  Either the press is free or it isn’t.  There isn’t any notion that you have intermediate states between total freedom and total repression, and hence no notion of how much you have to loosen up the system.

4) Finally, what happens if you *can’t* change everything overnight?  Pei seems to think if we can’t institute democracy in China tomorrow, we are doomed and we should just give up.  Everything we can do that doesn’t involve overthrowing the government and changing everything is a half-measure, which isn’t worth trying.

Personally, I tend to distrust people with magic formulas to solve all the problems of the world.  The trouble with people who believe in magic formulas is that they tend to be comparing cars which run on diesel with those that run on magic.  When I hear Pei talk, it’s like hearing someone say that the solution to fixing a car is to wait for the magic car to come around the corner, and not to worry about trying to fix things under the current system.

What I think will happen is that the Communist Party will solve the problem with food safety.  Food safety is the type of thing that is easy to do within a bureaucracy.  But no problem, I’m sure that two years from now, there will be a new problem (water pollution, old age pensions) and Pei will take whatever that problem is, and write another essay which looks exactly the same as the essay he has written for the last 15 years.



  1. Pei writes for the neo-con, right-wing audience in the US, can’t expect him to be objective when he is peddling directly or indirectly the agendas of his employers.

    Comment by T — August 17, 2007 @ 9:31 am

  2. Exactly.

    Comment by China Law Blog — August 18, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

  3. Actually I could care less who he writes for and what is motives are. He isn’t objective. Neither am I. He has his political axes. So do I.

    My complaint about Minxin Pei is not that he is insufficiently objective, but that he is insufficiently reflective. His predictions over the last ten years have been wrong, and he doesn’t seem to have any self-reflection to try to explain to himself why he was wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with being wrong. But when reality turns out to be different than what you expect (i.e. the CCP hasn’t collapsed), one should go back and try to figure out *why* that happened.

    Also, eventually Pei will be proven correct. No human institution lasts forever, and eventually the CCP will collapse. Eventually the sun will burn out. The “CCP will collapse eventually” is a vaucously true prediction. The “CCP will collapse next year” is a non-trivial prediction that is falsifible.

    The fact that Minxin Pei writes for right-wing neo-cons doesn’t inherently discredit him. Maybe right-wing neo-conservatives will be proven correct in the end. Stranger things have happened.
    As of 2002, it wasn’t obvious that right-wing neo-conservatives were objectively wrong about things. It is now, Iraq is a mess, and that has totally discredited the right-wing neo-conservative program, yet I haven’t heard any neo-conservative do what the Chiang Kai-Shek did after he fled to Taiwan or what the CCP did between 1976 and 1978, and that is to come up with some explanation of why they were wrong.

    Comment by twofish — August 26, 2007 @ 1:10 am

  4. “Either the press is free or it isn’t.”

    Well, but that’s the point: either people can be put to jail for speaking their mind or not. Either government can censor the press or not. That’s what is meant by “free press” in the free world and diffusing the meaning of words does not help.

    Twofish, I think you have the same problem that China has: you know what should be done (free the press) but are afraid to say it, because it means an enormous change in all aspects of China. But the longer you wait, the bigger the problem will be.

    Comment by katastrofa — September 13, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  5. Curiously that’s the main thing that I disagree with. There are many different levels of press censorship between North Korea and the United States, and saying that either the press is free or it isn’t, I think is not a useful way of looking at things.

    In my opinion, the main benefit of press freedom and democracy is that you allow different people with different ideas to interact with each other and that tends to result in better decisions. However for this to work, you don’t need an “it is or it isn’t” classification. For example, public discussion of different ideas on monetary policy and the different ideas for the reform of state owned enterprises in China is something that isn’t restricted. It would be in North Korea. This is important because in China there is enough press freedom that the government simply cannot ignore major social issues.

    Also it is or it isn’t thinking also ignores all of the social and non-governmental restrictions that keep people from participating in public discussions. These are often much more important than government censorship particularly when there isn’t much government censorship.

    Finally, “it is or it isn’t thinking” leads the the idea that we have to have this dramatic revolution to change things, and I think a dramatic revolution would be very bad for China. What I favor is gently pressing the limits, so that 2008 has fewer restrictions than 2007, and 2009 has fewer restrictions than 2008. Eventually in 2050, I hope someone might turn around and say “wow, China really does have a very liberal press environment” but be unable to point to the exact year that the Chinese press became “free” because there is no such year.

    For most people either inside of China or outside, people are not willing to talk less out of fear of government repression, but because they worry about public humiliation or what their friends or employers say. One thing that I found is that writing corporate memos gives you a lot of practice in saying what needs to be said without getting into trouble. If you have a view of the press that says “either you have government censorship or you don’t” and “restrictions on what you say that don’t come from the government are OK” you miss these things that prevent the formation of an active civil society.

    One of the ironies that I found is that people who are “democracy activists” often have an enormous difficulty coming to grips with the idea that people actually disagree each other and those disagreements are legitimate. I just don’t agree with the “you have government censorship or you don’t” model of press freedom.

    Comment by twofish — September 14, 2007 @ 6:00 am

  6. To some of the replies: if you’re suggesting Minxin Pei is a right-wing neocon, he isn’t.

    Comment by thekillerangel — February 15, 2008 @ 2:43 am

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