Bryan Caplan  

A Chat With Falun Gong

Health Care Waste, Continued... Does the Academy need a Reform...

Yesterday I had an interesting chat with an earnest young man who belongs to the Falun Gong movement. As best as I can tell, Falun Gong is the most serious of the opponents of Communist rule in China. Whenever I meet people from China who passionately want change now, it rarely takes more than a couple minutes before they start telling me about how Falun Gong changed their lives.

As best as I can tell, Falun Gong started as a quasi-religious alternative medicine movement. They believe in the curative powers of meditation. During our chat, the Falun Gong member told me eagerly about how its special brand of meditation saved his mother's life. I know, it's got to be a placebo effect, but as Robin Hanson has told me, placebos are grossly under-used. If sugar pills or meditation make people feel better without dangerous side effects, why not embrace them?

The main problem Falun Gong seems to have run into is that it became very popular in China very quickly. This forced the Communist government to make a choice: Either tolerate a popular movement outside its control or crack down. They opted for the latter. It's tempting to see this as paranoia on the part of the government, but the Soviet bloc's collapse does suggest that dictatorship is fragile.

Before persecution began, Falun Gong does not seem to have been very political. But now they are staunch anti-communists, as their literature makes clear, and are working hard to expose the dark history of the Chinese Communist Party.

My visitor from Falun Gong is rather sure that Communism's days are numbered. He has quite a few arguments, but unfortunately none of them convince me:

1. Economic growth in China is an illusion. Either it's only in the cities, and the country is actually getting poorer, or it's based on one-time asset sales, or the products being sold are so adulterated that Chinese prosperity is an illusion.

I am very open to the possibility that China's economic statistics are exaggerated. Communist regimes have cooked the books before. But the idea that China does not have pretty high growth simply isn't credible. Unlike Stalin's Russia, foreigners can go to China and look around. A KGB-guided tour can show visitors a Potemkin village, but if visitors are free to wander off the beaten track, it's another matter.

2. China will quickly suffer from environmental disaster.
Again, I believe that China's pollution problem is getting worse. But the standard pattern is that industrialization aggravates some environmental problems at first, then mitigates them as income rises. I don't see any reason why China won't fit this pattern, even if it remains a dictatorship.
3. China will experience a Falun Gong-inspired spiritual revival. People will leave the Communist Party and the system will fall under its own weight.

In a sense, I think that China has already experienced a spiritual revolution. The collapse of Maoism in large part reflects revulsion against the Cultural Revolution and totalitarianism. But while the man from Falun Gong told me that massive defections from the CCP are already underway, I'm skeptical. Lately the Party has been recruiting businessmen, a sign that the leadership is more than willing to trade off ideology for longevity. Even if the membership of the Party does shrink substantially, I don't see why that would preclude 50 more years of dictatorship.

I wish I were wrong. It would be wonderful to see the picture of Mao in Tianamen Square come down today. But in reality I think the end of Communism in China is going to come about gradually, the joint result of economic growth, globalization, and the moral suasion of groups like Falun Gong.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
another bob writes:

So, Bryan, what would you consider a sign of non-gradualist change?

How about a plebiscite for all government posts?

How about a second political party with significant popular support running in the plebiscite?

How about constitutional changes that separate the Communist Party from government elected positions?

Do these changes seem to outsiders to happen suddenly in the context of an authoritarian society because they can't happen gradually? Do the authorities kill, torture and imprison the "early adopters" of these ideas? But, as the authoritarian structure allows some gradual improvement in living conditions, does the "early majority" suddenly overwhelm the authority structure.

Would Russia not be a good comparison because there was no "early majority" within Russia that forced sudden events; collapse of the Berlin Wall, fragmentation of the Soviet empire. One could argue that Russia is as authoritarian a regime as ever.

What might be a better comparison? Ukraine? Czechoslovakia?

Rather than comparing previous political shifts, might we do better to look at the 'marketing' of government models. I think 'Crossing the Chasm' by G. Moore is an interesting marketing model that might be applied to apparently quantum shifts in government models.

Glen Raphael writes:

Do placebos work? I thought the new consensus (as of a few years ago) was that they really don't, and that most of the results previously attributed to placeblos were the result of natural healing, regression toward the mean and various forms of observer bias.

Um, relevant link here:

David Thomson writes:

"But in reality I think the end of Communism in China is going to come about gradually, the joint result of economic growth, globalization, and the moral suasion of groups like Falun Gong."

I completely agree. China's curent dictators will be in power for a long time. People desire economic security over political freedom. The latter is something of an acquired taste. It will probably take another twenty years before democracy is eagerly embraced.

Giles writes:

Another driving factor for political change could be demographics. Due to the one-child policy, the percentage of workers in the Chinese population is going to drop to developed-nation levels (or lower?) relatively soon. It might be hard to continue the current level of economic growth under such circumstances. Also, perhaps a rapidly-aging population would have different political prefererences...?

Ann writes:

It's possible that China will gradually evolve into a reasonable system, but there's also a good chance of total collapse. Their high growth has been due largely to the fact that they first pounded the economy down to such a low base, and then they finally stopped doing some of the things that were destroying so much wealth. But they have refused to take on some of the really difficult reforms, such as forcing banks to lend based on sound policies.

Their plan for dealing with all the bad loans in the banking system has been to look the other way and hope that they'd eventually grow their way out of the problem. Their plan for State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) has also been to ignore them and grow their way out. If their growth doesn't continue at extremely high levels, these "plans" won't work, and they'll have to fall back to Plan B - attack Taiwan.

From what I've read, the problem with growing their way out of the bad loans in the banking system is that the banking system has never been changed and thus has been busy all this time creating new bad loans. I read one estimate that, of all the consumer loans made by banks, as many as half might be bad, because people (including the lenders) start with the assumption that repayment is optional. You can't grow your way out of a problem that's growing faster than you are.

And, on SOEs, you can tell a person's biases by which numbers they report. Those that want to make the problem seem small point to the fact that SOEs account for a relatively small proportion of Chinese output. The problem is that SOEs still account for a much larger proportion of Chinese inputs - a lot of capital still goes to them, even though there's little return.

The country has come a long way, but they've consistently refused to make some basic changes. One key change is to apply the law even to Communist Party members - law has been a tool through which the Party controls everyone. It has never applied to the Party.

The Chinese Communist Party won't fade away peacefully. The question is whether the economy can continue to grow and develop without any significant political liberalization. If they pull off a combination of economic freedom and political repression, then stable growth and long term Party rule might work.

Otherwise, things will get nasty for the entire region. If Party members have to attack Taiwan or even, say, the Philippines or Japan (using disputes over the Spratley or Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands) to stay in power, they will. They'd like both wealth and power, but there's little doubt which way they'll go if they feel forced to choose.

Thaddeus McMonster writes:

First of all, if China attacks anyone, it will most probably be North Korea, as well, there simply isn't going to be an international outcry against it.

If China attacks Taiwan, they may well start world war III, or at the very least, cause the US erect massive barriers to trade, thus killing the Chinese economy.

Ann writes:

Interesting idea, attacking North Korea. It should be easy militarily (except for the nuclear problem, of course). But the reason for attacking someone would be to unite the country and distract everyone from economic problems. They would have to find a way to sell it, and so far, they haven't been preparing the people for it. North Korea is described as their good friend, and they talk about how they hope to see all of Korea reunited under Kim Jong Il. With Taiwan, on the other hand, they've worked hard to convince their people that it is part of China (shaky as the actual claim to the island is), and that it would be wrong to allow it to break away.

The CCP has done more preparation for taking the Spratleys or Diaoyutai, but you're right that even attacking the Philippines would draw unwelcome attention. If they can find a way to convince local Chinese that their good friend North Korea has tried to take their territory, that might work.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Placebo may not be the definition of the exercise regime of the Falun Gong; a daily commitment to it increases circulatory health, conditions the body, and exercise design reduces the development of arthritis.

The environmental damage of Chinese development is huge--equivalent to the Soviet regime; remember the disaster scenes from Siberia.

Is the Communist regime weak in China? Yes, Civil unrest is increasing by Incident level(Riots and Demonstrations), and Police and Military are increasngly slow in suppressing these outbreaks. lgl

jaimito writes:

Authoritarian regimes seem to be preferred by Asian nations: Singapur, Taiwan (till lately). It does not seem to obstaculize development. Corruption is China's problem.

Ann writes:

"Authoritarian regimes seem to be preferred by Asian nations" - you mean that authoritarian regimes seem to be preferred by regime leaders. There's no evidence that repressive regimes are preferred by the people.

As for development, the strength of Taiwan's economy is its many small, innovative businesses - credit for those can hardly be claimed by the once-repressive leadership. And Singapore is a democracy, although a nanny-state, and it has been unusual among control-freak governments in placing huge emphasis on meritocracy.

China's problem is not just the corruption that results from its often-incompetent rulers, it's also the institutionalized corruption inherent in the communist system. Party members don't have to ask for as much in the way of ongoing bribes in a communist system, since they've already taken almost everything when the system was implemented, but it's still corruption.

Ann writes:

Rereading the original posting, a phrase caught my eye - the "collapse of Maoism". When did this happen? Yes, the Chinese Communist Party is flirting at the edges with economic liberalization, but only because they want to get rich and don't think they'll have to give up political power or control. What evidence is there of a collapse of Maoism?

This is a culture that prides itself on not having changed in hundreds and hundreds of years, yet everyone is quick to spot a fundamental, permanent shift in every little ripple. How has the regime in power fundamentally changed? In what way have they repudiated Mao? They admit that he made a mistake with the Great Leap - not because of all the dead people, but because of the economic cost - but that's considered minor compared to the accomplishment of "uniting China" and putting the Party in power.

What evidence of basic, fundamental change is there? Surely it's not just Deng's "to get rich is glorious"?

Scott Peterson writes:

I think that a good analogy for China now is the transformation that took place in Japan between 1860 and now. The essence of it is that the country transformed from a dictatorship to an oligarchy to a quasi-democratic one-party state. In Japan, the ticket to entry to the ruling class is not heredity but success in the academic system. Japan managed to successfully transform itself from an agrarian state to an industrial superpower while maintaining control over the populace through the centrally controlled school and business systems. If Japan had not foolishly overextended itself by attacking the US while at the same time trying to subdue China and all of Southeast Asia, it would probably now be a military power at least on par with Britain or France.

Ann writes:

I've always thought that Japan made a good contrast to China. Both were confronted with Western technological superiority at the same time, in the mid-19th century. China's reponse was "we're the greatest people on the planet, and we didn't invent any of this, therefore it can't be any good". Japan's response was "we're the greatest people on the planet, yet somehow these barbarians came up with some pretty good stuff. As the greatest people on the planet, we'd better get some of these cannons and things" (OK, these aren't direct quotes).

So China ignored Western inventions and went to war (the Opium Wars) to stop its people from being allowed to buy clocks, good cooking pots and safety matches. Japan got busy modernizing and thus was able to defeat China by the end of the 19th century (1896?), which is how it got the island of Taiwan.

If China reacted the same way Japan reacts, it wouldn't be able to grow so quickly today, because it wouldn't be so very far behind. Japan is unusually willing to confront reality, while Chinese leaders prefer to distort reality to suit their own convenience.

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