China: The Generals Dodge a Bullet

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August 20, 2007: The growing scandal over tainted food and toys, mostly for export, have revealed to the the world what most Chinese have long known. The government is unable to regulate production standards. Thus China is where the U.S. was a century ago, in terms of unscrupulous manufacturers selling shoddy goods to unsuspecting consumers. It's all made worse by very active government efforts to suppress news of the problem. A classic example of this occurred last week, when the collapse of a bridge under construction killed fifty people, and the government tried to keep it out of the news. Police physically attacked journalists, and drove them from the scene. But the news got out anyway, with cell phone pictures and text messages quickly circulating. One thing the government will publicize is the arrest and prosecution of those who use the web or cell phones to spread the news, in violation of government bans.

Many Chinese officials believe that the manufacturing quality and news suppression stories are distorted in the West. To Chinese bureaucrats, quality control issues are to be expected in such a rapidly expanding economy. The corrupt officials who allow much of the bad production to go on are another expected, progress related, problem. Give us time, and we'll make it all well. The government officials are less willing to talk about news management. Privately, they see it as necessary to "preserve order." But publicly, it's embarrassing to admit that the Chinese people cannot be trusted with the truth. But it's the government that can't be trusted with the truth, and a growing number of Chinese are demanding fewer excuses and more accountability from the government. That is slow in coming, with too many officials more interested in their illegal income, than in promoting justice for all.

The military is part of all this. Corruption, low standards and attempts to suppress bad news are part of military life as well. Problems with equipment effectiveness and troops training are considered state secrets. Warplane crashes and low equipment readiness rates are closely guarded information. But the Internet and cell phones let bits and pieces get out, and reveal that corruption and poor leadership are as common, if not more so, in the military as in the rest of the government. While economic self-interest puts pressure on the government to improve quality control in export industries (and domestic ones as well), there is no similar incentive to clean up the armed forces.

The quality control scandals may not make much of a dent in the growth of Chinese exports, which are running at the rate of nearly a trillion dollars a year. Currently, China is the number three exporter, behind Germany and the United States. If Chinese export growth continues at its current rate, China will become the largest exporting nation in the world within the next two years. This makes China more vulnerable to a naval blockade, but also provides cash for modernizing its armed forces, and spending the huge sums needed to train them to a high degree of competence.

 

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