Ways that China is surpassing the US

post by Wei_Dai · 2019-11-04T09:45:53.881Z · LW · GW · 19 comments

This is a link post for https://palladiummag.com/2019/10/11/the-american-dream-is-alive-in-china/

[Edit: Changed the post title from the original article title to something more meaningful.]

I came across this article today, and I have to agree with it strongly based on my own recent trip to China. The update it triggered for me is the realization that China is genuinely doing better than the US on many fronts, most importantly on governance. How/why did that happen? Did anyone or any political theory predict this ahead of time? (In case it's not clear, this is not meant to be a rhetorical question. I'm surprised and confused and am wondering if someone or some theory can offer an explanation.) What does it imply for things like AI governance and global coordination on x-risks?

Below I'll quote two sections that summarize most of the article. Click the link above for the full text.


China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast , in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.

For Americans, this transformation towards competence and prosperity should be the more worrying thing about China. We aren’t well-coordinated with China, and it is starting to surpass the U.S. in important ways. If we ignore this point by focusing only on the moral negatives, of which there are many, we risk underrating the competition until it’s too late, or failing to reflect on the importance of solving our own mounting problems of governance.

More optimistically, we should study Chinese development as a positive example of how to do better on the things that America has been fumbling recently: infrastructure, growth, industrial policy, and positive transformation of everyday life. America has been a shining beacon of this kind of development in the past, and can be again, if we’re willing to look closer at what China does right.

[...]

If I’m being honest, China’s success scares me. There is something deeply disconcerting about watching China surpass America in the ways it is. China is transforming fishing villages into major industrial cities, while we fail to build high-speed rail or new housing. How are we going to catch up?

Is it really as bad as it seems? I understand the instinct to avoid the topic, disbelieve it, and play it down. I’ve even had the instinct to stay quiet about China’s progress myself: I worry that no one will appreciate the reminder. Perhaps this is why we’ve heard so little about this aspect of things.

But if we’re going to build a good society in America, we have to face these things head-on.

In the U.S., we face an ongoing crisis of governance. We need to understand our own failures, and we need to grapple with unexpected demonstrations of success—even if they come from non-liberal societies.

China’s success challenges our implicit ideology and deep-seated assumptions about governance. It needs to be studied—not just to bring about better coordination, but because in its accomplishments, we may find important truths needed to bring about American revitalization.

19 comments

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comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-03-03T00:31:02.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post seems to have aged well (in quite an unfortunate way).

Desire to leave for home growing among overseas Chinese as COVID-19 spreads - I can say from personal experience that this isn't just propaganda.

And from The Coronavirus Is Causing a Global Panic—but That’s a Good Thing:

In the United States, transmission is likely already far, far wider than the ninety publicly confirmed cases on Monday because of U.S. officials’ failure to do sufficient testing. “We haven’t found hundreds or thousands of cases because we’re not looking hard enough,” Lipsitch said. “We don’t have the testing capacity to find out what’s going on. We’ve looked largely at people who had a relation to China or high-risk areas.” That’s too low, he said, by several factors of ten. He called the initial U.S. response “utterly inadequate.” Lipsitch told me that the Chinese government’s response in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, was more thorough than the approach taken so far in the U.S. by the Trump Administration. In Guangdong province, Chinese health officials tested more than three hundred thousand patients in so-called fever clinics, where people who think they have a fever of any origin are seen. In contrast, the U.S. has been testing a handful of isolated cases. “Our government’s response was something like one per cent—or less—than what China did,” Lipsitch said.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-04-22T21:28:27.837Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing I've often heard/read is that authoritarian governments tend to be limited in competence because it's hard for important and accurate information to reach the top. But in the case of COVID-19, accurate information seems to have reached the top of the Chinese government faster than the US government. Why is that? We know something about what happened in the US, but how did the Chinese government do so well in the regard (at least relative to expectations)?

comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-04-23T06:20:43.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I believe this to be a fallacy, but it's hard to explain the real dynamic. It's something along the lines of "top government officials get the important/accurate information they need when they have a clear view of what they want done, and a determination to do it, regardless of the type of government." Different types of governments might have different goals, so the type of information that gets to the top might be different in each system. The problem arises when it isn't clear whether the government really wants to do something (prevent pandemics at all costs), or if they just want to look like they take it seriously for PR reasons. In the latter case, in both systems, people will try and hide things, but the government may in fact be okay with that because they'd rather the matter stay quiet and never intended to act on it.

In this case, I believe CCP leadership was terrified of another SARs-like situation--who wouldn't be? They were determined to get the next one under control. That doesn't mean everything was done perfectly everywhere, but I have a feeling it was known they were serious about it. So if there was a problem, employees might be terrified to admit it, but they also knew that if they put in a call to a party insider, someone important would get back to them and get right on it. The system allowed decisive action where that was the case. They'd be too busy dealing with the emergency and would need the information from the informant too badly to punish him or her (presumably someone from the lab). If the lab worker was able to help them solve the issue or at least play along with a cover story, it could even end well for his or her career. If not, maybe there would be severe punishment later, but I don't think the CCP's main concern was saving face to the point where they would rather have not heard about the problem and simply crushed the informant. They *wanted* to know about this, and were willing to take it very seriously. While they did go after whistleblower doctors, this seems to have been mainly about avoiding panic and perhaps international embarrassment, because they hoped they could get it under control--they weren't insulted that someone suggesting that there was a problem, but were responding with extreme and practical measures. Secrecy was not a sign of denial of the problem, but of minimizing outside awareness.

With the U.S., things were more complicated. It's not that the U.S. government leaders didn't want to prevent a pandemic, obviously. But they didn't seem to see it as a serious threat, in part probably because SARs wasn't in their consciousness in the same way. There just seemed, for several administrations, to be a faith in things continuing as they had, and we didn't get pandemics anymore. Of course, people who worked for the CDC and such didn't all think that way, but it sounds like they were never taken very seriously. It wasn't a risk that got a lot of attention at the top. The last 10 years have seen an increasing obsession with the stock market/economy as the main barometer, with things so efficient and interconnected economically that there was no resilience in the system. Everything about the U.S. leadership class, to me, seemed to be aimed at avoiding disruptions to consumer confidence. And so I get the impression that in planning for an outbreak elsewhere in the world, the goal was less concretely "subdue the pandemic," and more to manage it by calmly following the procedures of the CDC and WHO regarding pandemics, which had worked with SARs and others. They weren't thinking of a major pandemic as a real possibility. So the health authorities were generally just complacent---following guidance but not really thinking about whether it was trustworthy. They'd essentially outsourced concern, not thinking strategically. And in that case, you don't get the information you should have---this sort of disconnect does just as much damage to information quality as the fear in totalitarian regimes. Leadership didn't want to hear bad news unless it was clear it wasn't alarmism. Because they weren't optimizing for "subdue the next pandemic," not taking it seriously, they didn't view information as helpful, but as "bad optics" if it got out. In this case, the silence pretty much *was* denial, mixed with some suppression of things that could upset the public.

comment by David Hornbein · 2020-04-23T00:58:38.379Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
One thing I've often heard/read is that authoritarian governments tend to be limited in competence because it's hard for important and accurate information to reach the top.

I've also heard this, but IMO Western talking points about the superiority of our system should be treated with the same skepticism as Chinese talking points about the superiority of theirs. The null hypothesis here is that "authoritarian" and "democratic" governments aren't intrinsically different in competence, and variation in government competence is due to other sources.

It's hard for information to reach the top when messengers are punished for bringing bad news. You can have an authoritarian government that punishes messengers, like the Soviet Union under Stalin, and you can have an authoritarian government that doesn't punish messengers much, like Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew. You can have a democratic government that punishes messengers, like the US military under George W. Bush, and you can have a democratic government that doesn't punish messengers much, like the US military under Harry Truman. Western propaganda likes to compare democracies-like-Truman's to authoritarians-like-Stalin's.

It's plausible that democratic governments are better on average about not punishing messengers, but once you know about a government's propensity to punish messengers, whether it's "democratic" or "authoritarian" is screened off [LW · GW] for this purpose.

How reliable are American messengers? Your link doesn't paint a very flattering picture.

How reliable are the Chinese messengers? I'm no expert. My rough sense is that they're not great, but not quite as embarrassing as their American counterparts.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-11-06T19:10:38.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found an article, Devin Helton's Democracy versus Autocracy: A False Dichotomy, that isn't directly about modern China but does suggest that I shouldn't have been as surprised by its level of governance relative to the US as I was. I still really want to have a good gears-level model of how politics and government works in China and how that level of governance is achieved, if anyone has good resources for that.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2019-11-08T00:00:15.327Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My brief thoughts: I've not visited China, this is a news article low on data and facts, I'm mostly treating the article's epistemic status as "travel blog by someone I don't know". I would be interested in fact post on levels of innovation and other metrics in a bunch of countries including China.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-11-08T19:50:08.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"travel blog by someone I don’t know" seems a bit too dismissive, but I take your point that much of the article is based on one person's observations. (Or two if you count my endorsement of it based on my observations, and I perhaps should have mentioned that I stayed in China for 6 weeks on my trip, and was able to see more than the typical tourist stuff.) It does talk about "A 2017 Ipsos survey of almost 20,000 people reported that 87% of respondents from China believe that the country is heading in the right direction. Compare that to 43% of respondents in the U.S. and an average of 40% among all of the countries surveyed." and "hard results speak for themselves in terms of shipping traffic, passenger-miles on high-speed rail, and tons of steel produced and concrete poured." The latter statistics are not directly cited but are easy enough to look up.

I do have a bunch of uncertainty about how much of the "good governance" in China is just appearances and how much is real, and perhaps should have conveyed that more in the OP. Some of it is also based on my recent experiences with local politics and government in the US, which kind of shocked me as to how pathological and dysfunctional they are, and it's possible that I overcorrected based on that.

More data and facts are obviously welcome, but it seems hard to measure governance in any way that doesn't depend on human judgment, so again I don't think it's a good idea to dismiss the article based on that, unless someone actually did do a more objective study and the result contradicts the article's conclusions. I'm also actively trying to seek out contrary perspectives - see this comment I posted on EA Forum.

comment by ioannes_shade · 2019-11-06T01:04:59.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
China’s success challenges our implicit ideology and deep-seated assumptions about governance.

+1

The Scholar's Stage is a good entry point for learning about this: http://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2019/07/two-case-studies-in-communist-insecurity.html

Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping is good for showing how different the intellectual commitments of the Chinese leadership are from our own.

comment by Mason Spangler (mason-spangler) · 2019-11-04T10:02:17.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a non-American westerner, just like to point out that "America vs. China" isn't necessarily a battle the entire world is invested in.

So I don't understand language in this post like "China’s success scares me" or "as bad as it seems" - why are Americans 'the goodies' and Chinese 'the baddies'? Both governments are insanely powerful and engaged in immoral practices on the daily.

Tribalism, I thought, was out of vogue. All that should matter is the future of humanity, right?

comment by Pattern · 2019-11-15T16:56:36.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't understand language in this post like "China’s success scares me"

To take alarmism to the extreme - what if there's a war?

comment by Wei_Dai · 2019-11-04T10:12:53.810Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry about the "America vs. China" framing, but it's more about comparing/contrasting than tribalism, I think both for me and for the author of the article. So maybe you can try to look past that and consider the rest of the content and the questions I posted?

comment by Mason Spangler (mason-spangler) · 2019-11-05T00:26:19.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seeing as there's not really any discussion taking place for me to worry about derailing... I did try, but the content and questions you posted seem indelibly coloured by the "America vs. China" framing.

While the post might be full of meaningful implications to an impassioned American, you're actually saying very little in the way of cold-hard facts, further explanation of the article linked, or even what *specifically* America should be doing differently. The only message I can take away is "China's doing good in some ways, America's doing bad in some ways, America should do better in those ways".

Every time you say "our" or "we" to make your point, you lose me, as a non-American. I shouldn't be getting down-voted for that, sure it's a nitpick, but it's a perfectly valid point: not everyone on the internet is an American, and if you take a step outside of that bubble, comments made inside the bubble can come across alarmist, overly broad and flat-out silly.

"How are we going to catch up?" Uhh, catch up with what? Who is we? Do you really think America is one of the places in the world who need to worry about "falling behind"? LMFAO, try West Africa.

"China’s success challenges our implicit ideology and deep-seated assumptions about governance". Does it? Do all or most Americans agree uniformly on the way your government runs? Is the Chinese government *so* fundamentally different?

"We may find important truths needed to bring about American revitalization." Can't you see how, to a non-American, a comment like this is about as meaningful as "WE MUST RESTORE THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE!" ?No one cares what label we use, no one the world over cares about "Making America Great Again", we care about making THE WORLD great.

If China is truly doing certain things better, they deserve to succeed in those ways and everyone will be better off for it. If America can copy those methods and create even more prosperity, fantastic.

comment by Mason Spangler (mason-spangler) · 2019-11-06T00:08:09.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sorry we argue with downvotes here rather than words? Very rational.

comment by William_Darwin · 2019-11-06T00:43:02.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You say that "If America can copy those methods and create even more prosperity, fantastic" but when the author states "We may find important truths needed to bring about American revitalization." you say this is as meaningful as saying "WE MUST RESTORE THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE!"

Seems to me that you and the author share a common belief, that successful Chinese policies or frameworks should bring about reflection and positive changes for American government (or any government, it just so happens that this post was framed by an American).

Also...whenever you say "me" to make your points, you lose me as someone who isn't you.

comment by Mason Spangler (mason-spangler) · 2019-11-07T07:34:25.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Seems to me that you and the author share a common belief, that successful Chinese policies or frameworks should bring about reflection and positive changes for American government (or any government, it just so happens that this post was framed by an American). "

Yeah that was literally the point of my last paragraph. Was trying to demonstrate that I don't disagree with the obvious (and basic) sentiment underpinning the original post, I only disagree with the way it was presented - cagey, but ultimately nationalistic rhetoric about 'feelings' in place of meaningful information about the specific differences in China and America's policies.

Harry Fankfurt's On Bullshit 101... seriously...

Clearly this site's just full of Americans who don't read very closely and thought I was being racist *shrug* No skin off my teeth.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2019-11-08T00:17:44.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry your thing got downvoted hard without much explanation. Mostly agree the article has a bunch of weird nationalistic assumptions and doesn’t provide much evidence for its claims. I think your comments here are ending up fairly fraught and hyperbolic and false. For example, while the LessWrong team is based in the US, we’re mostly not American, coming from Germany, England and Australia. At no point did I think you were being racist, nor consider the hypothesis anyone else did. Also, complaining about downvotes is not a good look.

comment by ryan_b · 2020-03-12T21:36:45.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My model for this is that China is achieving success largely by ignoring externalities. Environmental pollution is a prime example, like in the case of their previous recycling policy and mining of rare earth minerals. It is actually against the law for the US to build as quickly or as cheaply as China, but this is reasonably motivated by trying to account for things like pollution and safety, and avoiding things like resettling entire towns.

Chinese success looks a lot like the WWII and postwar years in the US, and for much the same reasons.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2019-11-04T13:28:27.435Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
What does it imply for things like AI governance and global coordination on x-risks?

I've read the article a while ago, and vaguely concluded there should be some implications here (but largely uncertain about the direction or magnitude, being a non-expert). Interested to hear what people think (esp. people who concentrate on policy)