End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival Is Undermining Its Rise, by Carl Minzner (Oxford University Press; 296 pp., $29.95).
Back in the 1980s, there was reason to hope that China would succeed in reforming, or at least softening, its authoritarian political system to bring it more in line with the capitalist world. This huge nation of 1.4 billion souls might have a genuine chance of becoming a normal member of what many call “the community of nations.” To do so, it would have to restrain its impulses to purge reformers and other sensible younger technocrats, and to modernize in a fashion that might do away with the uncertainty and fear that Mao Zedong and his cronies initiated decades earlier. The long-standing state policies of censorship, enforced party loyalty, harassment of political opponents, top-down control of the economy, forced sterilization and abortion, and other destructive and inhumane state programs, would have to be reversed.
As Minzner, a China scholar and Professor of Law at Fordham, details in this timely book, these changes aren’t happening any time soon. He describes how President Xi Jinping set himself up as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, further consolidating his own power and cracking down on reform and modernization. The optimism and positive momentum predicted after President Bill Clinton’s support in 2000 for China’s access to the World Trade Organization have largely evaporated. China’s once-invulnerable elites, bureaucrats, and tycoons have suddenly found themselves ignored, targeted in probes of alleged corruption, and even arrested and imprisoned.
Although China doesn’t have the widespread political repression of North Korea, it is surely worse than what once took place in Eastern Europe. The result has been the loss of many well-meaning younger technocrats to emigration and widespread protests in urban and rural areas, most recently in Hong Kong. Money that might have been spent to boost productive improvements and restructuring has been spent on military adventurism.
Minzner points out that earlier party reforms and new state institutions, which might have helped boost societal stability and a more assertive transition to openness, are now being disassembled. Today the country looks nothing like earlier East Asian transitional successes such as Taiwan and South Korea. Worse, public security officials and state regulators have increasingly hamstrung foreign investment as well as muzzled educational administrators and entertainment and news outlets, restricting openness to outside cultural influences, and playing up nationalism to denounce any opposition as treasonous and beneath contempt. Should this continue, Minzner argues convincingly that China will continue to stall and will eventually regress.
Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, by Vaclav Smil (MIT Press; 664 pp., $39.95).
The vast topic of Smil’s latest book Growth may prove too much for any single work. He attempts to handle the unwieldy nature of the subject by defining it as the progress of human development over time. While this provides an organizing thesis for the reader, the book feels disjointed between chapters given the massive breadth covered.
Compounding this challenge, the book often reads like a compendium of lists. The chapter on artifacts contains section after section of examples of accelerating efficiency and capacity during the period of industrialization. While it is fascinating to understand that today’s cranes lift many multiples more than those of ancient Rome, readers are left to identify the broader point themselves. Real characters and conflict populate the history of engineering. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a leader of the British industrial revolution and might well be considered a 19th-century Elon Musk; Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged an epic conflict over alternating and direct current. However, given the book’s wide perspective, Smil does not bring those characters or conflicts to life.
Smil does do an admirable job, however, in communicating the blueprints for his individual studies. He explains how he measures progress, and how that data might be modeled. His initial chapter sets this framework, starting with units of measurement, and moving on to three basic models of growth: linear, exponential, and hyperbolic. His clear and direct style makes these concepts accessible to readers, and he demonstrates them with a wide range of concrete examples.
Smil uses this framework to provide a truly remarkable survey of the many types of growth that have occurred across a huge range of technological and agricultural activities. His data on, for example, exponentially increasing corn crop yields and exponentially decreasing fuel consumption for airliners provide no small amount of wonderment over the tool-making and problem-solving abilities of humankind.
Other data Smil provides are arcane and not fully explained, such as a discussion over two different models predicting the future growth of worldwide internet connectivity. What conclusion are we meant to draw from these competing forecasts? Sadly, Smil does not say.
In the end, Growth challenges America’s presumption of unconstrained growth. Our political systems are, according to Smil, both advised by the unlimited growth assumptions of modern economic theories and informed by the mindset born from America’s mythical past of open ranges and cowboys. Smil wonders how we can change for the better if we allow this mindset to prevail.