Wednesday, February 28, 2007

China's chaos as "Wild West"?

The first time I remember hearing someone compare China to the "Wild West" was when I studied there (in China, not the Wild West) in 2001. An American guy--nice in many ways but with many of the more obnoxious characteristics of expats--declared happily that in the P.R.C. "you can do anything... it's like the Wild West." I was pretty angry with him--what gall, taking one's host country as a playground!

But that motif comes up again and again. And it's not really inaccurate.

Yesterday's New York Times piece on the Shanghai stock market crash began with the words "In China’s wild cowboy stock market...."

As the author, David Barboza, went on to describe how Chinese companies' stocks actually rise when their CEOs are accused of corruption, my first thoughts were that this is mayhem! Name recognition ALONE driving stock prices, even INFAMY is good! Yes, the Wild West! Then, I thought of how corruption might be seen as good by investors, y'know in a Tamany Hall sense... a historical reference again.

Indeed, it is quite easy to view China (or other parts of the developing world, for that matter) as simply being on a continuum of the Western experience. You hear it often from the tough guys who see in the P.R.C.'s labor problems "only what we went through a century ago." You hear it from neo-liberal economists and lefties alike.

But there is a big difference. China's "Wild West" is contained within a government cloak. As evidenced in today's follow-up NY Times piece, "Chinese Investors Shrug, and Shanghai Rallies", small investors in China are going back to the same stock brokers after the crash that they lost money on before. They are doing so in large part because the government "will not let anything terrible happen."

It's like a capitalist Cultural Revolution---mayhem within limits.

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