Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Will China Skip Having a Significant Middle Class?

This report on China's huge bet on robotics repeats a familiar nostrum: Wages start to go up so workers can afford a piece of the modernization pie resulting in capital moving to the next low rent country. Manufacturers have been largely unsuccessful in passing on higher wage costs so what's left to do? Replace the workers of course.

One can only wonder at the cost/benefit comparison of creating a middle class, and then pulling the rug out from under it; as opposed to simply not creating one in the first place. I suppose a good portion of what might favor the former option would be the amount of time said middle class was allowed to exist. We had one for several decades at least and it was generally a pretty good deal for the country (the collateral damage to the rest of the world not paid for being another matter altogether). The more time you give it, though, the more damaging to huge swaths of the populace when the all of the bills finally do come due.

The issue with the Chinese is more complex, however. With such a huge population, and with so much of it not given much of the benefits of "modernization," the government, and/or the financial elite (this distinction becomes moot with money and power mixing so narrowly among of few), the rest of the population is going to become infinitely more angry when they realize that all of disasters that rushing to modernize has caused will be unlikely to be offset by a promised better life. Property confiscation, pollution, industrial accidents of amazing proportions, along with a never ending litany of corruption and scandal among those at the top. How will they keep a lid on it? Can the army be made to be as harshly authoritarian as it will take to keep order? Or will the old fervor of true collectivism reassert itself in a new, and much more bloody, cultural revolution?

The thing is, we will do ourselves no good at all if we simply stand by and gloat over any misfortune they may suffer. Not only do we have our own sins to account for, the fact of the matter is that we need the Chinese. Just as we need the Japanese, the Europeans, Central and South America, India and the rest of South East Asia, and Africa. Each and every one of these regions offers their own unique mix of intellect, creativity, and drive for a better life; the kind of mix that we have already benefited from as a nation of immigrants.

We will not reach the stars as an act of imaginative exploration, and truly creative engineering, unless we join hands with the rest of the world in order to make it happen. Doing it only as temporary partnerships of money will ensure that all we will succeed in is bringing war, exploitation and deprivation to the regions beyond this planet; assuming we can even last long enough for that. In my mind it is hardly anything a caring human would ever aspire to.

'Workshop of the World' China Bets on a Robot Revolution