You and I learned in school that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that all people should enjoy. There's a practical reason for that. Without freedom of speech, governments and other moneyed interests would be in a position to abuse their power even more than they already do.  And obviously voters need uncensored information in order to shape their government. Democracy only works when citizens and the media enjoy freedom of speech.

But what if freedom of speech is only a benefit in a democratic system?

China's system, as I have written before, reminds me more of a corporate structure, or a meritocracy. In a corporation, you're generally free to disagree with higher ups if you do it with data, and in a professional manner. Usually you need to go through proper channels, but dissent is generally allowed, and sometimes actively encouraged. If you're a jerk about your disagreement with your superiors, or you don't have persuasive data to back up position, you could get fired. But that's a stupidity issue, not a freedom issue.

China's leadership is packed with engineers and lawyers by training. I imagine that like any corporation, they appreciate the value of information when presented in a professional manner, and through proper channels. Unlike elected politicians, managers in a meritocracy are free to change position as new or better data emerges. The advantage of having only one political party is that everyone is on the same team. And if effectiveness is the goal, which apparently it is in China, I assume that new data is generally welcome.

An American politician is likely to lose his next election if he "flip flops" on an issue, even if the reason for the change is that new information has emerged. In that environment, practical politicians simply take the position that their party has established, confident that the free media will present both sides of every argument regardless of where the data leads. A free press has the perverse effect of increasing the volume of information while simultaneously reducing its usefulness.

A free press is also a huge distraction. I would imagine that at least half of all the time and effort our elected officials put into their jobs has something to do with managing the media. Compare that to a corporate system in which managers are also concerned with image, but they focus most of their energy on getting the job done. I imagine that Chinese leaders have a similar freedom to act in accordance with data. And I imagine they spend little or no time worrying about how the media will treat them, since they control it.

What about the jailing of dissidents in China? On a human level, it certainly feels wrong to imprison someone simply for speaking out. It feels even more wrong when the dissident's only goal is to improve the lives of his or her fellow citizens. And it seems pure evil if the dissident has valid criticisms.

But what if the dissidents themselves are the ones who have it wrong? Suppose a dissident is stirring up public emotions in a direction that could be detrimental to the interests of a billion fellow citizens?  Suppose, for example, the dissident is agitating for freedom of speech, a right that would be fitting for a democracy, but would be nothing but trouble - perhaps serious trouble - in the Chinese system. In that case, should the Chinese leadership value the freedom of this one individual over the wellbeing of a billion others? What would Spock say?

I'd like to be perfectly clear that I know almost nothing about the Chinese system, and absolutely nothing about any particular dissidents. My emotional reaction is that no one should be in jail for voicing an opinion. But the rational side of me doesn't have any data to support the notion that the Chinese people would be better off with complete freedom of speech, especially since we know that free speech encourages leaders to ignore data.

America has freedom of speech.  China has freedom of data. Where do you place your bet?


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Feb 19, 2011
Dear Mr Scott,

As a Hong Kong citizens and Chinese people, I can confidently say that the leaders of China is usually ignore the data and fact. There are too many evidence to support my view, such as the poison milk. Too many lives can be saved if the leaders not ignore the data and fact.

Our live and rights is urge for democratic system to protect. Democracy is not perfect system, but it's the best system in human history.

Sorry for my poor English.
Feb 12, 2011


what you don't realise is the principles that you take as same for everyone - you presume everyone is his neighbour's keeper. It isn't. Its a voluntary choice and even in that case there would be a value system involved for.

To even consider that Government should be involved in charity is incorrect. Replace government with "only legal institution which can apply force". Things are no more voluntary when it is involved.

Its great u identified your philosophical roots. But it still doesn't make explicit certain convictions that you might have. Consider this extreme scenarios ( I know you like those). Even if all your neighbour's are falling around you it doesn't make you guilty if you don't start helping them. It is still a choice. Stuffing guilt on others comes with religion and I thought u weren't religious? What is worse is you are forcing your choice on everybody else through legalised force.

Some of your other's statement all indicate that you are more of a practical person. That is do whatever necessary to achieve the goals evading the full consequences.

Balancing the budget for the government appears to be a practical problem for you. which you tackle with your business mind as cut money here, take money from these puppets and give it to these moochers.. squeeze this guy here... feed the needy frenzy here and so on.

Do you realise the full consequences of running a Government like that.?
Jan 27, 2011
The fundamental proposition that china is a meritocracy is wrong. China, Russia and North Korea are run much more like the mafia than any other form of "government". Like the mafia, the government exists primarily to enrich and to preserve the power and lifestyle of those in charge. If the population does what they are told and respect The Leader there is no trouble. On the other hand if The Leader is not respected summary discipline/execution usually quickly follows. Until this state of affairs changes arguments about freedom of speech vs data are academic. Also, as someone else pointed out, freedom of speech vs data is a false dichotomy anyway. one cannot exist without the other.

[Russia and North Korea are clearly mafia-like systems. But China's leaders rotate without violence, and by any objective measure they are are highly competent. That suggests that talent is an organizing principle, even if it is limited to those who are in the party. -- Scott]
Jan 26, 2011
You say you know "almost nothing about the Chinese system" yet you seem to have faith in the qualifications of their leadership. Though they have certainly made some good bets (in particular with regards to securing resource rights) their growth is fueled at least as much by largely disregarding working conditions, environmental impact and sustainability.

The wisdom (or folly) of their decisions will not be truly known for years, if not decades.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 26, 2011
What's that old saying..."A billion Chinese can't be wrong"?

But I guess that depends on whether they truly have a choice or are just making the best of the situation they are given. Do you have a choice to live under democracy? Sure, because you can move elsewhere with the money and freedom that system has given you. Would you move to
China, even if your income tripled there? Not likely, because you would find your blog censored (for more than cuss words) and your comics banned for criticizing management. Would you then say it's okay because it's for the greater good, as determined by some government worker? Not likely. So you've already placed your bet on freedom of speech.

And so would most Chinese, I'd bet, given the opportunity.

+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 26, 2011
F***ing !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ is more like an animal farm, than like a corporate. "As long as the population has food and job, they don't have the right to decide what more they would want". Scott has no idea of the blatant human rights violation on the name of development. He doesn't even know how third world engineers and lawyers are factory products, having no creative mentality whatsoever. China plans to replace whole of Tibetian culture with mandarin because "Dalai Lama is a CIA agent". As an indian, i would anyday have freedom of expression for a billion people with poor infrastructure than the other way round, like chinese.

First live there for 1 year, and then comment. Don't talk like a pentagon stooge. Life is not as straight as 3 pictures in a cartoon strip.
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 26, 2011
[You don't give the government credit for changing, without revolution, into a pro-capitalist system, and for protecting its industry with by stacking trade in its favor. Knowing when to NOT be involved is probably the highest level of skill for a government. My bet is that labor and environmental regulations will be phased in over time when the economy can absorb those costs. -- Scott]

Yes the government can do good by stepping out of the way, but that would be like giving credit to your dad for not molesting you.

I guess that you agree with me that environmental benefits are a luxury item that can be measured against other economic objectives. Even the notoriously clean Japanese went through a period of dirty production while they industrialized. By limiting trade with nations that choose not to enforce our level of environmental regulation, we are forcing them to a life of poverty by refusing to allow them to trade environmental goals for economic goals.
Jan 25, 2011
[You just described the United States in the early part of this century (except for the housing bubble part). The thing that matters is what direction they are moving in, and how quickly, and not where they are on some absolute scale. And I'm pretty sure that every successful government depends on the self-interest of the leaders being aligned (mostly) with the interest of the country. China is no different. -- Scott]

Well, I agree with you on the analogies with the U.S., and I also agree with you that they are moving in the right direction, and at warp speed. In fact I join with you in the pleasure of watching something amazing happen in real time. I just feel you romanticize China for almost exactly the wrong reasons. The "right" reason to romanticize China (imho), is the power of the work, brilliance, and classic capitalistic greed of 1.3 Billion former peasants becoming entrepeneurs, business owners, and knowledge workers. The "wrong" reason is to give too much credit to the leaders and a system that crushes dissent. I have a sneaking suspicion that you are romantic about a system that elevates engineers, and that you assume that the engineering mindset of these leaders produces this data-driven rational brilliance. But rather than Spock and the Vulcans in charge, China's central ruling party is more like the Borg. You may have entered as an engineer, but once in power, the trappings of power (a black government Passat or BMW with blacked-out windows and a driver, and a house with servants!) make resistance futile. They aren't engineers anymore, they are politicians clinging to power. That's where their self-interest resides. And that's why they supress dissent, not because repressing dissent makes China great. I'm sure you have seen this same sad transformation of thoughtful engineers into cogs in the machine in the corporate world.

But, as always, I come back to the blog for the thought provoking posts, and the intelligence of your readers and commenters. Thanks for having the most consistently interesting site going.
Jan 25, 2011
Biggest problem with democracy is that you can LOSE the election! When you vest more and more resources into winning, things can get very dirty. Communism solved this problem with the one-party election.
Jan 25, 2011
[What was Plan B? Do you recommend that the government build hospitals so all of those low wage folks can get jobs as doctors instead? -- Scott]

I didn't say a word about plan B. I only said that China progress is not extraordinary impressive. They start from very low baseline and are only catching their peers in the region - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore... I'm from central Europe (from Prague) and our GDP growth after switch to capitalism was also higher than that of much richer Germany or Austria.
Jan 25, 2011
"Every system is vulnerable. The question in this blog is whether free speech would help the Chinese system become more successful or would it ruin a good run. -- Scott"

An aside: I believe freedom of exit is usually more important than freedom of speech (except in the pathological case where nobody else will let you in).

That said, yes, I'd expect increased freedom of speech to be disruptive. As plenty of other commenters have noted, though, the alternative is a gamble on the quality of government personnel, one that has never worked out in the long run. Until the Chinese government is reliably constrained by the will of the people (via a check less violent than full-scale revolution), much of the country's success is fundamentally brittle.

My other point was that "freedom of data" (which I mistyped as "freedom in data", oops) is a exceptionally poor way to characterize China's current status. Christ, we're talking about the country that has, by far, the most sophisticated Internet censorship system on the planet! and you describe it as a regime based on "freedom of data"? I know what you're trying to say, but I think you really need to search for a better phrase before somebody throws vegetables at you at your next dinner party.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
"Again, the failure here is linking a specific form of government with economic prosperity. "

So right. Leadership creates nothing. Economic success and all the technical marvels of the world come from creative people being innovative and trying to improve their lives as well as those of others. It also comes from non-creative people doing the heavy lifting. Sure, leaders may create laws and allocate budgets but both are not required for mankind's creativity to unfold. Prosperity is created by people despite leadership, not thanks to leadership, although good leadership can help.

"My bet is that labor and environmental regulations will be phased in over time when the economy can absorb those costs. -- Scott]"

I bet you're right, economically speaking. But I do think it is a pretty messed up line of thinking to see people and our planet as costs. I very well know that this is the current model but don't you agree that handling the people and our planet with reasonable care should be the highest goal? It is quite disturbing to see how this fictional thing called money screws with real priorities. It is mankind's biggest failure and I really hope we can evolve from it. Technology and the economy should work for us within the constraints of the planet, instead of us working for the holy economy (read: a few tiny private !$%*!$%* that could care less about anything but their bottom line).

Anyway, I'm going offtopic and I'm a hippy, maybe even on some watchlist now.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
You must've gotten inspired reading, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Jan 25, 2011
My bet is on the tank driver. (Unless, of course, the dissident has a really good LAWS!)
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
[You don't give the government credit for changing, without revolution, into a pro-capitalist system, and for protecting its industry with by stacking trade in its favor. Knowing when to NOT be involved is probably the highest level of skill for a government. My bet is that labor and environmental regulations will be phased in over time when the economy can absorb those costs. -- Scott]

Labor and environmental regulations are being enacted in response to China being one of the most polluted countries in the world. Wages rates are rising and as a result some companies find it no longer economical to produce in China (not many but just a trickle right now). Had the communist government never existed, the Chinese people would have found a way to be productive (Taiwan became an industrialized country long before China itself). China saw how Taiwan grew to be a major economic power while its own economy was going backwards during the days of Cultural Revolution. China reversed course and copied Taiwan and the rest is history. Taiwan was a Democracy from the start and the level of partisanship in the Taiwanese government rivals that of the US. Again, the failure here is linking a specific form of government with economic prosperity.
Jan 25, 2011
"[Every system is vulnerable. The question in this blog is whether free speech would help the Chinese system become more successful or would it ruin a good run. -- Scott]"

It is? Then why do you close your blog with: "America has freedom of speech. China has freedom of data. Where do you place your bet?"

By doing this aren't you asking us to compare the two systems and then pick which one will be the most successful?
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
I'm not much of a scholar of the chinese system either, but I do think that they have done a decent job of creating an economic infrastructure that unleashes the economic power of their educated and ambitious population. Countries that stay mired in poverty do so because their system impedes economic activity at every turn: no clear title to land, corruption at step (with extra steps built in to create more opportunities for graft), lousy infrastructure, inadequate education, etc. Would freedom of information potentially topple the leadership that has led the way thus far? Possibly - if outrage over abuses was greater than the desire to take advantage of the opportunities.

On the other hand, crushing dissent does present some risks of its own. The lack of civilian control over the military springs to mind. If China were to revert to a military dictatorship all the freedom-surpressing controls are in place to sustain it. The more open the system, the more the Chinese people feel they *are* the government, the less likely the military would be able to take over.

The US system encourages stupid governance at time - but there are limits to the stupidity. Eventually the consequences become too obvious to ignore and there is a course correction. I'm not sure what the limits are to the risks in the Chinese system.
Jan 25, 2011
(Sorry - post submitted itself before it was done - ignore the one below)

Your reasoning is self-defeating and circular (not unusual for you). You posit that China has an open structure that allows the cream to rise to the top. At the same time, you say that China has an entrenched leadership with dictatorial powers who keep themselves on top regardless of what the people want, or what merit they have in terms of those who would oppose them.

Which is it, Scott? If access to leadership is restricted, and that becomes the model for a top-down structure driven from above, then how can anyone rise through any other method than agreeing with the leaders? As usual, you have posited a system that doesn't exist; just one that you wish did. I have two words for you to consider: Tiananmen Square.

I also wish you to consider that, according to the Heritage Foundation's "2011 Index of Economic Freedom," the most free economy in the world is Hong Kong's. Now, you may not know this, as you state you don't really know much about China, but Hong Kong has been a part of Communist China for many years, and the Chinese government has seen fit to leave it just the way it is. That is one big reason why they're doing so well - they have begun to move toward capitalism while we're moving toward socialism. They're doing better, and we're going down the drain, economically speaking.

China has 1.3 billion people. Of those, only about three million live above what we would consider the poverty level. Yet they have a growing middle class who desires a better lifestyle and more political and economic freedoms. The Chinese government is transitioning away from a dictatorship, because they realize far better than the old Soviet union did that keeping your people poor is not the road to longevity in your ability to lead.

So before you go trashing the idea of free speech and free economy, you ought to look at the results of Chinese (and European-brand) socialism. The Chinese are propping up their economic condition by refusing to let their currency be properly valued. They can't do that forever without keeping their own people economically opressed, and the Chinese population is beginning to see what you fail to see, Scott. Capitalism and Republicanism provide the best results for the greatest number.

If you still like China so much, then perhaps you should consider becoming a Chinese citizen. I'm sure there's a huge demand for cartoons that make fun of leadership over there. Good luck, and don't forget to write us about your experiences in your new country.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
As a Chinese person, I think you've got your linkage wrong. You made the assumption that the reason for the economic boom is because "leadership" brought about the economic boom. Any Chinese person can tell you the reason for the boom is because the Communist government let loose the restrictions over personal property and wealth so that from an economic standpoint, China resembles a more purer form of capitalism (than the US) because the totalitarian government is taking a laissez faire approach. It is not because the government created the economic boom other than to step aside and let it happen within their totalitarian framework. However, the boom occurred because you have cheap labor, no safety or environmental regulations, and a government doing everything it can to stack trade in its favor. Once those factors start to change (i.e. increased wages, environmental regulations, and foreign pressure on fair trade), the economic fundamentals will change in China. That's when things will get interesing.

[You don't give the government credit for changing, without revolution, into a pro-capitalist system, and for protecting its industry with by stacking trade in its favor. Knowing when to NOT be involved is probably the highest level of skill for a government. My bet is that labor and environmental regulations will be phased in over time when the economy can absorb those costs. -- Scott]
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 25, 2011
One thing I forgot: you overestimate the importance of leadership.

I have worked in several companies and the one I am working in now for a longer time, which has seen many changes in leadership. Unless you're being fired, it hardly matters what the leadership is, most of the time the conditions remain the same and you deliver the same knowledge, service or product. This is especially true in large organizations where there is a large disconnect between leadership and the work force. In the end of the day, "leadership" is just a few guys in a suit who sit in meetings, have nice dinners, and given the occasional hollow speech.

There is indeed a link between leadership and success or failure, but that link can vary from non-existant to weak to strong, most of the time it is not that strong.

On a national level, I live in an politically unstable country, 4th time now that the chosen government did not get to finish their period due to re-elections. Guess what? It matters not. It matters not if they're on their month long holiday. The world runs just fine without this "divine" leadership.

My point: leadership is no neccessity or metric for success. During your Clinton years you had a booming period of economic growth, it was not thanks to leadership, it was despite leadership. The conditions were right.

Again, leadership more often then not are just a few guys with suits. They invent nothing, produce nothing, or solve anything. They are accountants and communicators. Don't give them a credit they dont deserve.
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