Playing the long game

The second half of the 20th century was perhaps characterised by an assumption among Western elites that 'West is best', and that liberal democratic systems were the model that should be adopted by (and in many cases, imposed upon) the rest of the world.

The subsequent rise of China has encouraged a look over the shoulder to the East. Speaking in the historic surrounds of Cambridge University at the YouGov Annual Forum last week, Dr Xiang Bing raised an interesting point about the chronic short termism of Western democracy that is worthy of further consideration.

Whilst a one party system of government is incompatible with the Western model of participatory democracy, that is not to say it is without advantages for a nation, as well as its rulers.

Witness, for example, how difficult it is for Western governments to look past the next election, and engage in truly long term strategic thinking. With a potential change of regime every four or five years, our policy makers are often guilty of short termism by necessity. However, policies that win votes in today’s election are not necessarily those best for a state over decades or even centuries.

This argument informed part of the thinking behind the recent announcement of plans for an Infrastructure Commission in the UK, that would oversee major projects such as HS2. As the Armitt Review put it, projects of this nature “…are often controversial and politicians are rarely in office long enough to see the electoral dividends of major investment programmes”.

Contrast this with China. Without a fickle electorate to worry about, the Chinese government has been able to invest billions in massive infrastructure projects that have helped to drive their stratospheric economic growth. Beijing’s new international airport, for example, will be one of the busiest and biggest airports in the world when it opens in 2017, and will have the capacity to cater for 130 million passengers every year.

The economic achievements are incredible. In 2009, China surpassed Germany and became the largest exporter in the world. In 2010, China overtook Japan and became the second largest country by GDP and overtook the United States as the world’s largest manufacturer, a title that had been held by the United States for over a century.

Similarly, Dr Xiang pointed out that China’s dynasties usually last for about 300 years. To put this into perspective, the United States of America has yet to complete even one cycle of the same length – perhaps theirs is a version is a system that has yet to be truly tested. Whilst it would be overstating the case to argue that the financial crash of 2008 marks the beginning of the end of Western model of capitalism as we know it, it is at least an example of an inherent fallibility.

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