Respect for human rights truly fosters prosperity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Li [former education secretary Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung] praised the mainland's economic success, saying critics of its human rights situation should consider the improvements made in people's lives. 'Even if it deprives people of all human rights, it has indeed raised the income of a fourth of the world's population.'

SCMP, March 10

I must say I didn't expect it from Arthur Li but then he said it in Beijing on the sidelines of a CPPPPCCCC plenary and the atmosphere can get a bit thick.

Let's examine the idea. It constitutes a legitimate contention - the infringement of a few human rights is a small price to pay for an enormous rise in wealth. What would you rather be - starving, dressed in rags and waving a placard or well fed and well clothed but told to go home?

What is human rights anyway but an abstract Western concept that ignores the Asian emphasis on an individual's obligations to society? All that these dissidents do is create trouble and gum up the works. They're only really in it for themselves anyway. Keep them out.

There is a lot more to this standpoint than I can handle in a single column and so I shall address myself to only one aspect of it here - the presumption that there is a trade-off between human rights and prosperity, that China grew so rich through rough justice.

Let's put the 'so rich' into perspective. The chart compares the US and China in annual personal consumption expenditure. For China, the latest figure is US$1,329 per head. For the US at the same time, it was US$32,428 per head. Not quite 'so rich' yet.

I grant you, however, that the growth rate of China's wealth recently has been much greater than the US has seen in a long, long time. Nonetheless, this is not just China's doing. Easily deserving of as much credit are such things as technology transfer, modern communications, low transport costs, foreign capital inflows and world peace.

Bear in mind that more than half of China's exports, the driving force of the greater riches, comes from foreign-invested corporations. Also, as recently as only 17 years ago, the combined gross domestic product of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese societies in Asia outside China (Singapore, plus Malaysia representing Chinese communities of all Asean countries) was still almost as great as China's GDP.

That is, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese societies elsewhere in Asia only and they alone, leaving out Chinese communities elsewhere in the world, made an enormous amount of investment capital available once they were satisfied that China was a safe investment.

Rarely in history has any country enjoyed conditions so favourable to the growth of prosperity. All it took was for Beijing officials to recognise their opportunity. They deserve full credit for that. But they only took advantage of these conditions. They did not create them.

You may say, of course, that China has done much better than India at taking advantage of them. It is undoubtedly true. Equally, however, other Asian nations that have grown just as fast in their early stages of industrial development, or even faster. One telling comparison is with the experience of Japan.

Take China's growth since Deng Xiaoping's 'Beijing Spring' reform in 1977. At the time, China's GDP per capita was about 2 per cent of US GDP per capita. The latest figure, 34 years later, is 9.5 per cent.

In 1945, Japan had no economy. It was destroyed. But 34 years later, in 1979, its GDP per capita had risen to 80 per cent of that of the US.

Call this games with numbers if you choose. I still say the evidence suggests strongly that China's growth is very commendable but not miraculous. I also say that these circumstances are not primarily of Beijing's making and do not prove that suppression of dissent contributes to growth.

If there really is evidence of a trade-off between human rights and economic growth, I would like to hear it. China's record does not offer that evidence and I think, in fact, that the larger history of the world shows the reverse to be true. Respect for human rights fosters prosperity.

But I no longer have enough room here today to argue it. If you think otherwise, will you take me up on a public debate, Arthur?