Do we need labels to think?
Andrew Batson has a very interesting article on China. Here’s an excerpt.
Does it matter what we call China? Does it really make a difference what term we, as outsiders to China’s political and economic system, attach to that system? Certainly it is not going to make much of a difference in terms of what actually happens in China whether foreigners prefer to call it communist, socialist, fascist, state capitalist, or what have you. Arguments about terminology are the classic academic dispute, the kind of thing only pedants can get excited about. Yet despite the low stakes involved, I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to this question, picking away at it like an unfinished home improvement project. The label may not make a difference to China, but it does make a difference to us: for better or worse, we use these simplifying labels to think with, and if the label is wrong then our thinking will be off.
I would never deny that we need some labels in order to think. After all, words are labels and we cannot think about complex issues without some use of words. At the same time, I worry that we overuse labels to the detriment of thinking.
China is a large diverse country, with a population nearly the size of the Americas and Western Europe combined. We don’t typically think of Denmark and Bolivia as forming a unified whole, and we shouldn’t think of Xinjiang and Shanghai as having the same political-economic systems. On the other hand, (mainland) China is ruled over by a single government (unlike Denmark and Bolivia), so some generalizations are appropriate.
Jeffrey Sachs and William Schabas deny that China’s policies in Xinjiang constitute “genocide”.
This year’s State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (HRP) follows Pompeo in accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang. Because the HRP never uses the term other than once in the report’s preface and again in the executive summary of the China chapter, readers are left to guess about the evidence. Much of the report deals with issues like freedom of expression, refugee protection, and free elections, which have scant bearing on the genocide charge.
There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs, but those do not per se constitute genocide.
They discuss a number of clear human rights violations, then (correctly) point out that these do not meet the definition of genocide. When it comes to population control, however, things get a bit murkier:
Another of the five recognized acts of genocide is “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” The State Department report refers to China’s notoriously aggressive birth-control policies. Until recently, China strictly enforced its one-child policy on the majority of its population but was more liberal toward ethnic minorities, including the Uighur.
Today, the one-child policy is no longer applied to the majority Han Chinese, but stricter measures have been imposed on Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, whose families are traditionally larger than China’s average. Still, Xinjiang records a positive overall population growth rate, with the Uighur population growing faster than the non-Uighur population in Xinjiang during 2010-18.
I see a couple problems with this argument. First, the one child policy aimed at the Han Chinese was clearly not reflective of animus toward the Han (who make up over 90% of China’s population and virtually all its leadership.) On the other hand, the population control policies aimed at the Uighurs likely do reflect animus against that particular ethnic group. That’s an important distinction. Second, China’s earlier one-child policy was an extreme violation of human rights, an extremely brutal policy that caused enormous suffering.
I wonder if Sachs and Schabas believe that making this comparison will somehow make China’s policies toward the Uighurs seem less bad to most people. If so, they are probably correct. But this comparison actually should not make the policy seem less bad. If it does so, that’s because most Western readers don’t fully understand the awfulness of the earlier one-child policy for the Han Chinese.
In the end, I’m not comfortable with the claim that China’s policy in Xinjiang is genocide, and I’m not comfortable with the claim that China’s policy is not genocide. My discomfort comes from two facts. First, labels oversimplify reality. Second, labels have fuzzy meanings, at least in terms of a label’s connotation in everyday use.
At the end of Batson’s essay, he suggests that “Leninism” is the appropriate label for China’s system:
All of these features were present in China before 1978, and are still present in China today despite many other changes. For Lenin himself, the designer of the system, politics was always the most important thing. He was the first to experiment with the combination of Communist Party rule and a market economy, in his New Economic Policy of the 1920s. The NEP was an important reference point for Deng and other leaders in the early years of reform, and it’s not unreasonable to see China’s entire reform era as a “long NEP.”
Lenin used the term “state capitalism” to refer to that system: while admitting that Germany also practiced state capitalism, he insisted that state capitalism in Soviet Union would be different because the Communist Party was in charge. That is not too different an approach from Xi Jinping’s more recent insistence that Communist Party leadership is the most important feature of Chinese socialism.
That’s a good argument, but is that how most people understand the term “Leninism”? I suspect that the vast majority of people equate Leninism with communism, not state capitalism. Similarly, the term “genocide” is often seen as a label for mass murder, as with the Holocaust or the killing of the Tutsis in Rwanda.
Rather than describe China’s system with a single term like “Leninism”, I’d prefer to say “a mixed economy with a highly repressive political system”. Rather than describe China’s policies in Xinjiang as “genocide”, I’d prefer “mass incarceration, suppression of Uighur culture, and coercive population control aimed at reducing the number of Uighurs.”
Sachs and Schabas explain why this is important:
The charge of genocide should never be made lightly. Inappropriate use of the term may escalate geopolitical and military tensions and devalue the historical memory of genocides such as the Holocaust, thereby hindering the ability to prevent future genocides.
In some sense, it shouldn’t even matter if Sachs and Schabas are right or wrong. Their view of China’s policies in Xinjiang in a factual sense are not much different from those of the US government, they simply attach a different label. In an earlier post, I argued that we should focus on the underlying reality, not the label:
Is graffiti an art? Is alcoholism a disease? Is economics a science? Is bombing cities during wartime terrorism?
Who cares? Art, disease, science, terrorism are just words. How I feel about graffiti, alcoholism, economics, and bombing doesn’t depend in any way on how society labels those activities. Words are just words.
I base my judgment on other factors. Do I like graffiti? How do I believe alcoholism should be addressed? Do I believe economics is useful? Do I support bombing cities during wartime? Labeling those activities one way or another does not in any way influence the way I evaluate those things.
What China’s government is doing to the Uighurs is really bad. At the same time, it’s obviously nowhere near as bad as what the Nazis did to the Jews. Both claims can be true. Our public policy should be driven by what we think of the specific policies, not how we prefer to define the term “genocide”.
Of course readers might respond that I frequently use labels, and in some cases my use oversimplifies reality. Mea culpa. Here I’m trying to describe an ideal, not necessarily my current way of communicating.
PS. Is the current inflation “transitory”? Yes, if you are thinking in terms of inflation targeting. No, if you are thinking in terms of average inflation targeting. Inflation will likely fall to 2% in a few years, even as the average inflation rate for the 2020s remains elevated. The ambiguous term “transitory” doesn’t help us to think more clearly.
The real question is whether monetary policy is currently too expansionary. (Yes, in my view.)