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Democracy's technology feeds China's repression

Are we outsourcing repression to China? That is the fear driving stepped-up scrutiny of labour conditions at Foxconn, the consumer electronics maker that assembles products for a number of Western technology companies, most prominently Apple.

An independent assessor working with the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit group that Apple has hired to audit conditions at the plants, said the California-based company is facing its "Nike moment," a reference to the 1990s, when the sporting goods maker was accused of using Asian sweatshops to manufacture its iconic sneakers.

The conditions at Foxconn are indeed grim: 12-hour shifts doing boring, repetitive work; dorms that pack seven workers into each room; commands issued by a disembodied fembot. Foxconn first came to international attention in the spring of 2010, when 18 workers killed themselves, or tried to.

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But a recent ABC Nightline report showed an implicit justification – 3,000 workers lined up at Foxconn's gates before dawn in hope of a job. Work at Foxconn may be hard and boring, but for many Chinese, it is better than the alternative.

This is the historic price and promise of industrialization: It is no fun, but it is better than subsistence living back on the farm. Modernization theorists such as Seymour Martin Lipset argue that as people get richer thanks to dismal jobs such as those at Foxconn, they are able to demand more rights. That is a powerful argument, and it has been true not only in the West but also in 20th-century stars such as Japan and South Korea.

But Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warns that we should not assume that the happy connection between prosperity and democracy will automatically hold true for China. That is because China is industrializing in the age of Apple, in an era of globalization and the technology revolution.

The result, Prof. Acemoglu argues, is that China is able to deliver strong economic growth without transforming its domestic political and social institutions. To illustrate the point, in an essay written for a forthcoming book, he contrasts China's "catch-up" economic development with the way the process unfolded in Germany and Russia in the 19th century and Japan and South Korea in the 20th.

In these places, catch-up growth "involved developing industries, building a domestic market and undergoing a process of structural, social and institutional changes," he writes.

But globalization and the technology revolution mean China's authoritarian rulers have been able to deliver strong economic growth without surrendering political and social control.

Prof. Acemoglu sees a powerful, and worrying, paradox at work. It is the triumph of the open society in the West, with its focus on individual rights, independence and iconoclasm that created the technology revolution. But the impact of those discoveries on the world's mightiest dictatorship may be to prolong its reign.

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His vision of how the simultaneous economic transformations of the West and of the emerging markets are interacting is a powerful alternative to the two more common narratives about communist China's remarkable economic rise. One story is that the eventual shift to democracy is inevitable. The other is that China shows that state capitalism is a more effective form of governance than chaotic democracy.

Prof. Acemoglu offers a third possibility: Chinese authoritarianism is working so well because of the success of other democracies. But, and this is the paradox at the heart of his analysis, that relationship may retard the growth of democracy in China.

One of the biggest questions today is what impact a rising China will have on the rest of us. Robert Kagan's new book, The World America Made, warns that if the United States commits "pre-emptive super-power suicide," then global politics and economics could change profoundly. "China may have benefited from our economic order," Mr. Kagan told me. "But its capacity or desire to sustain that order is very much in question.''

Mr. Kagan limits his focus to foreign policy, and excludes economics. But he still arrives at a version of Prof. Acemoglu's paradox: China owes its rise to Western democratic capitalism, but that very success may put it at odds with the social order that created it. Call it Apple authoritarianism – what happens when the ideas from the freest valley in the world end up underwriting the world's most powerful dictatorship.

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