At what cost?


sadWe often think of the dangers of central planning as an abstract loss of productivity rather than any concrete personal danger per se. However, as an article in the Telegraph this week demonstrates, oppressive regimes can inflict enormous personal costs on the individuals who become entangled in their overarching plans.

Zhang Shangwu, once a top Chinese gymnast, is now begging on the streets of Beijing. Shangwu was taken from his family at age five to a government run facility where throughout his childhood he trained. And trained. And trained some more. However, after snapping his tendon in 2002, Shangwu received a payout of £3,650 that relieved his local team of any liability and then sent on his way, despite having no tangible skills apart from in the world of uneven bars. 

The Beijing model of authoritarian government is sometimes praised because of the speed with which it can deliver enormous change. Indeed, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted approvingly the “one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century”. Fundamentally, the Chinese government relies on the power of authoritarian rule, or rather the power of compulsion, to deliver results that the democratic models, with their endless checks and balances and respect for individual liberties, cannot match.

Just over a decade ago, the Chinese launched ‘Project 119’ – so named because it identified the number of Olympic medals available in sports that the Chinese had historically had less success, namely ‘athletics, canoeing, rowing, sailing, and swimming’. From beginning to end, the state plays a role in the cultivation of Chinese athletes. After being sent away form their families at young ages, the children put into what are effectively forced labor camps, where labor is rigorous and unrelenting practices. This kind of Soviet-style system had certainly yielded results: China is expected to carry a total of 83 medals in the 2012 games, right behind the US with a projected medal count of 84. Given that back in 1988 in Seoul, China only managed to win 28, this meteoric rise on the Olympic podium should be just as worrying as any South China Sea scuffles. 

Patriotism and a nation’s entire sense of self worth can be tied to their athletes' performance in the Olympics, with success viewed as validation of that country’s system. However, while the centralized push has clearly been effective in improving Chinese medal count, I would ask, at what cost? Aside from the sense of pride that the Chinese people might feel as their athletes ascended the podium, the benefits of this enormously expensive initiative – in both economic and human terms – are not shared by the larger public. Instead, public sports and recreational facilities are left relatively unfunded. Unfortunately, central governments tend to plan in sweeping strokes and lose sight of the individuals that must carry out their elaborate plans. For people like Zhang Shangwu, the cost has been great.