Will Chinese Capitalism Replace the Free Market?

"China does not have to impose this model on anyone," says Cambridge research fellow Stefan Halper. "It is admired and envied by millions of people in the world beyond the West."

Last month, the Shanghai World Expo 2010 attracted just over 73 million visitors during its six-month run, shattering previous Expo attendance records and making it one of the largest events ever staged. This had, of course, been China's goal all along; it was a matter of national pride and yet another demonstration of China's waxing might. But as the New York Times reported, China may have forced its own citizens to attend in order to meet its goal. State-run tourist agencies and state corporations handed out free travel vouchers in order to satisfy government-imposed attendance quotas. And if workers did not make the sometimes day-long trip to Shanghai, their wages could be cut. 

What better parable than this for China's model of state capitalism? Since 1978, China has moved away from a command economy towards something resembling the free market. There are still roughly 150 corporations that report directly to the state, especially in industries deemed vital to national security or sustainable development, like oil, cement, timber, and infrastructure. But the vast majority of businesses in China are privately owned. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) comprise just 3.1 percent of the total number of businesses.

But as the World Expo example illustrates, the authoritarian government can step in and disrupt the free market whenever it sees fit and stands to profit. Stefan Halper, a Senior Fellow at the Cambridge Centre of International Studies, explains to Big Think that Beijing has been known to impose quite harsh limitations of businesses if the economy begins to overheat, if there are inflationary pressures, or (in the case of real estate bubbles) if there is an inadequate supply of labor or shifts in demand.

"The strength of this model is that it harnesses the productive and entrepreneurial capacity of the market and, either through joint ownership, joint ventures, or full ownership, it takes the profit and uses it for state priorities," says Halper. And as a result, China has enjoyed unprecedented 10 percent growth for over a quarter of a century, pulling millions of people out of poverty and creating a thriving middle class. 

In light of China's tremendous success, many in the West worry that its model of market authoritarianism will eclipse America's model of democratic capitalism. And in many developing countries, this may indeed be the case, says Halper. "China does not have to impose this model on anyone," he says. "It is admired and envied by millions of people in the world beyond the West. These are countries where there is much greater interest in stability and material well being than having an open public square. One of the basic building blocks of the good life for Americans and westerners has to do with personal freedoms of expression, belief, assembly, and movement, and that is not something which is part of China's presentation. Nor is it something to which China's admirers give enormous priority." It also doesn't hurt that China is willing to invest billions in infrastructural projects in countries where it wants to exploit natural resources; it has invested $9.3 billion in Africa alone. 

As China and its sphere of influence grows, will it pose a viable alternative model to free market capitalism? Especially in the months after the recent economic crisis, proponents of Chinese state capitalism prophesied the end of the American model. Single-party or authoritarian governments can take decisive action to combat recessions and can even minimize bubbles in the first place in ways that the divided U.S. government cannot, they said. But market authoritarianism will not replace the free market in developed countries, says Halper. Free-market capitalism remains the most dynamic and viable economic model. Yet it is clear that, as China and other developing countries become powerful global players, its version of market authoritarianism will greatly impact, if not dominate, the 21st century.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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