"Western liberal democracy would be wrong for China" was a motion debate in London on 9 November 2012 sponsored by Intelligence Squared, a premier forum for debate and intelligent discussion.Click here
The debate was timely. A slowing and increasingly protest-prone China with a dwindling labour pool was at a crossroads pending a new leadership, notwithstanding impressive economic rise within three and a half decades. Nevertheless, according to successive PEW survey findings, despite a plethora of ills, the majority of the Chinese people remain generally satisfied with the way the country is progressing. Few demand regime change. This contrasts with sputtering economies in the West with political gridlock and rising social discontent, liberal democracy notwithstanding.
The debate managed to thrash out most of the issues, that freedom and democracy are universal values, that much of China’s growth is inequitable, and that behind the façade of impressive growth lies a host of ugly repression, corruption, widening inequalities, vested interests, and ecological degradation.
The outcome of the debate was not unexpected, considering how informed the audience really was about the pros and cons of China’s development model. It implied that a one-party system must be universally bad and the sooner it is given up, the better.
However, the following arguments beg to be answered -
(a) Would multi-party liberal democracy have delivered for China at least similar outcomes in terms of economic and social development, lifting as many people out of poverty in as short a time? The example of India may be instructive.
(b) Would elections have succeeded in maintaining national unity for a country as vast and diverse as China? Recent cases of Egypt, Thailand, and yes, even the United States, do not seem to inspire confidence.The Economist (The United States of Ameoba, 7 December, 2013) graphically shows here how America's politics have become morbidly polarised. Elsewhere, there seem to be signs of fatigue, if not failure, of multi-party democracy.
(c) Multi-party or single-party systems all end up in one government. The proof of the system must be its ability to deliver the goods for most of the people. History seems to suggest that a one-party state does not necessarily do worse. If anything, an enlightened one-party system seems to be better equipped to achieve results as it doesn't have to worry about the next election. It is not without reason that Thomas Friedman, influential author and New York Times columnist, laments in his popular book, Hot, Flat and Crowded (Penguin Books, 2009) that America should become "China for a day (but not for two)" (Part V, Chapter 18).
(d) While western liberal democracies reward successful politicians, the current Chinese party system seems to select more able leaders through competitive meritocracy built over an entire career, political infighting notwithstanding. See here how the Communist Party now works.
(e) According to United Nations Human Development Indices, China's model outperformed many democratic developing countries in virtually all indicators including life expectancy, economic well-being, law and order, health, and education, except, by definition, civil and political rights (China Modernizes, Randall Peerenboom, Oxford University Press, 2007). There is no lack of examples to show that, for certain developing countries, democracies have failed where benign authoritarianism has succeeded.
(f) The Intelligence Squared debate seems to be fixated at Tiananmen Square 1989. However, a lot of water has past under the bridge. To maintain stability, the Party must now continually earn the trust and support of the people. Their aspirations are becoming more diverse and liberal with a rapidly rising and better-educated middle-class. This means that the Party has to keep breast with the times to stay relevant. One can see why such bold reforms as unveiled at the Party’s latest Third Plenum are now necessary. Click here If only gradually, such reforms embrace certain norms of human dignity, rule of law, judiciary independence, and civil society. These norms are not the prerogatives of liberal democracy. Provided a one-party state is able to respond to people’s rising aspirations, co-option of liberal norms may enhance its legitimacy without multi-party politics.
(g) China’s ancient dynasties offer plenty of lessons in governance. The “mandate of heaven” was forfeited where a ruler failed to connect with the people, where the dynasty became short-lived. On the other hand, certain dynasties prospered and proved long-lasting, such as the glorious Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), when the ruler and the ruled enjoyed long periods of stability, prosperity and national strength. Naturally, we are way past dynastic times. But the analogy of the legitimacy of ability to connect with the people remains valid.
(h) This is not to say that China's model is without faults and serious drawbacks. Previous Premier Wan Jiabao famously said that China's development is ""unstable, unbalanced, un-coordinated and unsustainable" Nor is this to say that China's model is the ideal solution. China refuses to tout her development as any model for anyone, as each country's circumstances are different and each stage of development demands different approaches. Above all, China does not believe in any one-size-fits-all model that suits all countries at all times, including China herself.
I was conscious of the risk of my article being accused of political propaganda. The Western mind can hardly accept that a one-party state has anything positive to commend itself at any time. I hope to raise the possibility, if only for unbiased debate, whether and how an enlightened One-Party state may well suit a stage of development of a vast country like China better than multi-party democracy, at least for now. Indeed, provided the Party continues to change with the times, as it has vowed to do, it begs the questsion whether China may not need to abandon one-party rule any time soon.
On 29 November last year, Party Secretary Xi
Jinping evoked The China Dream during a visit to "The Road
Toward Renewal" exhibition in Beijing.. The phrase went viral on
China’s Twitter-style weibo and drew
a spate of emotional patriotic outpouring from overseas Chinese.
then, commentators have been trying to interpret Xi’s vision, ranging from a
mundane call for solving China’s problems, to a sublime renaissance comparable
to ancient glories of the Middle Kingdom or Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. Click here In
any case, Xi was speaking of a “China Dream” for the nation collectively, not a “Chinese
Dream” in the sense of good life of the “American Dream”.
of a legitimacy crisis, the yearnings for epochal change have been in the air
amongst the top leadership. Since Xi took office as Party Secretary, he has
launched a high-profile battle against official corruption and extravagance,
calling for closer bond between the Party and the people, and upholding the
rule of law and ideals enshrined in China’s Constitution. Click here
Some cold water was poured on Xi’s
reformist rhetoric by an article in the New York Times. Xi’s fight against
corruption and inequalities is pitted against opposition from vested interests.
His demand for constitutional checks is contrasted with his warning about the collapse
of the former USSR. His call for political liberalization is cited with his
approbation of Mao’s revolutionary socialism. Reading the article, one can be
forgiven for thinking that Xi's reformist stance resembles "a riddle,
wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
The confusion and myth are largely
a product of binary thinking - either giving up single party leadership or
sclerosis, either Western democracy or risk of a "French Revolution",
either forward to the future or retreat to Maoism.
In fact, the apparent contradictions are signs of a continuing quest for China’s
unique model of democracy. There is a conviction that there is no
one-size-fits-all formula, least of all a quick-fix that mandated glasnost and perestroika within 500 days which precipitated the collapse of the
Indeed, in enlightened Party intellectual debate, the original Paris Commune is
considered a form of local democracy ("we the people") and Mao's
revolutionary "mass line" as embracing the will of the “grassroots” (or
the 99%) against social injustice.
Not many in China believe that the country's future lies in copying Western
multi-party “confrontational” democracy, with all its recent fault-lines. But
how to make the Party truly represent and accountable to the people within a one-party
state continues to test the ingenuity of the leadership.
For starters, however, China is likely to change the household registration (hukou) system (which marginalizes
migrant workers) as well as to promote civil society to monitor local governance.
These reforms and others are proposed in a recent 468-page World Bank report
jointly undertaken with the Development Research Centre of the State Council. Click here
Another pointer to feasible change was a succinct, down-to-earth, 10-year roadmap for China’s social and political development provided by Professor Yu
Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Science. This includes a more centralized
(and less locally biased) judiciary, abolition of certain authoritarian organs
such as “labour educated camps”, and more governance transparency, including declaration
of officials’ private assets. Indeed, some of these measures are brewing, if
not already being experimented with.
However, as China vows to realize a middle-income society by 2030, it is timely
to revitalize the Party by invoking a grand renewal reminiscent of what
captivated the entire people at the founding of the People’s Republic. In a thought-provoking book “The Transformation of Chinese Socialism”,
Ms Lin Jun evokes the vision of “xiaokang
(middle-income) socialism” with empowered local citizenry. Amongst other
thoughts, she explains how “community,
security, integrity, and democracy” can be intertwined to empower local
citizenry, including the non-profit and voluntary sectors, in creating a
harmonious and “caring economy”. Her thoughts resonate
with a popular nostalgia for ideals of the Communist Revolution “where its
government was clean, its army was the model of serving the people, its working
men and women were dignified, and its life was meaningful without
commodification and consumerism.”
Moreover, in the age of scarcity
and environmental strains, it is possible to envision an epochal transition
from an “industrial” to an “ecological civilization”, in the words of Pan Yue,
China’s Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Click here, where minimalism is preferred over surfeit, and
less can be more.
Indeed, local citizenry has recently
been allowed to grow and even succeed in reversing major municipal projects on
environmental grounds. Citizenry empowerment in the workplace is also quietly
promoted as in the case of Foxconn, Apple’s Taiwanese manufacturer. The company
is now allowed to bring in US-based Fair Labour Association to train its 1.2
million workers in China in voting for representatives on 18,000 union committees.
It has often been said that with the
One Child Policy, China will get old before getting rich, as the pool of low-wage
workers is being exhausted. However, thanks to an annual
output of seven million university graduates, China will have 195 million of
them by 2020, more than the entire U.S workforce. In a survey in May 2012, KPMG, an audit, tax and
advisory firm, expects that over the next four years China will rival with the
United States in innovative technologies, particularly in cloud computing and
mobile telephony. Likewise, Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic
Strategy Institute, anticipates the rise of a “Silicon China” Click here. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization,
China tops the world in 2011 in patent applications, the first time in a
century for a developing country Click here. By all accounts, therefore, China should
be on track to overcoming the Middle Income Trap in transit to a
is supported by a presentation of Professor Angang Hu of Tsinghua University.
He finds that driven by total factor productivity growth, innovation and human
capital accumulation, by 2020 China will, by whatever measurements, surpass the
United States as the largest economy, growing to 2.2 to 2.5 times the U.S. GDP
by 2030. By that time, China is slated to have the largest consumer market, the
largest urbanization, and the largest infrastructural system, coupled with the
largest pool of innovative human capital, a green country, and a more equal and
there remain many institutional bottlenecks and other challenges like resource
scarcity, demography and vested interests that can derail Professor Hu’s optimistic
trajectory. What is even more crucial, however, is whether China could craft a
path-breaking new “social contract” that can harness a democratically organised
citizenry to aid, monitor, participate in and hold accountable a clean and
effective state that delivers the greatest public goods for the greatest
proportion of the people.
the odds, a visionary China Dream never fails to inspire and rally dedicated or
ambitious aspirants. According to the People’s Daily, a 27-year old double-major
from Yale University is giving up a lucrative career overseas to work as a
lowly-paid official in a remote village in Hunan Province. As a Chinese, he
vows to give his share to help fellow villagers to realize the dream for a
better life for themselves and their off-springs. Click here
and minds of the whole nation are now being touched by Xi’s “China Dream”, and
the inspiring vision, imprecise though it is, does not look wholly
Tocquerville’s“The Ancien Regime and the Revolution” is a critique on how liberal and
egalitarian revolutionary ideals could become corrupted and forgotten
afterwards. The classic tome has been
reported to be doing the rounds amongst China’s top leaders and is now a best-seller
in China Click here. When asked by Richard Nixon, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was
reported to have said that the implication of the French revolution was too
soon to tell. Perhaps he was right all along.
Contrary to some less well-informed Western
observers, many of the rights and privileges of modern democracy have
already been enshrined in China's Constitution, revised and perfected by
the Communist Party's early founding fathers.
document guaranteed full powers for a representative legislature, the
right to ownership of private property, and freedoms of speech, press
and assembly. But the idealism of the founding fathers was short-lived.
Though the Constitution was ratified in 1982 by the National People’s Congress, it has languished ever since", acccording to an article in the New York Times of 3 February, 2013.
" Some of Mr. Xi’s recent speeches, including one in which he
emphasized the need to enforce the Constitution, have ignited hope among
those pushing for change", the New York Times continues.
notable among those is Study Times, a publication of the Central Party
School, where Mr. Xi served as president until this year. That weekly
newspaper ran a signed editorial on Jan. 21 that recommends that the
party establish a committee under the national legislature that would
ensure that no laws are passed that violate the Constitution."
Neither Mr Xi nor the Study Times of the Party School are known for
thinking off the top of their heads. The Bo Xilai affair and a growing economic, social and political divide are clear writings
on the wall. It has been said many times recently that Alexis de
Tocquerville's tome on the French Revolution is becoming favourite
reading amongst China's top leaders.
While China will chart its own path of development and will not copy the Western
model of rival multi-party politics, political reform is
getting more pressing as mounting social discontent is posing an existential
threat to the Party.
The debate on the need for real dmocratic reform is intensifying amongst China's top elites. Professor Yu
Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Science circulated a succinct,
down-to-earth, 10-year outline for China’s social and political development. First
promulgated in April this year, it went viral on Sina Weibo amongst his 1.5
million followers on the popular micro-blogging site. Click here
While the jury is still
out pending Xi's formal installation as China's new President, the
prognosis is building up that something epocal is likely to materialize
sooner rather than later, as chances for China's true renaissance, and indeed its very system survival, are now at stake.
There are many tell-tale signs that China has now reached a
First, the economy is changing towards slower, but more
balanced, equitable and sustainable growth, to be driven by consumption instead
of capital investment and exports.
Second, according to Arvind Subramanian, senior fellow at
the Peterson Institute for International Economics, more currencies are moving
in sync with the Chinese yuan, the reminbi, as a “reference currency” than with
the dollar. Click here
Third, for the first time, China tops the world in patent
applications. Click here
Fourth, a rising citizenry or civil society is succeeding in
reversals of government decisions over such matters as social justice, local environment,
and press freedom.
Fifth, “labour re-education”, a 60-year-old Communist system
since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, has now been announced to
be scrapped. Click here
Sixth, China’s new leadership is now fighting corruption as
a top threat to the nation’s stability.
Seventh, externally, China has grown too big and too globalized
to continue with Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum of “biding time and lying low”
(“tao guan yang hui”). A nascent
blue-water navy is taking shape and more aggressive stands are being taken in
asserting the nation’s maritime territorial claims.
The list is by no means exhaustive.
According to a report of the European Council for Foreign
Relations (ECFR) (Mark Leonard, ed., November, 2012) click here, China is trapped in
its own success and needs to enter into a new era. “After Mao’s political revolution (‘China 1.0’) and Deng Xiaoping’s
economic revolution (‘China 2.0’), they are (the country is) expecting a ‘China
The report, a collection of essays by some of China’s most
influential thinkers, identifies three traps or crises in which China finds
itself - in the realms of affluence, stability and national power. How to
respond to them is subject to intensive academic and political debate:
"In the economic
realm, the main divide is between a social Darwinist New Right that wants to
unlock entrepreneurial energy by privatizing all the state-owned companies and
an egalitarian New Left that believes the next wave of growth will be
stimulated by clever state planning”.
“In the political
realm, the main divide is between political liberals who wants to place limits
on the power of the state, either through elections, the rule of law, or public
participation, and neo-authoritarians who fear these measures will lead to a
bureaucratic collective government that is unable to take tough decisions or
challenge the vested interests of the corrupt, crony capitalist class”.
“In the foreign policy
realm, the main divide is between defensive internationalists who want to play
a role in the existing institutions of global governance or emphasize prudence
and nationalists who want China to assert itself on the global stage."
The intensity of these debates, however, belies the extent
of differences between what are portrayed to be diametrically opposing schools
of thought. For example, the so-called New Right does not see that China needs to import the
kind of Western market fundamentalism that led, for example, to the financial
crisis. Moreover, the quoted example of a push by the New Right, the
468-page World Bank Report jointly undertaken with the Development Research
Centre of the State Council, is by no means all about “marketization” . It also
contains the target of achieving universal access to public goods such as heathcare,
education and housing by 2020, reform of the hukou system which marginalizes migrant workers, improved
governance and promotion of civil society. These are all agendas said to be
part of the ideology of the New Left.
As an example of the latter, the so-called “Chongqing model”
also sets great store on the complementary and mutually re-enforcing role
between public ownership and private enterprise, as Nobel prize-winning
economist James Meade has argued.
In any event, these debates do not fracture the collective
leadership, as opposing ideas are, as a rule, discussed and reconciled through
various expert groups, a healthy feature of China’s relatively efficient
decision-making process. There is no partisan gridlock as what causes
administrative dysfunction in American politics.
Indeed, there are valid ideas in various intellectual camps
which deserve adoption if China 3.0 is to find a unique path to economic,
social and political development and to define the nation’s place in a post
uni-polar world. These include such transitional steps as Ma Jun’s “accountability without elections”, “budgetary” and “social” democracy through
wider public consultation, and monitoring
governance through civil society; Zhang Weiying’s safeguard of individual
“rights”; Pan Wei and Shang Ying’s “Wuxi experience” of neighbourhood
communities; and Wang Yizhou’s diplomacy of “creative involvement” by providing
public goods in the global commons commensurate with China’s emerging status as
a world power.
Sun Liping, former PhD supervisor of Xi Jinping at Tsinghua
University, identifies China’s “correction predicament” or “transition trap”
where accumulated problems have grown too difficult to resolve and reform is
opposed by powerful vested interests. He opines that a social consensus must be built to tackle this predicament head-on as there is only “a fleeting historical opportunity to face this challenge”.
China also has to grapple with a “Middle Income Trap”, where countries
reaching about $3,000 to $8,000 per capita income tend to stall in productivity
and income growth. Nevertheless, according to a research study of China’s
Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), this hurdle is likely to be overcome by 2021-25. Click here At the 18th Party Congress, President Hu emphasized the objective of
attaining a Middle-Income Society by 2020, doubling per capita income of $5,530
in 2011 to $10,000. This would require only an average growth rate of less than
7% annually, a target not totally beyond reach, given China’s recent innovation
A recent OECD report suggests that
“China will overtake the eurozone in 2012 and the US within the next four years
to become the largest economy in the world”. More recently, Party leader
Xi Jinping talks of China’s dream of a coming renaissance. Click here However, with some
seven million university graduates added every year, a rapidly growing, middle -class “Chinanet” generation is increasingly demanding greater legitimacy, accountability,
openness and personal liberty. Absent meaningful
democratic reform, any vision of a Chinese renaissance would not only remain
elusive, but the very survival of the Communist Party risks being threatened.
There is a rumour that Alexis de Tocqueville’s tome
on the French Revolution has been doing the rounds amongst the top leadership. This
may not be without foundation, for amidst the crises and traps China is facing, perhaps democratic reform is the most critical of all.
Interview on Inside Story with Aljazeera English on 27 December 2012 together with Dale Rutstein, the China spokesperson for UNICEF, the UN child protection agency; and Victor Gao, the director of the China National Association of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs.
Doubt , if not pessimism, is expressed by by David Shambaugh
on the ability of China’s new leadership to power China's Rise in an article of 21 November, 2012 here in
YaleGlobal Online, a platform of the Yale Centre for the Study of
Shambaugh is professor
and director of the China Policy Program Elliott School of International
Affairs at George Washington University, and Senior Fellow in the Foreign
Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution.The article heralds
his forthcoming book “China Goes Global: The Partial Power (2013)” Click here
Shambaugh recognizes “a surprising strong
consensus” both inside and outside China on the following critical domestic reform
“ – reorienting the economic
growth model away from investments into physical infrastructure and
subsidized exports to one driven by domestic consumption and innovation,
emphasizing the knowledge economy and service industries;
– breaking the government’s monopoly over several
sectors, while empowering civil society and loosening controls
over the media, so as to facilitate the free flow of information needed in a
real market economy and innovation society;
– adequately resourcing “public goods” for the populace–
including healthcare, environmental protection, improved quality of education,
pensions, old age care – while seriously addressing social stratification and
– instituting the real rule of law – so as to counter
rampant corruption, rising crime, systemic abuse of privilege and power, and
facilitate the predictable functioning of a market economy;
– addressing seething discontent among ethnic groups in
Tibet and Xinjiang in positive ways instead of relying on intimidation and
– permitting greater political pluralism, even within a one-party
“In the foreign-policy
arena”, Shambaugh thinks that “China’s neighbours hope it will adopt a
and less confrontational posture, particularly over maritime
territorial disputes. Beijing also needs to work with the United States to stem
the strategic competition and mistrust now pervasive in the relationship. Its
relations elsewhere in the world are increasingly afflicted by the growing
perception of China as a mercantilist state soaking up natural resources and
investing in strategic assets. China also needs to play a greater role in global governance
commensurate with its power and position in the international community”.
However, the eminent professor thinks that China’s new generation of
leaders is hamstrung by four inherent constraints -
A “path dependency”
“The growth model has not only produced
impressive national development – it has also employed a huge relatively
unskilled workforce. To transition away from this model risks widespread
unemployment and labour unrest, which would threaten social stability and party
Shambaugh explains that “The composition of (China’s ) exports needs to move up the value
chain – and this is linked to shifting investment from “hard” to “soft”
infrastructure: education, science, cutting-edge technologies, innovation and
cultural creativity. For China to make these transitions requires more than a
shift in financial allocations, though, as it requires loosening of the
political system, media censorship and civil society. A “knowledge economy”
cannot easily be built in an authoritarian system.”
Shambaugh argues that with the
spectre of the collapse of the former USSR, together with the lingering threats
of the Eurasian “colour revolutions” and the “Arab spring”, there is a gripping
fear that “opening the political system to genuine pluralism, empowering civil
society, loosening media censorship, permitting free inquiry and critical
thinking in education and research, or making the legislative and judicial
systems autonomous of party control, would inevitable cascade out of control
and spell the demise of party rule”.
or vested interests
“The core problem is the state
sector of the economy, which still accounts for roughly 30 percent of GDP. This
includes state monopolies of the banking, energy, finance, defense, heavy
industrial, aerospace, telecommunications, and much of the transportation
sectors, as well as enormous swaths of land and property owned by the party,
state and military. Lenin warned of “state-monopoly capitalism” in 1917 – China
has it in spades today. These vested interests, particularly the 145,000 state
enterprises and 120 “national champion” corporations, are not about to divest
their interests voluntarily”. In addition, “three other entrenched
interest groups inhibit reforms: the military, the sprawling internal security
apparatus and the arch-conservative wing of the Communist Party”.
There is an “entrenched national narrative of victimization. This
narrative, assiduously developed over six decades through the propaganda and educational
systems, underpins the political raison d’etre of the Communist Party – but it
is a core source of the frictions with China’s neighbours and the West. China
needs to shed this psychological baggage to truly normalize relations with Asia
and the West – but to do so is to undercut the party’s legitimacy”.
To be fair, Professor Shambaugh is to be agreed as his prognosis is much
more balanced and analytical compared with most China studies characterized by
sectoral or pre-judgemental bias, hyping either the “China threat” or “China
collapse” at one end of the spectrum to “China rules the world” at the other. According
to his description of his forthcoming book, his conclusions are based on “six
distinct dimensions of China’s global emergence (perceptual, diplomatic, global
governance, economic, cultural, and security) and multiple manifestations of
While Shambaugh’s scepticism is
well-placed, it must nevertheless be seen in the following context –
On “path dependence”-
Ever since China started to reform and open up in 1978, the country’s
development has been a continuous work-in-progress, to stay above waters of a continually
changing tide. This perennial status of flux, of adaptation and change, has
been at the core of China’s economic miracle, compressing over a century’s
economic progress into a few decades. However, this has been breeding existential
threats in unbalanced growth, rampant corruption, social inequity and ecological
degradation and a hotbed of other social ills.
As early as the beginning of
China’s 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), the leadership has been
highlighting the so-called five imbalances (between rural versus urban, human versus
environmental, economic versus social, national versus local, and inward versus outward
investments). Ever since, the leadership has ushered in a swath of initiatives
to hone “ a nation of innovation”
including a battle for talent. Click here and the promotion of the kind of “soft”
infrastructure highlighted by Shambaugh: education, science, cutting-edge
technologies, innovation and cultural creativity, though the outcome is not yet inconclusive.
There has thus been a clear
sense of changed direction since 2006 – now reinforced by the 12th
Five Year Plan (2011-15) – towards a dramatically different path based on slower
but more balanced, higher-quality, more equitable and more sustainable growth. There
is a broad-based awareness that the cheap labour pool is dwindling and China
must redouble efforts to respond to the so-called Lewis Curve Turning Point Click here and the challenges of the Middle Income
Trap. Click here
So the point here is that “path
dependence” is not immutable.
On the “Soviet
True, the Communist Party is caught in a quandary. But what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
describe as “extractive institutions” (“Why
Nations Fail”, Profile Books, 2012) have generated growing social unrests
that threaten to undermine the stability of the whole regime. It is no coincidence
that from Wukan, Shifang to Ningbo, a recent series of uncharacteristic,
high-profile, government about-turns have begun to happen, overturning local projects
approved in Beijing in response to public protests against land grabs and
pollution. In particular, the so-called “Wukan model” of open and fair village
elections was daringly promoted by Wang Yang, one of China’s rising, if
recently checked but no means “disabled”, pro-reform “stars”.
It is also
instructive that a host of reform proposals in a new 468-page World Bank report
were given the rare imprimatur of the
State Council (Development Research Centre). These include the promotion of
civil society, including the role of the media to monitor governance (if initially
only at the local level), and the strengthening of the rule of law, although, admittedly,
there is still a long and winding road towards greater legislative oversight
and judiciary independence.
But if the story is to be believed, Alexis de
Tocqueville’s “French Revolution” is
doing the rounds amongst China’s top leadership, including Li Keqiang, the
Premier-in-waiting and Wang Qishan, the new anti-graft czar. And fighting
corruption has been termed a matter of “”life or death” for the Party and the
nation, according to both out-going President Hu Jinatao and President-in-waiting
Xi Jinping at the 18th Party Congress.
The point here is that the “”Soviet
shadow” also means that “not managing change” in tune with the times will only
threaten the whole regime’s survial.
The reason why the 18th Party Congress was
unexpectedly delayed was the shock of the Bo Xilai affair. Regardless of
factional vested interests, nothing concentrated the minds of the collective leadership
better than when the whole apple chart was about to be overturned by the overarching
ambition of a scheming, if charismatic, individual. This was also an epiphany
that vested interests must be curved, if not eradicated, particularly those represented
by the monopolistic state-owned enterprises which sapped the vitality of the
private sector. Indeed, this is one of the major reform areas highlighted in
the World Bank/Development Research Centre report.
As for the military, a
series of top military promotions and reshuffling took place during the mysterious
disappearance of then Vice President Xi Jinping. It is probable that he took French leave to boost the loyalty of the military
leadership in preparation for his taking over the Military Commision chairmanship in a first-of-its-kind complete power transfer at the Party Congress. As it is now confirmed, the Party’s top leadership has been reduced
from nine to seven members, downgrading the security and propaganda apparatus below
the level of the Politburo Standing Committee.
All these changes are of course
not enough to break the so-called “iron quadrangle” of the military, the security apparatus, state-owned
enterprises and arch-conservatives. This is not totally unlike the American example of
the military-industrial complex forewarned at the time of President Einsenhower
plus its modern adjuncts of big business and Wall Street.
The point here is that vested interests,
when push comes to shove, can also trigger reform in order to maintain overall regime
The nation’s psychological baggage is a reality borne
of centuries of foreign oppression. Some of the remaining territorial disputes
are in fact their outcome. Such disputes are unlikely to be resolved anytime
soon. So territorial integrity is likely to remain a sore point in the national
psyche for a long time to come.
China has now become more proactive in the global commons, for example in
international peace-keeping, as the largest contributor of peace-keeping forces amongst Permanent
Members of the Security Council. The country is also instrumental in brokering
the six-party talks on North Korea and is taking a keener interest in
addressing conflicts in the Middle East. But such a role cannot be equated to acquiescence
with one-sided demands or abrogation of China’s own national interests. Indeed,
no self-respecting nation would do this.
Meanwhile, China is now embarking on a
mission to promote the country’s soft-power, including Confucianism and other
aspects of China’s culture and heritage. But notwithstanding the gravitas of
China’s economy, debates about the merits of the so-called Beijing Consensus
and growing world-wide interests in the Chinese language, China is unlikely to
have many genuine followers until the country succeeds in showcasing a
new attractive civilization with a heart and soul that appeal to the spirit of
the times.("China's Economic Success and Its Implications for the World Order" Click here
In the final anaysis, despite many negative connotations, “in
the past ten years under the current leader, Hu Jintao, the economy has
quadrupled in size in dollar terms. A new (though rudimentary) social safety
net provides 95% of all Chinese with some kind of health coverage, up from just
15% in 2000. Across the world, China is seen as second in status and influence
only to America,” according to The Economist front cover article of 27 October
An article here for the South China Morning Post dated 19 September 2012, China's Economy and Policy, the flagship publication of Gateway International, a global
China consultancy firm, postulates
days are ahead for China’s economy.
The latest OECD report “Looking to 2060: Long-Term Global Growth Prospects” dated November
2012 here suggests that “China will overtake the eurozone in 2012 and the US within
the next four years to become the largest economy in the world. By 2060
…… the combined GDP of China (27.8%) and India (18.2%) will be larger than that
of the OECD – and the total output of China, India and the rest of the
developing world (57.7%) will be greater than that of developed OECD and
non-OECD countries (42.3%)”.
Notwithstanding competition and rivalry, which are common to all political
systems, the different factions, power-centres, and vested interests of the
Party polity all embrace and continue to benefit from China’s continuing reform
and progress. The question is not whether to reform but where, how much, and
how fast, and of course, how to apportion their respective power and influence.
Depending on the time horizon and a host of imponderables, brighter
prospects may or may not materialize. Nevertheless, I am more inclined to the
view that the bottle is at worse half full. There is serious leakage that needs to be fixed but more water is coming in. At any rate, the jury is still out.
If one is to believe that in reply to Richard Nixon, Zhou Enlai said it’s
still too early to tell the impact of the French revolution, perhaps it is
still too early to be pessimistic about China, especially at such an epochal
watershed when no change is no option.
China will remain a work in progress for years to come. So, until China manages to address all of the above challenges, Professor Shambaugh is accurate - China remains a "Partial Power".
On the eve of an epochal leadership transition, The
Economist front cover article (27 October 2012) here shows why Xi Jinping, China’s expected President-in-waiting, must grasp the nettle to overcome a series of dire
challenges to the country’s stability, if not its very survival.
“The departing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has
more than once called China’s development (“unstable”,)“unbalanced, uncoordinated
This is in
spite of China’s impressive gains on a wide front during the past decade under
the watch of the out-going Hu-Wen leadership.
“In the past
ten years under the current leader, Hu Jintao, the economy has quadrupled in
size in dollar terms. A new (though rudimentary) social safety net provides 95%
of all Chinese with some kind of health coverage, up from just 15% in 2000.
Across the world, China is seen as second in status and influence only to
According to successive
PEW public attitude surveys, a vast majority of the population remains broadly
supportive of where the country is heading, in stark contrast to the surveys’
findings on many Western nations. However, across various strata of society, there
is a growing tide of disquiet, mistrust, and civil protest against the Chinese government.
“The poor chafe
at inequality, corruption, environmental ruin and land-grabs by officials. The
middle class fret about contaminated food and many protect their savings by
sending money abroad and signing up for foreign passports. The rich and powerful
fight over the economy’s vast wealth. Scholars at a recent government
conference summed it up well: China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected
at the middle strata and out of control at the top”, says the Economist article.
The latest protest in Ningbo during 25-28 October 2012 against a petrochemical plant project is a case in point. See a YouTube video here. Like a few recent high-profile cases elsewhere such in Dalian, Liaoning Province and Shifang, Sichuan Province, the governemnt quickly backed down, unlike previous get-tough repressive tactics, even as the projects in questions represented massive investments approved at the highest levels in Beijing. Click here
party could bottle up dissent. But ordinary people today protest in public.
They write books on previously taboo subjects and comment on everything in real
time through China’s vibrant new social media. Complaints that would once have
remained local are now debated nationwide. If China’s leaders mishandle the
discontent, one senior economist warned in a secret report, it could cause “a
chain reaction that results in social turmoil or violent revolution”.
since lost ideological legitimacy, and with slower growth sapping its economic
legitimacy, the party needs a new claim on the loyalty of China’s citizens”,
the Economist intones.
There is no
doubt that the Party is well aware of its existential challenges. As pointed out
by The Economist's Briefing article on the same subject, a rare joint study published in
February 2012 of the World Bank and the Development Research Centre of the State
Council captures a host of China’s impending challenges with suggested recommendations.
These include liberalization of the hukou
system which marginalizes China’s “under-class” community of migrant workers,
reform of state-owned enterprises to make way for the private sector, liberalization of the financial system, enhancing innovative productivity to
escape the “Middle Income Trap”, growing a green economy, and promoting a
greater role for civil society. It is reported that Li Keqiang, China’s Premier-in-waiting is the study’s staunch supporter. Click here
economy is taking an about-turn in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15),
from a high-speed, low-cost, energy-intensive, and export-dependent model to a slower,
higher-value-added, consumption –oriented and environmentally sustainable
model. This shows how China is responding to the challenges of the “Lewis
Turning Point” (a related obstacle of the
Middle Income Trap), where the country’s reservoir of cheap labour is running out when the population profile starts to age. Click here
To mitigate the
looming aging profile, there is still no sign that China is scrapping the One
Child Policy anytime soon. Perhaps this is not going to happen before the
middle class exceeds half of the population by 2020 or thereabouts, when
without government diktats, quality will count more than quantity in
determining the size of families. However, there is urgency in making this
policy change as turning around the population profile even a little will take decades
rather than years. In any event, under present circumstances, China will grow
old because the country gets rich (in per capita terms).
daunting challenges, however, remain social and political, in particular growing
inequalities, lack of checks and balance against corruption and power abuse, absence
of an independent judiciary, and want of social justice and freedom of
It is rumoured
that one of Li Keqiang’s favourite reads is Alexis Tocqueville’s opus on the
French Revolution. The downfall of the “ancien
regime” was characterised by what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call “extractive
institutions” in their seminal work “Why
Nations Fail” (Profile Books, London, 2012). Perhaps the Premier-to-be is mindful
of Zhou Enlai’s famous response to Richard Nixon, that the impact of the
1789-99 Revolution was then too early to tell.
elitism is not confined to China alone or developing countries in general. It
also happens in America as the lead promoter of democracy. In The American Conservative May 2012 issue,
Ron Unz, the journal’s publisher, poses the question "Which superpower is more threatened by its “extractive elites?” His
question is the context of a critical comparison between the U.S. and China's
body-politic, referring to the 1% versus 99% divide in America. Click here
States may also have a kind of “prince-lings” in the form of an unholy alliance between Wall
Street and the powerful “military-industrial complex” forewarned by President
Einsenhower. However, in the final analysis, notwithstanding any such “extractive
elitism”, America possesses, unlike China, the check and balance of the ballot
box and a highly independent judiciary defending the spirit of the American
As for China, The
Economist leader finds signs of further reform in a front-page article dated 16 October
2012 in Qiushi,the Chinese
Communist Party’s main theoretical journal, which, according to the magazine,
calls on the government to “press ahead with restructuring of the political
system”. The Economist proceeds to lay out, “taking a deep breath”, its vision
for progressive political reform, starting from the village level all the way
to competitive election for the nation’s top leadership.
“Independent candidates should be encouraged to stand for
people’s congresses, the local parliaments that operate at all levels of
government, and they should have the freedom to let voters know what they
think. A timetable should also be set for directly electing government leaders,
starting with townships in the countryside and districts in the cities, perhaps
allowing five years for those experiments to settle in, before taking direct
elections up to the county level in rural areas, then prefectures and later
provinces, leading all the way to competitive elections for national leaders”.
Communist Party has a powerful story to tell. Despite its many faults, it has
created wealth and hope that an older generation would have found unimaginable.
Bold reform would create a surge of popular goodwill towards the party from
ordinary Chinese people”.
“Mr Xi comes at
a crucial moment for China, when hardliners still deny the need for political
change and insist that the state can put down dissent with force. For everyone
else, too, Mr Xi’s choice will weigh heavily. The world has much more to fear
from a weak, unstable China than from a strong one”, opines The Economist.
In any case, in
the wake of the Bo Xilai saga, the Party has been shocked into reality that strengthening
the rule of law and further reforming the Party are pre-requisites for
political survival. Click here
the Party is drumming up the need for the rule of law (as distinct from rule by
law), there is still no sign of a political decision to establish a more
independent judiciary. Local judges remain
appointed by local party secretaries. Despite channels of appeal to higher
courts, this system of judiciary has spawned a glaring "feudal" anachronism whereby aggrieved
individuals have to make it all the way to Beijing to seek redress against
overt or covert resistance of local officials. Short of a complete judiciary overhaul, if
at least all judges are appointed by Beijing instead, this would immediately minimize
the chances of miscarriage of justice through collusion at local levels.
political reform, the magazine’s reading of Qiushi
is one-sided at best. The Party article merely reiterates the need for China
to find her own path in continuous reform on all fronts in keeping with the changing
times. It warns against the inherent contradictions in Western capitalism,
which have been increasingly exposed in recent years. The article is an
affirmation of the leadership of the Party. Absent is any suggestion of copying the
West’s model of competitive multi-party democracy.
leaving aside its perhaps over-ambitious recommended timetable, the political
reform proposed by The Economist is not totally incompatible with the form of “intra-Party
democracy” openly promoted by the Party during the past decade. The success of
Singapore’s single-party rule (notwithstanding elections) and the broad support
the Communist Party has been enjoying amongst
the vast majority of the Chinese people in recent years may well give the Party
added confidence to move in this direction, if only at a measured pace.
To take any
view on whether China’s one-party system is sustainable and to envision the
likely shape of any political form, however, it is necessary first to understand how China
chooses its top leader. The Economist, like most China watchers in the West, is
relatively silent on this point. When asked, I have on occasions jokingly alluded to the internal dynamics in the election of a new Pope or the leader of a powerful business association.
strongman era ended with Deng Xiaoping, the leadership contest has become a
competitive meritocratic process sprinkled with a natural dose of political
rivalry and horse-trading for the top job. Gone are the days when ideology alone mattered as the
Party has since been firmly wedded into a consensus of continuous reform and
opening up. The rallying focal point is to what extent, considering track
records and affiliates, an individual can be trusted by the Party polity “across
the aisle”, to borrow an American expression, in maintaining a collective, united,
and purposeful leadership to carry the Party torch and the nation forward.
layers of power structure, from stints as junior local party officials to ministerial
appointments, from work in provinces to key municipalities, from socio-economic to
political portfolios, some well-tried winners compete over the years to get to the
top echelons who are of a right age, proven calibre, and high standing within and
outside the Party. This process seem to hark back to China’s ancient meritocratic
mandarin system that underpinned the most successful (and long-lasting)
system of meritocracy resonates with the ancient Confucian wisdom that the
state should be well governed by the most meritorious and the most able to
serve the public good. 大道之行也, 天下为公, 选贤与能. If in the coming decades, this system
of single-party collective leadership based on Confucian competitive
meritocracy continues to prove successful in driving China, the world’s largest
country, forward on all fronts, it would be a powerful alternative mode of government to the Western model based on rival multi-party democracy.
Read “How are China's top leaders selected and how stable is China's Communist Party?” here
Last but not least, Confucian ideas are being re-interpreted
by China in the modern context of government for the people, harmony in the
society, harmony between nations and harmony
between man and nature. While Western democracies are revealing various
fault-lines, such as the global financial crisis, the European sovereign debt
crisis, the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement, and relations with the rise of political Islam, it
may be tempting to speculate whether a China Renaissance based on a Confucian model
of harmony may offer a viable alternative to the existing West-dominated word order.
However, any such visions of grandeur are unlikely to
materialize from China’s economic renaissance so far. First, China’s economy is
by no means an unqualified success - more in quantity than in quality. Second,
much of the world remains suspicious of the implications of a rising China, seen
as an outlier to world-accepted social norms and values. Third, the world’s
extant superpower, the United States, feels increasingly threatened by an
ideologically-adverse challenger, and is rapidly re-focussing its geopolitical
strategy. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, China’s perceived foibles in human rights, rule of law, corruption, inequalities, social justice, and pollution are having a negative
impact on the world’s perception of China.
If China is to rise to the historical opportunity to
influence the world order for the better, the nation must first reform its many
failings to create a new attractive civilization with a heart and soul that
appeal to the spirit of the times.
For Xi, the tasks ahead are historical as they are Herculean. There is no doubt that not only the Chinese people, but the whole world will be watching with abated breath.
Read “China’s Economic
Success and its Ideological Implications for the World Order” here
Interview on Inside Story with Aljazeera English together with Nicola Duckworth, a senior research director at Amnesty International and Martin McCauley, an international affairs analyst and a Professor of the University of London. Click here