Chi­nese wis­dom can be a source of in­spi­ra­tion

Newsweek International - - CHINA FOCUS -

From a coun­try that once suf­fered for­eign in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion for a cen­tury, China now

stands as the world’s sec­ond largest econ­omy, or even the largest if mea­sured by pur­chas­ing power par­ity. It has con­trib­uted 30 per­cent to global eco­nomic growth in re­cent his­tory and 70 per­cent to the erad­i­ca­tion of poverty world­wide.

The rapid rise of China has made schol­ars in both the West and East won­der how a coun­try could win wide pub­lic sup­port to se­cure such phe­nom­e­nal eco­nomic growth with­out hav­ing a Western-style elec­toral sys­tem. Is there a China model be­hind this ex­cep­tional rise? If so, can such a model be repli­cated and fol­lowed else­where? Also, is China’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem its Achilles’ heel?

A civ­i­liza­tional state

The world today faces great un­cer­tainty for rea­sons di­rectly re­lated to how the West de­fines a le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment. Some Western­ers claim that China’s strong plan­ning and ex­ec­u­tive ca­pac­ity is based on one-party gov­er­nance or even “au­toc­racy,” and its gov­ern­ment lacks le­git­i­macy. In the West, it is widely as­sumed that a gov­ern­ment’s le­git­i­macy comes from uni­ver­sal suf­frage and com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­party elec­tions.

This as­sump­tion raises two is­sues: First, it is not true his­tor­i­cally—uni­ver­sal suf­frage is a re­cent de­vel­op­ment. One can claim, for in­stance, that U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions be­came truly le­git­i­mate only from 1965, when African Amer­i­cans were al­lowed to vote. Fur­ther­more, this prac­tice is con­fined only to na­tion states. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine, for ex­am­ple, the Euro­pean Union es­tab­lish­ing its le­git­i­macy and play­ing its uni­fy­ing role on the ba­sis of uni­ver­sal suf­frage.

For most of the past 2,000 years, China prac­ticed a kind of one-party rule: gov­er­nance by a uni­fied Con­fu­cian elite se­lected through pub­lic ex­ams (the keju). Dur­ing much of this era, China was ar­guably bet­ter gov­erned, more peace­ful and more pros­per­ous than the Euro­pean states of the same epoch. China be­gan to lag be­hind Europe when it closed its door to the out­side world in the 18th cen­tury and missed the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion.

China is not a typ­i­cal na­tion state, but rather, a civ­i­liza­tional state. It is an amal­gam of the world’s old­est con­tin­u­ous civ­i­liza­tion and a huge mod­ern state with its sense of le­git­i­macy rooted deeply in his­tory. An apt anal­ogy would be some­thing like the Ro­man Em­pire if it had en­dured into the 21st cen­tury with re­gional and cul­tural di­ver­si­ties, a mod­ern econ­omy, a cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment and a pop­u­la­tion nearly equal to that of 100 av­er­a­ge­size Euro­pean na­tions com­bined, speak­ing thou­sands of dif­fer­ent di­alects while shar­ing one writ­ten lan­guage.

This kind of state, a prod­uct of hun­dreds of states amal­ga­mated into one over a long his­tory, would be­come un­govern­able if it were to adopt an ad­ver­sar­ial po­lit­i­cal model. Such was the case in China, be­gin­ning with the 1911 Revo­lu­tion that es­tab­lished the Repub­lic of China (1912-49). The coun­try at­tempted to copy the Amer­i­can model and de­gen­er­ated into chaos, with ri­val war­lords fight­ing one an­other and tens of mil­lions of lives lost in the decades that fol­lowed.

The China model

The China model, in brief, is a set of gov­ern­men­tal ap­proaches that has en­sured the rapid de­vel­op­ment of China. While the West has for so many years pro­moted the Western po­lit­i­cal model in the name of uni­ver­sal val­ues, China has pur­sued its own ex­per­i­ments in the po­lit­i­cal do­main since 1978, draw­ing lessons from the dis­as­trous “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76), when ide­o­log­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism ex­punged China’s gov­er­nance tra­di­tions and dashed peo­ple’s hopes for pros­per­ity and or­der.

China has since man­aged, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, to reestab­lish a con­nec­tion with its own past as well as bor­row use­ful el­e­ments from the West.

China’s mer­i­to­cratic sys­tem today is es­sen­tially a mech­a­nism of “se­lec­tion plus elec­tion,” with the for­mer orig­i­nat­ing from its own tra­di­tions and the lat­ter im­ported from the West. Pioneered by late Chi­nese leader Deng Xiaop­ing, this in­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ment has suc­ceeded in en­sur­ing an or­derly tran­si­tion of power over the past three decades. How­ever im­per­fect, this sys­tem is in a po­si­tion to com­pete with the Western po­lit­i­cal model.

China’s ex­pe­ri­ence since 1978 shows that the ul­ti­mate test of a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is how well it en­sures good gov­er­nance, as judged by the peo­ple. The di­chotomy of “democ­racy ver­sus au­toc­racy” sounds hol­low in today’s com­plex world, given the large num­ber of poorly gov­erned “democ­ra­cies.” China’s ex­pe­ri­ence may even­tu­ally usher in a par­a­digm shift in in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal dis­course from democ­racy ver­sus au­toc­racy to good gov­er­nance ver­sus bad gov­er­nance.

Good vs. bad gov­er­nance

Both good and bad gov­er­nance may take the form of ei­ther the Western po­lit­i­cal sys­tem or a non-western one. China em­pha­sizes sub­stance over pro­ce­dures, be­liev­ing that ul­ti­mately the pur­suit of sub­stance will evolve and pro­duce the right pro­ce­dures ap­pro­pri­ate to each na­tion’s own tra­di­tions and con­di­tions. China’s age-old wis­dom and well-tested prac­tices may

be rel­e­vant be­yond China.

The suc­cess of this gov­er­nance ap­proach is due to its two strong ca­pac­i­ties: first, the ca­pac­ity for self-re­form and self-in­no­va­tion; and sec­ond, the ca­pac­ity for plan­ning and ex­e­cut­ing strat­egy. China has cre­ated its own de­vel­op­ment model and an im­por­tant fea­ture of this is “de­vel­op­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion,” in con­trast to pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion. China’s five-year na­tional de­vel­op­ment plans and the Com­mu­nist Party of China’s an­nual eco­nomic con­fer­ences are part of China’s de­vel­op­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion. So are lo­cal de­vel­op­ment strate­gies and plans. China’s uni­ver­si­ties may even­tu­ally of­fer cour­ses and even de­grees in de­vel­op­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion, just as de­grees in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion are com­mon else­where.

How­ever, China’s case may be unique. Un­der its so­cial­ist mar­ket econ­omy, it com­mands not only such Key­ne­sian in­stru­ments as fis­cal and mon­e­tary poli­cies, but also other tools which may not be avail­able in other coun­tries, such as pub­lic own­er­ship of land and strate­gic re­sources as well as a large sta­te­owned sec­tor. Th­ese tools give China more lever­age.

An­other high­light of the China model is open­ness and in­clu­sive­ness. China rep­re­sents a sec­u­lar cul­ture where learn­ing from oth­ers is vir­tu­ous. China has re­tained its long tra­di­tion of “se­lec­tive cul­tural bor­row­ing” from the out­side world, but at the same time will never lose its own iden­tity. It is a model that can ad­vance with the times while seek­ing im­prove­ment step by step.

The Chi­nese Gov­ern­ment puts peo­ple’s liveli­hood first. The lead­er­ship has pri­or­i­tized poverty re­duc­tion as China’s first and fore­most task and is pur­su­ing a down-to-earth strat­egy to wipe out poverty. The re­form started in the ru­ral ar­eas, where the ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese lived. It trig­gered huge pro­duc­tiv­ity and cre­ated a se­ries of chain re­ac­tions lead­ing to the rise of mil­lions of small and medium-sized en­ter­prises, paving the way for the rapid ex­pan­sion of the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try and for­eign trade.

Grad­ual re­form is bet­ter than shock ther­apy. The Chi­nese de­vel­op­ment phi­los­o­phy is of­ten re­ferred to as “cross­ing the river by feel­ing the stones.” It en­cour­ages re­gional and small-scale ex­per­i­ments be­fore ma­jor re­form mea­sures are adopted. For ex­am­ple, the spe­cial eco­nomic zones are places where new ideas are tested and new meth­ods tried out. The Chi­nese work with the ex­ist­ing, im­per­fect in­sti­tu­tions, grad­u­ally re­form­ing them to serve mod­ern­iza­tion, and avoid­ing the un­de­sir­able con­se­quences that the for­mer Soviet Union and for­mer Yu­goslavia faced after their shock ther­apy.

In ad­di­tion, China has es­tab­lished its pri­or­i­ties and se­quence. In line with a grad­ual ap­proach, China’s re­form demon­strates a clear pat­tern of change: ru­ral first, ur­ban sec­ond; coastal ar­eas first, in­land sec­ond; eco­nomic re­form first, po­lit­i­cal sec­ond; easy re­forms be­fore dif­fi­cult ones. The ex­pe­ri­ences gained and lessons learnt in the first stage of re­form cre­ate con­di­tions for the next stage.

Uni­ver­sal ap­pli­ca­bil­ity?

There is no such thing as a de­vel­op­ment model that fits all coun­tries. To pro­mote its own model, the West has spared no ef­fort in aid­ing color rev­o­lu­tions world­wide. How­ever, the painful con­se­quences of Ukraine’s “Orange Revo­lu­tion” and the chilly “Arab Spring,” as well as the 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis have tar- nished Western cred­i­bil­ity. How can any model be uni­ver­sally ap­pli­ca­ble?

The China model is not uni­ver­sally ap­pli­ca­ble ei­ther, and China has no de­sire to urge other coun­tries to fol­low in its foot­steps as it has no mes­sianic tra­di­tion of try­ing to save oth­ers. How­ever, when you set a good ex­am­ple, oth­ers might be will­ing to learn from you, and China does have much valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence to share with other coun­tries.

Today, many of China’s neigh­bor­ing coun­tries—from Rus­sia to Cen­tral Asian coun­tries, and from In­dia to Viet Nam—are draw­ing on de­vel­op­ment ex­pe­ri­ences from China. This in­flu­ence ex­tends fur­ther to Africa and Latin America. The China model, like other de­vel­op­ment mod­els, has its draw­backs, but it can and surely will ad­vance with the times and im­prove. It has a proven track record of mak­ing changes with high ef­fi­ciency when faced with new prob­lems.

In today’s world, when a lot of coun­tries are fac­ing mount­ing gov­er­nance chal­lenges, they could cer­tainly draw some in­spi­ra­tion from

Chi­nese wis­dom. Scan QR code to visit Bei­jing Re­view’s web­site Com­ments to yan­wei@bjre­

By Zhang Wei­wei The au­thor is di­rec­tor of China In­sti­tute of Fu­dan Univer­sity

Xi Jin­ping: The Gov­er­nance of China, a com­pi­la­tion of Pres­i­dent Xi’s ma­jor works, is on dis­play with multi-lan­guage edi­tions dur­ing the 24th Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional Book Fair on Au­gust 23

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