The Inevitability of Chinese Political Reform. Wait, What?

January 28, 2012

I was pleased to discover yesterday that The Economist was launching a regular China section in its weekly publication:

In this issue we launch a weekly section devoted to China. It is the first time since we began our detailed coverage of the United States in 1942 that we have singled out a country in this way. The principal reason is that China is now an economic superpower and is fast becoming a military force capable of unsettling America.

Good deal, and certainly warranted given China’s status in the world today. However, I would personally limit justification of that decision to China’s rising economic and geopolitical power as opposed to military capabilities. There are certainly other nations out there whose armed forces are of more concern in the world today than is China’s.

All well and good, although launching this new section during the New Year holiday was rather odd. But that’s a minor quibble. Much more troubling was the rest of the article that made the announcement. The second sentence got us into strange territory:

But our interest in China lies also in its politics: it is governed by a system that is out of step with global norms. In ways that were never true of post-war Japan and may never be true of India, China will both fascinate and agitate the rest of the world for a long time to come.

Hmm. What the heck is this supposed to mean? China certainly is a unique country with a political and economic structure that differs from many nations, particularly Western countries. But is that difference sufficient reason for folks to be both fascinated and agitated?

Apparently so. You see, one of the standard themes of Western thought over the past few hundred years is the idea of progress (traditional Chinese thinking, such as Confucianism, would beg to differ). Some argue that such progress is inevitable, albeit through fits and starts. You know, “fits” like Nazi Germany and “starts” like the United Nations.

The problem with all this is that when you adopt such linear thinking, certain kinds of change become not only expected, but inevitable. In other words, if the world has progressed from Point A to Point B, then the characteristics of Point B are suddenly viewed as obvious and necessary for a “modern” society. Just think about how opinion in the West has shifted with respect to gender equality, gay rights or data privacy. It’s an interesting way of ordering a world view, and certainly makes analysis easy.

But what are we to do with nations like China that don’t fit the model? (Not a new problem. Wallerstein couldn’t do it for the early-modern period either.) How do you approach countries that, at least in some ways, are holding on to those Point A characteristics, refusing to join up with the rest of us over at Point B? Well, if you support this general way of thinking, you call that nation backward or, as The Economist prefers, “out of step” with “global norms.”

It doesn’t end there, however. If a nation is indeed out of step, and yet progress is inevitable, then it follows that the “backward” nation will eventually fall into line and shuffle along to Point B where the rest of us are waiting. Makes sense, yes?

This is essentially the argument put forward by The Economist in discussing China’s need for political reform, the key to which is having the Communist Party chill out a bit in terms of control, even in the face of rising social and economic tension:

The party’s instinct, born out of all those years of success, is to tighten its grip.

[ . . . ]

Yet that reflex will make the party’s job harder. It needs instead to master the art of letting go.

[ . . . ]

[F]or China’s rise to continue, the model cannot remain the same. That’s because China, and the world, are changing.

So far, I’m intrigued. But it’s now up to the author to convince us why “letting go” will lead to a preferable outcome. I can’t wait.

The overall goal here, says the author, is an economic one. China will not be able to sustain economic growth at adequate levels unless it moves away from investment to higher levels of domestic consumption. This is a restatement of the current conventional wisdom on China’s needed economic reform. But here, the argument is that such a move towards domestic consumption is only possible through political reform, which would help in the following ways:

Migrant workers would like to keep their limited rights to education, health and pensions as they move around the country. And freedom to organise can help, not hinder, the country’s economic rise. Labour unions help industrial peace by discouraging wildcat strikes. Pressure groups can keep a check on corruption. Temples, monasteries, churches and mosques can give prosperous Chinese a motive to help provide welfare. Religious and cultural organisations can offer people meaning to life beyond the insatiable hunger for rapid economic growth.

That’s quite a list. Let’s take a closer look at those. First, the social safety net. The assumption here is that without political reform, China will not spend money on education, health care, pensions and so on. This ignores the fact that the government is already doing all these things. One can argue with the amount of money being spent or the pace of reforms, but there certainly have been big changes in the past few years in these areas.

Second, labor unions. I personally tend to think that with labor unions, workers tend to get a better deal. But in the absence of unions, will working conditions never improve? Hardly. Again, we have progress in the form of the Labor Contract Law (2008) and significant hikes in the minimum wage as evidence that progress is underway. Again, such progress may be criticized for being too slow or not comprehensive, but it can’t be wholly ignored.

Third, corruption. Can outside groups help fight against corruption? Of course. But let’s not ignore all the anti-corruption efforts that have been made in recent years. Are those efforts sufficient to solve the problem? Time will tell, but in any event,  the claim that government efforts will inevitably fail in the absence of political reform is at least arguable.

Fourth, religion. Not surprisingly, I find this one laughable. China needs religion to help the poor and to offer people a meaning to their lives beyond economic growth? From reading The Economist over many years, I thought economic growth was an end in and of itself!

But seriously, the government is certainly capable of dealing with poverty on its own; indeed, modern China can boast of having lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the history of the world. Thanks, but no thanks, religion. As to the meaning of life, this was a throwaway line in the article not elaborated upon, so I think I’ll ignore it.

At this point, we have a list of things that the people of China might need. The suggestion is that political reform might assist in delivering those things, and that without such liberalization, those goals will not be met. It sounds like a good start to an argument, but unfortunately, this is pretty much where The Economist leaves us. In fact, in the interest of balance, there is even this list of arguments from the “other side” (note that in the article, these were presented first):

Party officials cite growing unrest as evidence of the dangers of liberalisation. Migration, they argue, may be a source of growth, but it is also a cause of instability. Workers’ protests disrupt production and threaten prosperity.

So having laid out the arguments on both sides with respect to political reform, why does The Economist leave us with this declaratory statement: “[F]or China to succeed it must move away from the formula that has served it so well”? (My emphasis.) Perhaps the article is simply meant to whet our appetite for future editorial content. This is a possibility. But I think it’s more likely that in the mind of the author, the argument for the inevitability of political reform has been adequately presented and nothing further is required.

In the minds of proponents of the “Western progress” theory, it’s obvious that democracy is better. It’s well known that religious faith is a good thing. It’s readily apparent that governments will not end corruption from within. If you already firmly believe in all of that, then further arguments are unnecessary.

For me, I find The Economist article to be excellent and thought provoking but sadly incomplete — the final 1/3 seems to be missing. I just wish some evidence could have been presented as to why China might not be successful in reordering its economy without fundamental political reform. The Economist falls into the same trap as many other Western analysts who have deep-rooted beliefs as to the “rightness” of democracy, religion and other aspects of modern Western nations. As I’ve said many times in the past, just because we happen to firmly believe in the wisdom of a particular ideology or structure, that doesn’t make it universally applicable or inevitable.