The Inevitability of Chinese Political Reform. Wait, What?

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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.

12 responses on “The Inevitability of Chinese Political Reform. Wait, What?

  1. S.K. Cheung

    On the one hand, I agree that the article applies “western” metrics to gauge Chinese “progress” in various arenas. To the extent that China need not be bound by such metrics, the concept is flawed. However, unless there is a unique set of Chinese metrics that can be used to gauge Chinese progress, the author is left with using the metrics that are available to him, or use no metrics at all (in which case there would not be much to write about). Ultimately, I suspect that Chinese people don’t necessarily want or need to see “progress” in comparison to western norms, but simply with respect to what they consider to be important. It would be nice if Chinese people could be accurately gauged on what is important to them. The blame isn’t on The Economist that such an assessment has yet to occur.

    Among the laundry list of things that need improvement, I don’t think the assertion is that China won’t improve without fundamental political change, but only that such improvement might occur more rapidly with such change. But I agree that the list is long on vague concepts, but devoid of any actionable specifics. As you say, perhaps it is a prelude to a more substantive piece.

    My perspective has been that Chinese economic progress and reform need not be married to political reform. The logical extension of that perspective is that authoritarianism is no longer a prerequisite. Whether it should continue to be tolerated or not in China is certainly not a universal judgement, but one that should be made by Chinese people.

  2. Godfree

    Well said.

    The Economist (to which I subscribe, faute de mieux), continued its time-honored practice of slurs and faint praise, which tended to color a report that might have been really useful. Their grossly inaccurate depiction of China’s activities in Africa, for example, were typical put downs.

    Their descriptions of China’s aid and loans were something that The Economist, of all publications, should have gotten right.

    For a critique of that, check out Deborah Brautigan’s blog, China in Africa. Dr. Brautigan is the go-to gal for factual information on that sub-specialty.

  3. Varun

    The Economist is an abomination, it offers nothing unique, but the same old mundane China-bashing tone prevalent in other western centric blogs.
    It needs more China experts, the real ones who actually live in China, know the history, the language and the people.

  4. Sam Bleicher

    To me the real questions are twofold:

    (1) Can a more complex society brought on by economic development can really be governed effectively without substantial input by the various (often conflicting) interest groups that would be affected by a given government decision? As a lawyer and for many years an environmental regulator, I strongly believe that the government needs lots of input from all segments of the public if it is to make decisions that truly and accurately accomplish the desired objective. The planners cannot know enough on their own to get it right. In a broad sense, this kind of input does mean the government must “let go” and allow itself to learn from its citizens what is the best way to proceed.

    (2) Will the increasingly educated and globally sophisticated Chinese public demand a greater role in the government – not because of some inevitable “progress” or economic necessity, but because the people want it. If the citizenry want greater access to outside information and greater opportunity to control their local affairs and greater attention to adverse environmental conditions, the government would be wise not to fight them. Failure to do so will inevitably alienate the public and lead to regime change at some point in some way. This result is not because of some abstract inevitability, but because that is what the people want, and in the long run they are likely to get it.

    1. Stan Post author

      As to #1, why do you assume that there isn’t significant input from various interest groups under the current system? Many have argued that the central government is actually quite responsive to the public, albeit in very different, and perhaps less formal, ways than we would be familiar with in other countries.

  5. Andeli

    Happy New Year.

    I would agree with you that the article is unfinished, but I will disagree with you on the general statement of “Western progress” when looking at the case of China.

    Why? Because Confucianism is not the political, philosophical or ideological base of modern China. That base is a political system based on Friedrich List, Hegel / Marx and the implementation of a soviet style system. In the early 20th century the modern Chinese state swallowed all the ideologies of the European Enlightenment and started implementing them in the 1950s and they have not stopped from Marx (Mao) to List (Deng).

    Without blinking one could say that the CCP is the strongest foreign ideological and most profound influence that China has ever had. They introduced European continental politics and economics into a feudal Chinese culture. The Chinese political system is based on an understanding of development of a nation (this most Western of all process ideas). This development is first and foremost material. That is why GDP, import/export and FDI numbers are so important to the party. These numbers legitimize the political system.

    The problem is that materialistic development renders itself obsolete when it is successful. In that sense the production/manufacturing class which has driven the Chinese economy since the 1950s is becoming obsolete. The dialectical materialism that the CCP was influenced by demands new development. The core of the new development is private consumption, which requires choices, accountability and interaction within a board segment of the economy, which is something CCP cannot provide alone, because of the complexity of the development.

    When the communists took power in China and introduced European Enlightenment into its political fabric it sealed China´s fate. A systematic participatory political system would at some point be necessary if material development were to continue.

    1. Stan Post author

      You make a very good point, but I think you are also conflating economics and politics. The Party firmly believes in economic and technological progress, but that’s very different from political progress. I would argue that the Western notion of progress does not pick and choose in that way.

      1. Andeli

        True and my presumption is that economics and politics cannot be kept apart in China, because it is doomed to walk the path of its Western brother nations.

        I have always seen the law as the only thing that to some degree could successfully be keep apart from the more swifting winds of politics and economics. I believe Singapore has been able to avoid introducing a full Western style systematic participatory political system, because the law was keept equal to all -even including the political elite. Still a working jurdical system will lead to some form of a systematic participatory political system, because when all are equal to the law, then all will at some point want to participate in creating the law. I believe equality leads to participation.

        In that sense the Chinese state has a huge load to carry because its legal system does not provide protection for its citizens against itself.

        The concept of “nationhood” and citizenship that the Chinese state copied from the West forces China to become a western style nation for good or worse, which means that economical decisions have to be justified politically. This justification needs to include the population in one way or the other, which will lead to strengthing of public paticipation.

        A real Chinese system of confucianism does not need to justify itself because it has divine right at its core.

  6. spandrell

    The Economist is the mouthpiece of the financial establishment. They want insider information, and they need to bribe the politicians for that.

    Its a known fact that MPs in democratic parliaments are much cheaper to bribe than authoritarian regimes, where power is distributed differently. That’s why the economist pushes for liberal democracy so hard. It saves them money.

  7. Augis

    China itself tried to adopt the linear thinking of progress by subscribing to Marxism.
    Since Marxism talks about the historical progress in which feudalism is INEVITABLY replaced with capitalism which in turn is INEVITABLY replaced with communism :-)
    So, it’s not West “watching” China. No. It’s China watching the West.

  8. slim

    I think all-out resistance to political reform is what will be inevitable, not least because the days of fast easy growth of China’s economy may be numbered and princelings and other elite vested interests will have to double down their efforts to keep what they’ve got.

  9. LOLZ

    Hear Hear. The Western MSM too often push for the idea of political freedom as the end rather than means to a successful nation. China’s current success opens up to the theory that success can be attained without democracy and limited political freedom (compared to the current Western standards). This is a threat to neocon ideologue everywhere.