Analysis of a Miracle: The China Model and Its Significance

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-21 10:06
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 As everyone knows, China’s rise, for one reason or another, is a controversial topic in the West. Over the past two decades or so, the Western media have frequently depicted China as a country in which the government and the people are opposed to one another, in which the government is oppressive and clings tightly to its power, and in which the people are engaging in resistance under the leadership of dissidents. Some people in Europe even believe that China is a blown-up version of East Germany or Belarus, just waiting for some “color revolution” to happen.

 China, the world’s second largest economy, will face more challenges in its journey through the next decade, such as how more can be done to turn China’s huge economic success into tangible benefits for ordinary people and how the fruits of China’s development can be shared by all. In 2011, more attention is being given to the improvement of public well-being amidst the backdrop of China’s rapid economic development. /Photo by Xinhua

 This view has caused many Western experts on Chinese issues to confidently predict dire things for China. They predicted that China would collapse following the 1989 Tiananmen disturbances. They believed that China would split apart following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They predicted mass disturbances around the time of Deng Xiaoping’s death. Before Hong Kong was returned to the motherland, they predicted that Hong Kong would no longer prosper. When China entered the WTO, they predicted that China would move toward collapse. When the 2008 international financial crisis broke out, they predicted that China would descend into chaos. But in the end, all of these predictions turned out to be wrong. China did not collapse. Instead, the “China will collapse” theory has collapsed.

 The repeated failure of these predictions has shown us that we must learn to be more objective in our study of a country as large and as complex as China. Perhaps we could focus on the “natural theology” of China as suggested by the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza or his German contemporary Lebniz. They focused on how China used a secular and more natural method to govern society, the economy, and politics, as opposed to the theological method that was dominant in Europe at that time. If we put aside ideological restrictions, we will find that the occurrences in China over the past 30 years or so probably represent the greatest social and economic changes in human history. This is because 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty. These changes have far-reaching implications for China and the rest of the world.

 It could even be said that China’s achievements over the past 30 years surpass those of all other developing countries combined, since China is accountable for 70% of the world’s population that has departed poverty during this period. China’s achievements surpass those of all transitional economies combined, because the size of China’s economy has grown 18-fold over the last 30 years, while transitional economies, such as those in Eastern Europe, have only doubled in size during the same period. Naturally, the countries of Eastern Europe started at a higher level than China. China has also achieved more than many developed countries. The number of people residing in Chinese mainland’s developed regions currently stands at about 300 million, about the same as the population of the US, and the level of prosperity is by no means inferior to the developed countries of southern Europe. In many respects, developed Chinese cities such as Shanghai have surpassed New York. In terms of tangible aspects such as airports, subways, high-speed rail, commercial facilities and urban architecture, as well as intangibles such as life expectancy, infant mortality and urban crime, Shanghai is ahead of New York.

 Though China naturally has its own problems, some of which are very serious and need to be carefully addressed, its overall achievements are striking. How can we explain this success? Some say this is the result of foreign direct investment, but in terms of per capita absorption of foreign investment, Eastern European countries are far ahead of China. Some say that it’s because labor is cheap in China, but there are many developing countries where labor is much cheaper, such as India. Some say it’s due to the role of a strong government, but there are many strong governments in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as in the Arabic world, but none have had the success China has.

 If none of these factors can explain China’s success, then we need to look elsewhere for answers. My own explanation is the “China Model.” But before explaining the China Model, I would first like to talk briefly about the nature of China as I understand it, which will help us to better understand the China Model. 

 China is not a blown-up version of East Germany or Belarus, nor is it just an ordinary country. China is a “civilization-state,” and it is the only one of its kind in the world. Why do I say this? This is because China has a longer history as a unified country than any other nation in the world; because China is the only country in the world with 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilization; and because China is the only country in the world in which a millennia-old civilization and a modern state practically co-exist. Let me illustrate this point with a rough comparison: It would be as if the Roman Empire had never collapsed, but had continued to this day. It would look like a modern state, with a united central government and a modern economy; it would incorporate various traditions and cultures; it would have a huge population; and Latin would be its common language.

 Inevitably, this kind of country is not like other countries. China’s civilization-state is characterized by “four extremes”: an extremely huge population, an extremely vast territory, an extremely long historical tradition, and an extremely solid cultural base. These characteristics dictate that China’s rise will inevitably have an extensive international impact. China’s population is larger than the populations of Europe, the US, Russia, and Japan combined. During the 2011 Spring Festival travel peak, over 2.5 billion tickets for transportation were sold. What does that equate to? Well, this is the equivalent of moving the entire populations of North America, Europe, Russia, Japan and Africa in less than a month’s time. This is an example that illustrates both the huge challenges and the limitless opportunities that China is facing.

 China is a vast territory, a continent with enormous regional diversity. It has thousands of years of heritage in every imaginable field, including state governance, philosophy, economics, medicine, military affairs and lifestyles. China also has an extremely rich culture, including fine works of literature and architecture. This is also evident in China’s rich culinary traditions: Chinese cuisine is divided into 8 major schools, with each school having countless branches of its own. I personally believe that any one of these 8 different schools of cuisine can, in a sense, surpass French cuisine in terms of diversity, although there may be those who dispute this view. Essentially, this is all the result of a constant process of integration that has run throughout China’s long history. All of these things have determined the uniqueness of China’s developmental path. Now, returning to the China Model, I personally believe that this model has, at the very least, the following 8 characteristics.

 The first is “seeking truth from facts.” This is a Chinese concept with a very long history, one that Deng Xiaoping reintroduced after the end of the “Cultural Revolution.” Deng Xiaoping believed that the ultimate criteria for truth was not ideological dogma, be it Eastern or Western dogma, but fact. After reviewing the facts, China has come to the conclusion that neither the Soviet model of a planned economy nor the Western model of democracy can lead to the modernization of a developing country. Therefore, in 1978, China decided to identify its own developmental path, adopting a pragmatic approach to promote its own large-scale modernization.

 The second is the importance of the people’s well-being. This is also China’s traditional political philosophy. Deng Xiaoping gave the alleviation of poverty first priority, formulating and implementing a number of practical policies to eradicate poverty. China’s reforms began in the countryside, because the vast majority of the population lived in rural areas at that time. The success of rural reforms stimulated comprehensive economic development, leading to the emergence of countless rural enterprises and small and medium-sized enterprises, which in turn laid down the foundations for the subsequent rise of China’s manufacturing industry and the boom in foreign trade. In a certain sense, the characteristic emphasis that the China Model gives to the well-being of the people corrects a certain bias in the Western concept of human rights, namely, that the political rights of citizens come before all other rights. This characteristic of the China Model may have a profound impact on the lives of the poor, who account for half of the world’s population.

 The third is putting stability first. As a civilization-state, China is more complex than any other country in the world in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, and regions. This characteristic has given rise to a common fear of “chaos” among the Chinese people. According to traditional Chinese concepts, “peace and prosperity” have always come hand in hand. Deng Xiaoping repeatedly emphasized the importance of stability because he, more than anyone else, understood China’s modern history: During the nearly one century and a half of history between the 1840 Opium War and the launch of reform and opening up policies in 1978, China experienced no more than 8 or 9 years of protracted peace, during which time China’s modernization was repeatedly hindered. Foreign invasions, peasant uprisings, rampant fighting among warlords and ideological fervor meant that China enjoyed few continuous years of peace. The past 30 or so years constitute the first continuous stretch of stable development in China’s modern history, and this is what has made the Chinese miracle possible.

 The fourth is the country’s gradual approach to reform. China has a large population, a vast territory, and a complex situation. This is why Deng Xiaoping adopted a strategy of “feeling out the stones to cross the river.” He encouraged all types of trial reforms, such as the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). When the trials were successful, they were implemented on a wider basis. China has rejected the idea of “shock therapy.” Instead, it has allowed its imperfect system to continue, while at the same time engaging in reforms so that it may serve modernization. This characteristic has allowed China to avoid the kind of paralysis and dissolution that took place in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. 

 The fifth is the sequencing of reform. Generally speaking, China’s reforms are progressing in the following order: first the countryside and then the cities; first coastal areas and then inland areas; first predominantly economic reforms and then political reforms; first relatively easy reforms followed by more difficult reforms. The advantage of this approach is that the experiences gained in the first phase of reform may be used to lay down the foundations for the later stages of reform. This approach is influenced by the Chinese tradition of integrated thinking. Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping devised a 70 year-strategy to turn China into a developed country, and this strategy is still being implemented to this very day. This capacity to perceive such a long-period of time integrally comes in stark contrast to the populism and political myopia which are running amok in many countries of the world at present (including many in Europe). 

 The sixth is the mixed economy. China has endeavored to organically fuse the “visible hand” with the “invisible hand.” This organic bond, which integrates market forces with the role of the government in the regulation of the economy, is able to effectively prevent the failure of the market. China’s economic system has been referred to as the “socialist market economy.” As large-scale economic reforms have unleashed the enormous potential of the market, the Chinese government has made efforts to maintain the stability of the macro-environment. This is the main reason why China was not dragged into the Asian financial crisis, and why it has been able to successfully navigate the international financial crisis. 

 The seventh is openness to the outside. While China does not have a tradition of preaching, it does have a strong culture of learning. China’s secular culture lauds the practice of learning from the strengths of others, and China has long maintained a tradition of learning selectively. In fact, China has even been able to learn several things from the much disputed Washington Consensus, such as entrepreneurial spirit and the export-led economy. Despite this, however, China has always maintained maneuverability in its policies, selecting which elements it will learn from, and never following others blindly. This all-round openness has allowed China to become one of the most competitive countries in the world. 

 The eighth is a relatively neutral, enlightened, and strong government. The Chinese government has been able to gather a broad consensus behind reform and modernization, and has also been able to achieve highly-challenging strategic goals, such as the reform of China’s banking system, the reform of state-owned enterprises, and the implementation of stimulus policies in response to the international financial crisis. This characteristic finds its origins in the age-old Confucian perception of a strong government, which regards the government as a necessary good founded on the selection and appointment of virtuous and talented people. China did, after all, establish a system for the appointment of civil officials by examination more than 1,000 years ago. In spite of its drawbacks, China’s political system as it stands today is unlikely to produce incapable leaders.

 China is currently engaging in the largest experiment of economic, social, and political reform in the world. The relative success of China’s economic reforms has mapped out a basic course for China’s political reforms. In other words, China will approach its political reforms gradually, on a trial basis, and by building up experience. During this process, China is prepared to learn from any and all ideas and practices that it deems outstanding, regardless of where and when their origins may be found. 

 China is currently undergoing its own industrial and social revolutions. During this process, it is only natural that China will face a diversity of problems and challenges, such as rooting out corruption, addressing regional disparities, and closing the gap between rich and poor. Despite this, however, China will continue down its own developmental path, and will not simply copy the models subscribed to by others. China went through more than a century of turmoil, war, and revolution, and has since undergone more than three successful decades of reform and opening up. For this reason, the majority of Chinese people are willing to stick to the successful path that the China Model has taken them down. In spite of its shortcomings, the China Model has the capacity for constant improvement, and this is because it has been relatively able to integrate several thousand years of Chinese tradition and culture. There have been more than 20 dynasties in China’s history, and of these, at least 7 were longer in duration than the entire history of the United States of America so far.

 The world order is gradually changing from a vertical order to a horizontal order. In the vertical order, Western countries impose their principles and practices upon other nations forcefully, while in a horizontal world order, the principles and ideas of various countries are able to interact with one another on the basis of equality, and are also able to engage in positive competition. Therefore, the coming world order is set to be a more democratic one.

 Lastly, I would like to tell you a story that a European philosopher friend of mine once told me. The story goes like this: One day during the latter half of the 17th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz traveled to The Hague to visit the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in secret. Why did they meet in secret? This is because at that time Spinoza had been cast out by the religious authorities due to his unorthodox beliefs. During the meeting, the two discussed several fantastic notions, including China’s secular, non-theocratic mode of governance. I personally believe that China’s rejuvenation today can still be attributed to this non-ideological mode of national governance. After meeting with Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz wrote a letter to a friend in which he stated he intended to affix a plaque to his door reading “China Knowledge Center.”

 Of course, in telling this story, I’m not suggesting that a China department be set up under the Senate of the Netherlands, because the Netherlands is world renowned for its tradition of China studies and research into China. But, what I am saying is that we should carry forward the spirit of those great thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment, especially their open-mindedness, tolerance, and courage to seek out new knowledge. In fact, in some ways, this is the spirit of the Dutch people. We should approach different cultures, different civilizations, and different modes of governance with the same kind of spirit and courage, no matter how alien they may seem to us at first.

 If we can do this, people will be less prone to misunderstand China due to ideologically motivated reasons. At the same time, our joint wisdom will become much richer, and we will be better equipped to address the various challenges facing humanity together, such as eradicating poverty, combating terrorism, addressing climate change, and preventing different civilizations from coming into conflict with one another. 

(Originally appeared in Red Flag Manuscript, No.6, 2011)

Note: Author: Professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations and Visiting Fellow at the Equinox (Chunqiu) Institute

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