Features | Politics | East Asia

What if the China Model Goes Bad?

China’s economic growth has been remarkable. But continuing to rely on the notion of a benevolent dictatorship is a serious mistake.

What if the China Model Goes Bad?
Credit: World Economic Forum

The deadly train collision in Wenzhou last month may put a dent in the ‘China model’ of economic growth, but the concept itself is likely to be enduring for two reasons – China’s remarkable achievements since the late 1970s, and the financial crisis that continues to ravage the West. Indeed, if Beijing handles the aftermath of Wenzhou properly, the tragedy may come to be seen as an example of Beijing’s ability to fix shortcomings in its own growth model.

The term ‘China model’ is a Western invention, but has gained currency over the last half dozen years, both in China and overseas. Premier Wen Jiabao has actually said that China doesn’t see China’s development as a model for anyone, saying that all countries should choose paths that suit their particular national conditions.
 
However, since the West has been laid low by financial crises in the United States and Europe, and with the Japanese economy stagnant for two decades, the so-called Washington Consensus of combining market economics with democracy has lost much of its appeal in many parts of the world, especially among countries with non-democratic governments.
 

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In addition, Beijing’s good relations with developing countries in general means that they will inevitably look to China – and its authoritarian government able to make decisions without interference from an elected legislature, opposition political parties or a free press – as part of their own modernization efforts.
 
And, despite Wen’s reticence, other Chinese officials haven’t been slow to contrast China’s rapid development with the problems in the democratic West. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, pointed out that ‘at the moment it is the Western governments that are having problems.’ Why, she asked, have so many governments made so many mistakes? Why have political parties made commitments they can’t fulfil? And why do they spend so much more than they have? Democracy alone, she said, can’t put food on the table.
 
She went on to indicate that democracy shouldn’t be necessarily be equated with a multiparty election system, a position shared by other proponents of the China model. It’s a view echoed by Thus Han Zhu, a research fellow at the Sinologizing Research Center, who says that the emphasis should be on good governance, not democracy.
 
In an article in China Daily he wrote: ‘In the West, democracy is reflected only at the time of elections, but in China democracy has to navigate the entire process of administration, which puts enormous pressure on the government.’ He said polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and others reflect ‘the degree of satisfaction of Chinese people toward the speed and direction of the current development process.’
 
Another commentary published this month in China Daily, meanwhile, took direct aim at the United States. ‘The debt crisis has exposed the defects rather than the advantages of its system,’ the commentary said. ‘Even many US citizens have appealed for introspection and reform of the country’s political system.’
 

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‘Democracy cannot solve every problem. It is not the be all and end all of political structures, and it should learn from the experiences and advantages of other political systems,’ it concluded.
 
Yet while Chinese commentators have been scathing of the United States, and keen to talk up China’s achievements, they generally concede that the China model can’t simply be copied by other countries. Zhang Weiwei of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, for example, describes China as a ‘civilization-state,’ a status that can be claimed by few, if any, other countries. Still, he argues that ‘as China rises, the influence of the Chinese Model on the outside world will likely be greater and greater.’
 
How? Zhang says that some concepts, such as the idea that ‘good versus poor governance is far more important than democratic versus authoritarian government,’ might resonate overseas. And, on the face of it, this is an attractive idea – China certainly boasts a government capable of making major decisions that are frequently in the interests of the people.
 

But even as they denigrate Western-style democracy, Chinese officials agree that all governments, regardless of whether they are elected, need the support of the people.
 
This point was captured well by Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist in Shanghai and a doctoral candidate at Fudan University, who wrote in the Christian Science Monitor shortly after the Wenzhou collision that ‘the people are like water and the ruler is a ship on that water; water can carry the ship, water can overturn the ship.’
 
Yet without denying the remarkable progress China has made in recent decades, as well as the broad support of the Chinese people for the country’s developmental policies, it’s clear that there is a logical problem with the argument that an unelected government is fine as long as it delivers good governance.
 
The argument over benevolent dictatorship is, of course, an ancient one. But the problem that has always existed is this – what if the dictatorship stops being benevolent? And if it does, how could it be induced to give up power, and how would a new government be produced? In China’s case, it begs the question of whether, if the Chinese government lost the support of the majority of the people, would it step down? The answer is certainly no – the Communist Party clung to power even when it was killing millions of Chinese through starvation in the 1950s and 1960s, and has made it perfectly clear that it intends to cling to power forever.
 

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And even if the impossible happened and the Communist Party did agree to step down, how would a successor government be chosen if not through an election? In the absence of democracy, an authoritarian regime can’t argue persuasively that it should be allowed to remain in power indefinitely because it promises to continue to deliver good governance. In the end, no political system can be stable if there’s no system for replacing unpopular government short of staging a revolution.
 
That was certainly the script during China’s 2,000-year-long dynastic period. The philosopher Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, had said that if a ruler oppresses the people, then he would lose the mandate of heaven and the people would be justified in revolting. And so it was that the founder of each new dynasty claimed that the previous one had lost the mandate of heaven, which had fallen on his shoulders.
 
But, in the 21st century, a system that doesn’t provide for anything short of a revolution to get rid of an unpopular government surely can’t be seen as an attractive model. The Chinese government’s priority now is economic development. But it must also have in the back of its mind the kind of government that the country will need after it has reached a certain level of development, perhaps by the middle of the century, when all the people’s basic needs have been met.
 
It may well be true that a Western-style system, with its separation of powers, isn’t the right way forward for China. That doesn’t, though, mean that the country doesn’t need democracy – it simply means that China will have to invent its own particular democratic systems. Ultimately, the Chinese people must be given the right to choose, even if the choice is between two brands of Chinese-style socialism (or Chinese-style capitalism).
 
The recent interest in independents running for seats at the local level People’s Congresses is an encouraging sign and points to a path toward the development of Chinese-style democracy. Unfortunately, Beijing has seen fit to nip this development in the bud, making it virtually impossible for most to even register as candidates.
 
Surely, a government that calls itself a people’s republic must realize that political legitimacy in the 21st century resides with the people. And as for the people themselves, in the end what they look for is not ideology but results. The marketplace of ideas is all very, but it is how these ideas work out in practice that really counts.
 
You can follow Frank Ching on Twitter: @FrankChing1