Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Grand Experiments

Will China’s economic and social experiments end in success or disaster? Either way, the rest of the world can expect a bumpy ride.

By Fei-Ling Wang for

“China represents something akin to a laboratory,” philosopher Daniel Little wrote more than twenty years ago. And for understanding human organization and behavior, present-day China remains as intriguing and instructive as ever. Indeed, the country now feels like a steamy laboratory undertaking grand experiments that are profoundly shaping the country – and the world.

Of course, experimenting is nothing new in China. Ever since the country was forced open by the West some 170 years ago, it has tried all kinds of foreign and native ideas. Contrary to the official label, the “century of humiliation” was really a century of experimentation. The wholesale import of modern sciences and technology aside, politically and socioeconomically there were the failed effort to imitate the Japanese Meiji Restoration in 1898, and the frustrating experience of building an American-style republic in the 1910s to 1920s. Vladimir Lenin, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Benito Mussolini were all used as models by various Chinese leaders, until the invading Japanese disrupted everything in 1937.

Backed by Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) experimented with a communist-led peasant rebellion to establish the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The spectacularly incompetent but unrestrictedly ambitious and despotic Mao Zedong ran China to the ground in his terrible experiment of the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in the death of tens of millions in just three years. Then, in order to preserve his personal power and place in history, Mao launched the even more “innovative” political experiment of the Cultural Revolution, which hurt Chinese culture beyond description.

The pragmatic Deng Xiaoping opened new rounds of experimentation, focusing on imitating East Asian neighbors to get rich via trial and error. Imported institutions, technology, and ideas flooded the country, despite vigilant political filtration. Unlike other rising powers in the past, the “Chinese Lab” has a limited ideological master plan or blueprint beyond the highly experimental hubris of rejuvenating Chinese civilization. It’s also clear on peeling through the thick propaganda that only one thing now remains off-limit to experimentation – the CCP’s monopoly of political power.

So what exactly is going on in China’s grand experiment? A few profound potential changes are underway.

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First there’s the grand experiment of getting rich through imitation rather than innovation, and the effort to develop a dynamic capitalism under state monopoly. Then politically, China has become an empire without hereditary emperors. Internally, Beijing relies on nationalism to govern, yet suppresses the identities and demands of the numerous nationalities. Externally, China professes to rise peacefully, but toys with running a different shop for a new world order. Each of these experiments could lead to huge shifts of power across the globe, yet none of them is certain to succeed.

China has been dependent on foreign ideas and technologies for over a century. Today’s China Lab, still unable to produce much in the way of original ideas and inventions, has nonetheless demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to learn, absorb, reverse engineer, and imitate. A grand Chinese experiment of gaining wealth and power using imported ideas is as profound as it is ubiquitous. In recent years, Beijing has launched expansive programs of “indigenous innovation” that in fact look, according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, like a “blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before.”

This experiment has rapidly brought to China the latest technology, booming manufacturing capabilities, and rising living standards. Imitation rather than invention has been a key ingredient in China’s not-so-secret formula of economic boom. Some Chinese futurologists have even proudly mapped out a bright future for China through replacing the long-dead Communist Revolution with a new “Counterfeiter Revolution” to capture the world’s top power position. To quote the biting satire by a popular Chinese blogger, China has already risen to be a “great power of counterfeiters.”

But there are downsides to such a strategy. China now contributes more than 80 percent of the estimated $280 billion in counterfeit products sold every year on the international market. In Dongguan city – where the Taiwanese company of Foxconn assembles iPads and iPhones for the world – there are officially admitted over 10,000 factories specialized in producing counterfeit electronics (indeed, some have ended up in the Pentagon weapon systems).

More importantly, the lucrative practice of imitation (and piracy) has suffocated innovation among the 1.3 billion very industrious Chinese. True scientific discoveries and technological innovations from China have been negligible, despite the fact that Chinese colleges now graduate the world’s largest army of engineers, and China has one of the world’s biggest R&D budgets.

Despite Chinese quickly showing what they are capable of economically, since being at least partially liberated from Maoist pseudo-socialism, Beijing has been pushing what is essentially a 19th century raw capitalism combined with a one-party dictatorship that monopolizes key resources and industries. This is, then, an epic experiment betting on a peculiar relationship between the market and the state on a scale rarely seen in history.

But while the private sector has been the most dynamic and the fastest growing part of the Chinese economy, Beijing still monopolizes key industries from transportation, telecommunication, to energy. For example, it only took decrees from Beijing plus jail sentences for the state to grab privately developed oilfields in Shaanxi and coalmines in Shanxi.

In modern day China, everybody is encouraged to make more money, yet property rights are still very poorly defined and protected. Private ownership of land is illegal; intellectual property rights fare even worse. The red-hot Chinese real estate market offers buyers exorbitant housing with only the user’s right of a few decades on the land that they can never own.

As a result, getting rich in China outside of the ruling inner circles often implies great peril, including long and murky jail sentences – or worse. This was highlighted by the case of Huang Guangyu, who received a 14-year jail sentence for three “economic crimes.” The Forbes-like list of the “Richest 100 Chinese” in the past decade, meanwhile, became a sort of curse as dozens of super-rich Chinese who have graced the list have already ended up in jail, been exiled, disappeared or died. It’s therefore not surprising to see 88 percent of the Chinese business elite and high-income earners searching for or already having a foreign passport or green card. No other rising economic power has ever had its elite feeling so insecure at home.

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Meanwhile, Beijing now governs with little help from the personal or spiritual charisma that were associated with China’s imperial rulers in the past. The official effort of preserving the semi-divine image of Mao and his lieutenants – one important source of legitimacy at the great expense of truth and honesty – is only a paper-thin achievement that hardly survives even the faintest reality check.

Unwilling to have democracy, and unable to rule by a royal family – largely due to the fact that Mao’s only able son was killed in Korea by American bombs, and his trusted wife and nephew were incompetent and ill-fated – and after many brutal purges associated with political succession, Beijing now seems to have reached an arrangement of peaceful power transition with some arcane but functional criteria based on age, factional approval and compromises, personal performance and aristocratic connections.

The first such peaceful transition of power took place in 2002 to 2004, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, with the former retaining much influence. But both Jiang and Hu were handpicked by the late strongman Deng and pre-endorsed by the party elders, somewhat lessening the significance of the transition. Still, a successful repeat in 2012 to 2013 of such an opaque but working power transition from Hu to Xi Jinping would undoubtedly signal the institutionalization of a grand experiment of a political autocracy without a hereditary royal family.

This type of governance could certainly be more peaceful than Mao’s and even Deng’s precarious power struggles. Yet its capacity, wisdom, and duration in governing such a large, diverse, and rapidly changing country are all, at best, just a grand experiment.

And how successful has all this been, and where will it lead? The grand experiments in China’s Lab have so far produced mixed results. Some have been impressive and positive, while others are deeply unsettling and even troubling. But all are shaping China and affecting the world profoundly.

Some of the experiments may have been necessary and inevitable; others are simple defiance of history and theory. The world, for example, does not need or deserve the expensive and explosive experiments about what is the proper way to govern and organize people: It has become abundantly clear that an empire without emperors is hardly stable or effective.

Some of the experiments may be transitional, while others involve so much risk that they may eventually require great, costly external interventions to stop. Either way, the success of some of China’s experiments will mean more alternatives and wealth for humankind. And yet, China’s Lab may well also create a new Frankenstein. The whole China Lab is, after all, highly flammable and fragile with so many volatile experiments going on simultaneously.

Recently, a senior Chinese scholar commented that Chinese leaders since the 19th century have had a history of “always choosing the most stupid and the most disastrous route to follow at key junctures.” If he’s right – and these experiments do inevitably carry significant risks and uncertainties – then the world needs to prepare for the consequences of both the successes and failures of the great China Lab.

Dr. Fei-Ling Wang is a Professor of International Affair at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia.