By Zhang Weiwei
China’s dramatic rise should be understood in the context of China as a civilizational state, i.e. an amalgam of the world’s oldest continuous civilization and a huge modern state which is a product of hundreds of states amalgamated into one over the past thousands of years of history. The state is characterized by four factors: a super-large population, a super-sized territory, a super-long history and a super-rich culture, which have in term shaped all the key features of China’s development model, with all its possible ramifications for the future trajectory of China and beyond.
As we know, China, or the rise of China, remains controversial in the West for all kinds of reasons. Indeed, over the past 30 or so years, the Chinese state has often been portrayed in the Western media as a dichotomy of a repressive regime clinging to power and a society led by pro-democracy dissidents bordering on rebellion, and some Europeans, for instance, in Oslo, still view China as an enlarged East Germany or Belarus awaiting a color revolution.
This perception has led many China-watchers in the West to confidently crystal-ball a pessimistic future for China: the regime would collapse after the Tiananmen event in 1989; China would follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in its disintegration; chaos would engulf China after Deng Xiaoping’s death; the prosperity of Hong Kong would fade with its return to China; the explosion of SARS would be China’s Chernobyl; China would fall apart after its WTO entry; and chaos would ensue following the 2008 global financial tsunami. Yet all these forecasts turned out to be wrong: it is not China that has collapsed, but all the forecasts about China’s collapse that have “collapsed”.
This unimpressive track record of crystal-balling China’s future reminds us of the need to look at this huge and complex country in a more objective way, and perhaps with an approach adopted by the great German philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) to focus on how the Chinese developed what he called “natural religion” or the secular application of ethics and political philosophy to social, economic and political governance. If we are freed from ideological hang-ups, we may come to see that what has happened over the past three decades in China is arguably the greatest economic and social revolution in human history: over 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty, with all the implications of this success for China and the rest of the world.
China has in fact performed better than all other developing countries combined over the past 3 decades, as 70% of world’s poverty eradication has taken place in China. China has performed better than all transition economies combined, as the Chinese economy has increased about 18 fold since 1979, while Eastern Europe, as an example, only 1-fold, albeit from different starting point. China has also performed better than many developed countries, and its ‘developed regions’ with a population of about 300 million, the size of the US population, today in many ways match the developed economies in southern Europe in overall prosperity, and China’s first-tier cities like Shanghai may aready surpass New York in many ways, in terms of ‘hardware’ such as airports, subways, bullet trains, shopping facilities and city skylines, and in terms of ‘software’ such as life expectancy, child mortality rate and street safety.
China has its share of problems, some of which are serious and require earnest solution, but China’s overall success is beyond doubt. How can this success be explained? Some claim that it is due to foreign direct investment, but Eastern Europe has received far more FDI in per capita terms; some claim that it’s due to China’s cheap labour, but India and many developing countries offer cheaper labour; some claim that it’s due to an authoritarian government, but there are authoriatian governments, as the concept is defined by the West, everywhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and in the Arab world. None of them have accomplished what China has achieved.
If none of these explanations can clarify China’s success, one should be encouraged to think outside the box. To this author, it is essentially due to the nature of China as a state, and the Chinese model of development.
China is not an enlarged East Germany or Belarus. Nor is China another ordinary state; China is a civilizational state, arguably the world’s only one, as China is the only country in the world with a history of unified state for over 2000 years, and it is the world’s only continuous civilization lasting over 5000 years and it is the world’s only amalgam of an ancient civilization and a huge modern state.
An inaccurate analogy would be something like the ancient Roman Empire continuing to this day as a unified modern state with a centralized government, modern economy, all its diverse traditions and cultures and a huge population speaking the same language called Latin.
This kind of country is bound to be unique: China is an amalgamation of four factors, namely, a super-large population, a super-sized territory, a super-long history and a super-rich culture. China has a population larger than the total populations of the 27 Europe Union countries, the USA, Russia and Japan combined. China’s Spring Festival in 2012 saw 3.1 billion visits via China’s vast transportation networks, something equivelant to moving the whole populations of North and South America, Europe, Russia, Japan and Africa from one place to another in less than a month. This is the scale of the country as well as the challenges and opportunities it faces.
China has a super-sized landscape, a continent by itself, with unimaginable regional diversity. China has super-
entrenched historical traditions on everything one could think of, often traditions spanning thousands of years, ranging from political governance, statecraft and economics, to philosophy, medicine, military strategy and way of life. China has a super-rich culture, including one of the world’s most sophisticated literatures and architectures. Perhaps there is no better example to illustrate this richness than the Chinese cuisine: there are 8 main schools of cuisine and their countless sub-schools, each of the 8 main schools is arguably richer than the French cuisine in terms of contents and variety.
So a civilizational state is a product of hundreds of states amalgamated into one over thousands of years of history. The four ‘supers’, to this author, have shaped China’s unique development model, of which 8 features can be distilled:
First, it’s guiding philosophy is called ‘seeking truth from facts’. This is an ancient Chinese concept revived by the late leader Deng Xiaoping after the failure of the utopian Cultural Revolution. Deng believed that facts rather than ideological dogmas — whether from East or West — should serve as the ultimate criterion for establishing truth. Beijing concluded, from examining facts, that neither the Soviet Communist model nor the Western liberal democracy model really worked for a developing country in terms of achieving modernization. Hence China decided in 1978 to explore its own path of development and to adopt a pragmatic, trial-and-error approach for its massive modernization program. This is the philosophical underpining of the China model.
Second, putting people’s livelihood first. This is a very traditional concept of political governance in China. In this context, Deng Xiaoping prioritized poverty eradication as China’s no.1 task and pursued a down-to-earth strategy to wipe out poverty. China’s reform started first in the countryside, as at that time most Chinese lived in the countryside. The success of the rural reform set the Chinese economy moving and created a positive chain reaction leading to the rise of millions of small and medium-siezed enterprises, which soon accounted for more than half of China’s industrial output, thus paving the way for the rapid expansion of China’s manufacturing industries and foreign trade.
China is arguably correcting a neglect in the range of human rights advocated by the West, which tend to focus exclusively on civil and political rights. This feature of ‘putting people’s livelihood first’ may have long-term implications for the half of the world’s population who still live in poverty.
Third, stability as a pre-condition for development. As a civilizational state, its ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional diversity is among the highest in the world, and hence this condition has shaped what may be called ‘the collective psyche’ of the Chinese, i.e., most people revere stability and fear ‘luan’, the Chinese word for chaos, and the Chinese political culture is deeply rooted in the concept of ‘taipingshengshi’: prosperity in peace, or peace with prosperity. Deng Xiaoping’s penchant for stability derives in part from his understanding of Chinese history: in a span of nearly one and a half centuries, from 1840, when the British launched the Opium War on China, to the begining of the reform in late 1978, China’s longest continuous period of peace and stability lasted no more than 8 to 9 years; the country was in constant turmoil and suffered from repeated foreign aggressions, civil wars, peasant uprisings and self-inflicted ideological frenzy. By now China had for the first time in its modern history enjoyed a sustained stability for over three decades, and China has created an economic miracle.
Fourth, gradual reform. Given the size and complexity of the country, Deng Xiaoping set out a strategy that is often described as ‘crossing a river by feeling for stepping stones’, and he encouraged experiments for all major reform initiatives, as exemplified by China’s special economic zones, where new ideas were tested, such as land sale, high-tech joint ventures and an export-oriented economy. Only when new initiatives are shown to work are they extended nationwide. China has rejected ‘shock therapy’ and worked through the existing, imperfect institutions while gradually reforming them to serve modernization. This cautious approach has enabled China to maintain much needed political stablity and avoided paralysing failures as was the case with the former Soviet Union and ex-Yugoslavia.
Fifth, correct priorities and sequence. In line with the gradual approach, China’s reform has demonstrated a clear pattern of change: rural reforms first, urban ones second; changes in coastal areas first, inland second; economic reforms first, political ones second. In a nutshell, easy reforms before more difficult ones. The advantage of this approach is that the experiences and lessons gained in the first stage of reform create conditions for the next stage of change. Underpining this approach is China’s philosophical tradition of holistic thinking. Deng Xiaoping mapped out a 70-year strategy for modernizing China by the middle of the 21st century, and China is still pursuing this strategy today. This feature contrasts sharply with the populist, short-term politics so prevalent in much of the world today.
Sixth, a mixed economy. China has tried to combine the strength of the invisible hand of the market force with the visible hand of the state intervention, in part to correct market failures. China’s economic system is thus called ‘socialist market economy’. When the market force is released by China’s gigantic economic change, the Chinese state has done its utmost to ensure a macro political and economic stability, and the state has steered the country out of harm’s way in both the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the current financial tsunami.
Seventh, opening up to the outside world. With no messanic tradition of converting others, China represents a secular culture where learning from others is highly virtuous. China has retained its long tradition of ‘selective cultural borrowing’ from outside world, including drawing on useful elements from the neo-liberal Washington consensus such as its emphasis on enterpreneruship and international trade. But Beijing always safeguards its policy space and draws on foreign ideas selectively. Opening up to international competition has allowed China to become one of the most competitive economies in the world.
Last but not least, a rather disinterested and enlightened strong state. China’s change has been led by an enlightened developmental state. The Chinese state is capable of shaping national consensus on the need for reform and modernization and ensuring overall political and macroeconomic stability and persuing hard strategic objectives, such as enforcing banking sector reforms, carrying out state-owned enterprise reforms, implementing necessary industrial policies and stimulating the economy against the global downturn. This feature originates from China’s Confucian tradition of a benevolent strong state established on the basis of meritocracy at all levels. After all, China is the country that invented the civil servant examination system over 1000 years ago.
With this tradition of meritocracy and performance legitimacy, Beijing now practices what can be called “selection plus some form of election” throughout its leadership structure. For instance, the criteria for becoming one of China’s top 9 leaders, i.e. members of the Standing Committe of the Political Bureau, require usually two terms of good performance as the top leader of a province, which is often the size of 4 to 5 average European states. With this system of meritocracy and performance legitimacy in place, whatever defects it may have, there is no chance for such incompetent leaders as Geroge W. Bush to rise to the top echelon of power.
The relative success of China since 1979 shows that whatever the political system, it must all boil down to good governance. In other words, the ultimate test of a good political system is to what extent it can ensure good governance. The stereotyped dichotomy of democracy vs. autocracy sounds increasingly hollow in today’s complex world, given the large numbers of poorly governed “democracies”. China’s idea may eventually shape a paradigm shift from the dichotomy of democracy vs. autocracy to that of good governance vs. bad governance.
Good governance may take the form of the Western political system as in the case of, perhaps, Switzerland, or the form of a non-Western political system as in the case of Singapore and Hong Kong. China, with all its shortcomings, is a much better governed country than most developing countries. Likewise, bad governance may take the form of the Western political system as in the case of Haiti, Iraq, Mongolia, Ukraine and the recently bankrupt Iceland and Greece, and it may also take the form of a non-Western political system as in the case of Burma.
It follows that, from the Chinese point of view, the nature of a state, including its legitimacy, has to be defined more by its substance, i.e., good governance, than by its procedures. China emphasizes substance over procedures, believing that ultimately the right substance will evolve into the right procedures, appropriate to each nation’s own conditions. Good governance should be an objective of all governments in the world, and the developing world is faced with the mounting challenge of political reform in order to achieve good governance. The same is true for the developed world, given the scale of crises across Japan, Europe and the United States.
China is now the world’s largest laboratory for economic, social and political change. China’s successful economic reforms may have set a pattern for its future political change: a gradual, experimental and accumulative approach, and assimilating whatever is good in Chinese and foreign ideas and practices. After more than a century of devastating wars and revolutions, and after three decades of successful economic reforms, most Chinese seem willing to continue with its own imperfect yet efficient model of development, and this model seems to blend reasonably well with China’s own civilization of several millenia — including 20 or so dynasties, seven of which lasted longer than the whole of U.S. history.
China is going through its own industrial and social revolutions. Imperfections are abundant, and the country is still faced with many challenges such as fighting corruption and reducing gaps between regions and between rich and poor. But China is likely to continue to evolve along its own successful model, rather than embracing other models.
With China’s further ascendance, the China model may well become more influential internationally. While China’s experience is largely indigenous and will be difficult to copy by other countries with different cultural traditions, certain ideas and practices from the China model such as ‘seeking truth from facts ’, putting people’s livelihood first, gradual and experimental approach to change, ‘good governance matters more than democratization’, may have broader international appeal.
Indeed, the world is witnessing a wave of change from a vertical world order, in which the West is above the rest in both wealth and ideas, to a more horizontal order, in which the rest, notably China, will be on a par with the West in both wealth and ideas. This is an unprecedented shift of economic and political gravity in human history, which will change the world forever.
*This article is adapted from the author’s recent book, a bestseller in China, titled The China Wave : Rise of a Civillizational State (WorldCentury)
About the author
Zhang Weiwei is professor of international relations at Fudan Universty and senior fellow at Chunqiu Institute, China, and a visiting professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations.