Don't fall for the idea that China has to become like us

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
December 05, 2012, 12:00 PM GMT+0

Reform in the Communist party is less a synonym for change and more a bulwark against it: the 'bamboo strategy'

This article originally appeared in the Guardian

The western media have followed recent political developments in China with keen interest. As Hu Jintao and other senior officials handed over to a largely new set of leaders at the Chinese Communist party’s five-yearly National Congress, hopes were higher than ever in the press that the country might turn into a more liberal space. A significant portion of recent optimism, however, came couched in the well-established western phraseology on China, which has long been dominated by terms like “unprecedented”, “irreversible”, “breaking with the past” and “losing (or loosening) grip”.

Traditionally, this optimism has come with the assumption that modernity is ultimately a single condition, and that China, like many other countries, is on the brink, or at least the path, of inevitable change, as it continues to embrace capitalism and eventually becomes “more like us”. Sometimes the “inevitable change” story emphasises internal pressures, like the creeping effects of urban migration or the role of markets and middle classes as catalysts for greater transparency. At other times, it emphasises external pressures, such as claims that the more China grows, the more it relies on, and gradually conforms to, international norms and organisations.

As polling by YouGov recently showed, at least two other frames dominate British perceptions of China. In a survey of nearly 1,500 professionals from the UK defence community, 69% said China’s economic growth model is unsustainable, while 60% said its political model is unsustainable. Meanwhile, in a separate survey of the general British public, 47% said that China would be the world’s leading power in 20 years’ time, with only 14% saying it would be the United States (and 22% saying they don’t know).

In other words, a popular theory among UK foreign policy professionals is that the current China story can’t last, while the most popular public view is that it’s on course for global pre-eminence.

But what if China is steering between all of these futures – of inevitable change, collapse and pre-eminence? Observers are right to note that Chinese leaders face “unprecedented” tests. The kind of new challenges that China is facing are likely to multiply old problems, such as severe income inequities and urban-rural divides; displaced populations and internal migrant underclasses; endemic corruption and a sham banking sector; the double-dipping of Communist leaders between authoritarian privilege and semi-free markets; endless environmental and related health crises; and a growth model intractably wedded to the monetary headache of sterilised intervention.

China-watchers are equally correct that its leaders have recently talked seriously and more publicly than ever about political reform. But a dissonance in east-west vocabulary has also led many outsiders to confuse what this means with what it doesn’t.

Reform in the Chinese Communist party is less a synonym for change and more a bulwark against it, and any challenge to one-party rule. Key figures such as the outgoing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have discussed the need to embrace new forms of competitive elections and democratic process (so much that he was even censored). But Wen was also clear that these possibilities point no further than adapting “within-system processes”, or what the country’s current top legislator, Wu Bangguo, has called “consultation under central leadership”, meaning a kind of intra-party democratic process whose aim is exactly to stave off wider democracy, rather than embrace any part of it.

Optimists could yet be vindicated through big-bang change or incremental liberalisation, and a recent clampdown on ping pong balls and taxi door-handles in Beijing during the National Congress highlighted the state’s insecurity. But unrest and online empowerment in 21st-century China also come with important caveats.

Dissent today regularly differs from the Tiananmen generation of 20 years ago. As in any political system, middle-class expansion has been accompanied by progressive demands for more and better services, and greater expectation of access to opportunity. Many of these activists are different from the students who built their own Statue of Liberty to the sound of Bruce Springsteen. They might obsess about shoddy officials or services, but crucially not the system or its leaders.

Swaths of the professional class have traded political engagement for economic opportunity, and without their support the endless working-class outbreaks of labour unrest have remained consistently localised and disconnected. The party has also learned to tolerate some degree of criticism towards performance, which can perversely reinforce the state’s ultimate responsibilities – and therefore legitimacy – of government. In addition, the American roots of the recent financial crisis have strengthened the party’s claim that capitalism in the age of globalisation is better guided by hands-on planning than hands-off liberalism.

Western and particularly American futurologists have tended to see gradualism and inevitability in every example of Chinese political flexibility or compromise. But the fact remains that Beijing has overseen more than three decades of sustained growth without losing political control. Continued stability has precisely been underpinned by flexibility, or what a Chinese intelligence officer once described to this writer as a “bamboo strategy” – of bending to popular winds rather than standing straight and breaking like China’s late ideological cousins in Moscow.

So the next time you read a story that puts China on historical brinks or inevitable paths, take it with a pinch of salt.

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