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  • Dec 26, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

The West can avoid conflict by allowing China to go its own way

Eric X. Li says the West's outdated views have blinded it to the failures of liberal democracy and market capitalism. By allowing China to rise in its own way, conflict can be avoided

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 4:49am

From US President Barack Obama's ceding of the centre stage to his Chinese counterpart at the recent Apec gathering, to frenzied attempts to decipher the country's political and economic directions from the party's just-finished third plenum, the rising giant of the East often dominates Western political discourse. Unfortunately, such discourses are taking place on a faulty paradigm.

Ever since 1989, mainstream Western opinions about China have been dominated by two divergent theories with opposite policy prescriptions. The ultimate aim of both was to build a univer-salised world order, which of course could not be credible without China.

One is the "imminent collapse" school. Espoused by cold [war] warriors, it predicted the wholesale collapse of the country. The one-party political system was inherently incapable of managing the intensifying social and economic conflicts as the country went through its wrenching transformation from a poor agrarian economy to an industrialised and urban one.

The Western alliance should seek to contain China, so the theory went, and thereby hasten the fall of a threatening power ruled by an illegitimate regime.

The other is the "peaceful evolution" school. These are the panda-hugging universalists who made the "they-will-become-just-like-us" prediction. As the country modernised its economy, China would inevitably accept market capitalism and democratise its political system, and proponents urged deploying an engagement policy to speed up this evolution.

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the Western intellectual and policy establishment has been guided by these two schools of thought. The report card is not pretty.

The assumptions made by the "imminent-collapse" school include the following: China was run by a dictatorial party clinging to the dead ideology of Soviet communism. Its political system inherently lacked the ability to adapt to the rapidly modernising Chinese society. The myriad social and economic conflicts would soon implode, and the fate of the Soviet Union awaited the party state. With that, a major ideological obstacle to a Western-designed universal order would be removed.

Of course, the cold warriors have had to postpone the effective date of their prediction year after year for decades. What did they get wrong? It turned out that the party has not been holding back or reacting to China's modernisation, but leading it. Self-correction, an ability many attribute to democracies, has been a hallmark of the party's governance.

In its many decades of governing the largest- and fastest-changing country in the world, the party has pursued the widest range of policy changes compared with any other nation in modern history. Most recently, it has successfully managed a highly complex transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. In the process, it has produced the most significant improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest time in history.

Because of this performance record, China's modernisation process has strengthened the party's rule, not weakened it. The key driver of the party's success is inherent in its political institution. Over the decades, the party has developed a process through which capable leaders are trained and tested. Whereas elections have failed to deliver in many parts of the world, meritocratic selection has in China.

As embarrassing as it must have been for the "collapse" predictors, the bitterest disappointment belongs to the universalists who foresaw the inevitable evolution of China towards liberal democracy and market capitalism. Their conviction was guided by the grand post-cold-war narrative: After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world would come together under a globalised order. Western values were universal values. Western standards were universal standards.

But China walked a different path. As the party embarked on dramatic reforms, the country possessed a degree of national independence unmatched by most developing nations. This ability to control its own destiny allowed China to engage globalisation on its own terms. Its one-party system remained intact. Its economic integration with the developed world was carried out in ways that brought maximum benefits to the Chinese people.

Market access was granted in exchange for direct investments that created industrial jobs and technology transfers. The government exercised political authority above market forces and led the largest investment expansion in infrastructure and health and education in history.

The dream of "they-will-become-just-like-us" has evaporated. After the cold war, many were enamoured by the material successes of the West and sought to emulate Western political and economic systems without regard to their own cultural roots and historical circumstances.

Now, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes and market capitalism remain mired in poverty and civil strife.

In the developed world, political paralysis and economic stagnation reign. The hard fact is this: democracy is failing from Washington to Cairo. Even the most naive panda huggers could not sustain the belief that China would follow such "shining" examples. If the West wants to deal rationally with China, a paradigm shift in thinking is urgently needed.

To begin a reassessment, it is useful to first recognise what China is not. It is not a revolutionary power, and it is not an expansionary power. It is not a revolutionary power because, unlike the West of late, it is a non-ideological actor on the world stage and not interested in exporting its values and ways to the outside world. It is not an expansionary power because that is not part of the Chinese DNA.

The Chinese outlook is that of centrality, not universality. More practically, the Chinese see, rather wisely, that, although it could not accept wholesale the current global architecture, its rise must be peaceful. Otherwise the consequences are unimaginable. China's sheer size makes this so. Self interests will dictate that China is likely to err on the side of restraint as it re-emerges as a great power.

History is littered with precedents of failures to accommodate rising powers, leading to tragic conflicts. But that does not have to be destiny. Give China time, allow it the space and independence to continue on its own path. Live and let live. The forced convergence led by the West is costing everyone, not least the West itself.

Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the Oxford Union. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu

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scmpbeijing1
If only Eric X. Li would take some time to learn more about the real China, rather than his small world of party cronies. The Party has brought maximum benefit to the Chinese people? Tell that to the 1 million Chinese who got AIDS from illegal, government-run blood collection centers and government hospitals that didn't do their job. And what about the countless people suffering from pollution-related diseases? The millions of rural residents who can barely make a living, and whose children are denied a proper education. The ill who can only rely on a failed hospital system. The factory workers who are struggling to support their families. Yes, the Party has been great for people like Li, who use their government connections to get rich, but it's been a disaster for hundreds of millions of people. Eric X. Li needs to learn about the true situation in his homeland. Either he's painfully ignorant about China, and a complete fool, or he's a blatant liar. Neither possibility reflects well on him.
reggiedog
"In its many decades of governing the largest- and fastest-changing country in the world, the party has pursued the widest range of policy changes compared with any other nation in modern history."
Let's try not to think too much about the first THREE decades.
realestate
China was a failed state with its communist ideology until Deng Xiao Ping steered it out of the mess. It imbibed the Western economic model of growth which brought growth and prosperity to its people and still continues to do so. It's future lies in democratisation and opening up..Shanghai Free zone and full Yuan convertibility is just an indication of future to come. Eric Li's logic that China has been self made by a unique Chinese economic model is not only flawed but borders on the rhetoric.
Most of its communist brethrens gave up State ideology long ago for freedom and democracy, it is only a matter of time before China succumbs under its own weight of whatever little is left of its fading state ideology. The dazzle of money and its economic might will devour and gobble the CPC for ever never to be seen and heard again and the likes of Eric Li will be long forgotten too!!
China will finally be a part of the open and free civilised world...its only a matter of time!!
clc2
By virtue of its size, China will do whatever it will do. And as with any other large polity, foreigners are more useful for spotting problems than solving them. That must take place from within.
Still, the cadres are now devoting more resources to squelching voices that depart from the Party line than on almost anything else, including their armed forces. That's unsustainable.
At the same time, the low hanging economic fruit is now picked. About all the manufacturing capacity built for purposes of export has been built, because foreign countries will permit only so much more Chinese imports.
Assuming that China passes the middle income trap and the its coastal regions begin to resemble developed economies like HK's, a much greater percentage of enterprises will be privately owned. Even officials at the 3rd Plenum realize that, although resources have probably been spent to see if that is avoidable. It isn't.
Why should Chinese continue to be willing to give most political authority to the cadres, as they run more & more of their lives, themselves?
Is the resistance in HK to Party nominees for Chief Executives like CY Leung really unique to HK or will the same occur, elsewhere, as other cities match HK's current annual per capita income? The Japanese noticed control became tougher at about US$14,000.
Are western western democracies culturally distinct or did they just become relatively rich, first? Is China really on another planet?
dunndavid
Eric X. Li states "In the developed world, political paralysis and economic stagnation reign." Really? A recent survey of Africa in the Economist documented the spread of democracy and return to economic growth through much of the diverse content. All of the richest non-petro states in the world are Democratic, many of the poorest are ruled by despots. There is correlation between plural governance and economic success, not much the other direction.
Remitting Prosperity
We should give credit where credit is due. China has made enormous strides from the poor condition it was in in 1978, although that of course begs the question of who put it in such a bad state in the first place. Even his Soviet advisers thought that Mao did not understand economics. It was only when they abandoned Marxist economic theories that they started to make progress.
As for not imitating the West, are not both communism and capitalism Western ideas? What is indigenously Chinese about them?
It strikes me that there are two Ps missing from this article, Party and People.
The Party's central purpose is keeping the Party in power. Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of this. As for the People, they have no input into this process at all.
Here's the rub: as long as China is getting richer, the Party's monopoly on power will be tolerated by the People. If economic progress starts to falter, and nothing goes up for ever, then I think there will be trouble. The question will then be, will the PLA be willing to shoot people on the streets like it did in 1989? Because as the Chairman said, "every Communist must understand this, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun".
captam
Spot on Eric Li.
Couldn't have written it better myself.
前進!前進!進!March On! March On! On !
jd.salinger.3154
You don't seem to have the slightest idea what you are talking about.
.
Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Communism and capitalism fall under the social sciences banner. The Chinese were developing ethics, casting irons, collecting natural gas, building palaces, roads, trading silk and sailing the world when the West was still hunting witches.
.
As of this moment, China is mining rare earths and their own gold. There you go.
jiawang@adb.org
The US will not concede; China will not backdown. There will be war. This is history.
jd.salinger.3154
First of all, I would prefer the US to be regarded as Asia's Far East (The planet is spherical, after all), this would make the US appear more intelligent than its Western counterparts. And second, Mao Zedong was a keen reader of Mozi and Han Feizi, to declare China "communist" during his tenure might have been only a diplomatic cover. Similar to Russia, China is a resourceful country; and to have the country sealed off in a time of uncertainty to avoid exploitation was a logical step to safeguard resources and sovereign integrity from the obscene money printing and banking fraud of the West. Deng Xiaoping certainly had a plan and indeed a good one.
.
Regarding the "they-will-become-just-like-us" part, historically, the West has long been imitating China, so much more than the oh-so-very "successful" West would like to admit or brave enough to acknowledge. It is about time for the West to wake up to the reality.

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