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Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his speech at the opening ceremony of the 19th Communist Party National Congress in Beijing last October 18. Photo: EPA-EFE

Once China develops, then its real problems begin – as people seek democracy, fairness and the rule of law

Yao Yang says Beijing looks well on its way to accomplishing the economic goals it has set for itself, but once it succeeds there will be new demands from the public for increased personal freedoms and fairness

Yao Yang
Last October, as he opened the 19th Communist Party National Congress, President Xi Jinping vowed that the country would have a “fully modern” economy by 2035, and would reach high-income status by 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. One hopes that he is more successful than China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, who in 1964 promised “four modernisations” by the end of the 20th century.
Zhou’s plan focused on reforming four key sectors: agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology. He did not set a specific income goal, but it is safe to say that he probably expected China to do better than it did: by World Bank standards, China at the turn of the century was a lower-middle-income country.
This time around, reaching China’s income goals might actually be the easy part. China’s real per capital GDP currently amounts to about 25 per cent of that of the United States. To join the high-income club, embodied by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, China will have to raise that figure to at least 45 per cent (depending on how real income is measured) – a level achieved, so far, by 36-40 economies.
China could join these countries’ ranks by 2049 if its economy grows by at least 1.7 percentage points more than the US economy every year, starting now. Assuming that the US economy maintains its long-term growth rate of 2 per cent, China would have to grow by 3.7 per cent annually. That’s a lot lower than China’s current rate of nearly 7 per cent. Even if China’s GDP growth decelerated steadily to 2 per cent by 2049, the average rate would amount to at least 4 per cent.

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But modernisation is about more than income. It is a comprehensive process that would ultimately transform China into a society with the kinds of benefits – opportunities, personal comforts and public services – found in today’s advanced democracies. Completing this process will not be easy.

For starters, China will have to clean up its environment – something that ordinary Chinese now view not as a luxury, but as an imperative. The government has taken some positive steps: the air quality around Beijing, for example, has improved considerably this winter, thanks to efforts to shut down polluting factories and replace coal with natural gas for household heating.

But this change has come at a high cost, including rising natural gas prices. The cost of improving air quality in all Chinese cities, let alone cleaning up all the polluted rivers, lakes and soil in the country, will be massive.

A second challenge China faces in pursuing modernisation is to narrow the rural-urban divide. Notwithstanding the narrowing income gap, rural residents still face inferior access to education, infrastructure and public services.

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Continued urbanisation will help, but even the most optimistic forecast estimates that more than 300 million people will still live in the countryside in 2035. No country can be considered modern, regardless of how shiny and dynamic its cities are, if its rural areas are left behind.

Compounding the modernisation challenges China faces, its working-age population is beginning to decline, and could fall by more than 10 per cent by 2040, according to the World Bank. While automation may protect China from severe labour shortages, population ageing will increase the economic burden of social security.

Despite the introduction of individual accounts 20 years ago, China’s pension system effectively still functions on a pay-as-you-go basis. When China’s “baby boom” generation – born between 1962 and 1976 – begin to retire, the system’s deficits will mount. In fact, some rapidly ageing and slow-growing provinces already depend on central government subsidies. China desperately needs a more unified and comprehensive system to balance social security coverage across the country.

A woman walks along a street in Beijing. China’s increasing elderly population presents a problem in that it both taxes social welfare and means the share of the working population is declining. Photo: EPA-EFE

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Of course, China’s rising national income will help the country confront the challenges it faces. But wealth, while necessary, is not sufficient. For one thing, the rule of law must be strengthened considerably, and not just to rein in official corruption. There needs to be a cultural shift, with citizens learning how to function in a society governed by reliable rules and legal structures, not geographical or familial ties.

The good news is that Xi recognises the importance of the rule of law. In the report he delivered to the party congress, he mentioned the phrase more than 20 times, emphasising “the overall goal of comprehensively advancing law-based governance” in order to “build a country of socialist rule of law”. Nonetheless, transforming traditional ways of living in China will require more than hortatory rhetoric.

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One key obstacle lies in the Chinese political system. It is widely believed that democracy is indispensable for a dynamic civil society. Yet the Chinese authorities are determined not to introduce electoral democracy in any way, shape or form. Recent political developments in advanced democracies – in particular, the rise of right-wing populist movements and leaders, including US President Donald Trump – have reinforced their resolve.

To the extent that it raises living standards, the “China model” fulfils some requirements of political legitimacy. But, once those living standards reach a certain level, the Chinese people will almost certainly demand more personal freedom and political accountability. The most fundamental challenge facing China’s leaders, then, is to find a governance model that fulfils these demands while continuing to exclude electoral democracy.

Yao Yang is professor and dean at the National School of Development and director of the China Centre for Economic Research, Peking University. Copyright: Project Syndicate