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
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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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