Yao Yang, who is a professor and dean at the National School of Development and director of the China Centre for Economic Research, at Peking University has written an article for Project Syndicate that has been republished by the South China Morning Post* and is headlined: “Once China develops, then its real problems begin – as people seek democracy, fairness and the rule of law.” The general rule, that as prosperity grows people want more and more “say” in their own government seems to reflect some of: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory – when they get above the third level (Love & Belonging) most people seem to want to be involved in how their community and country make decisions; history ~ at least as I interpret it after some years of study; and what has been expressed to me as a “worry” by a couple of Chinese officials of my acquaintance.
After looking at some of the data Dr Yao suggests, and I agree, that “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.” That means that China is most likely to join Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark and America and be a “first world” economic power before 2050, as Xi Jinping proposes.
But, Professor Yao says, “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.” Just for starters, he says, 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, he tells us] … 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.“
It isn’t just the environment, either. Yao Yang says that “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.” There is no doubt that there are still “three Chinas:” a rich, modern, sophisticated Eastern belt (the coastal zone); a fast growing central belt (the interior); and an underdeveloped, often poor and backwards West. Somehow the West, including Xinjiang province where Muslim unrest is a serious security concern, in particular, has to be brought into line with the rest of the country.
Another factor is the social safety net. “Compounding the modernisation challenges China faces,” Dr Yao says, “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 … [because] … 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.” China might manage to develop an affordable social safety net ~ something few Western countries have been able to manage ~ if it can manage to introduce minimalist, even means tested “entitlements” slowly. If it can ~ if it can have a basic social safety net and a healthy, balanced economy ~ then it will be a major step towards reaching Xi Jinping’s goals.
Readers need to take this with a grain of salt, bearing in mind that Yao Yang is almost certainly “encouraged” to say this sort of thing when he writes in foreign publications, but … He says that “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.” Now, I believe that Xi Jinping does want to make China China more law abiding ~ so long as we all understand that the “socialist rule of law” is whatever the Party says it is.
Professor Yao concludes, correctly in my opinion, that “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 … [and] … 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.“
Many Chinese leaders, perhaps (probably, I suspect) including Xi Jinping were and remain fascinated with the late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s “crisply efficient one party rule, immunized from the temptations of liberal democracy,” as the New York Times described it. I often observed with some wonder when leaders as important, and busy as Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping took a whole day, even two, out of their schedules to be with Singapore’s elder statesman when he visited, and that went all the way back to Deng Xiaoping ~ there was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that the leader of a small country was treated by generations of Chinese “Paramount Leaders” almost like a demigod. American presidents and European prime ministers treated Lee with respect but the Chinese treated him as a sage, a great teacher … because I suspect that few, if anyone at all, ever understood East Asia as well as Lee Kuan Yew did or explained it as clearly.
I believe that anyone who wants to try to understand what the Chinese leaderships aims to do must immerse themselves in what Lee Kuan Yew had to say … and many, many Western progressives don’t like what he said and “pooh-pooh” his ideas; that’s a serious mistake. No one should care about what some Western scholars dislike about how Singapore governs itself … what we should care about is that for two generations the Chinese leadership read his books, listened to his lectures, asked him pertinent, pointed questions and appear to have come away convinced that he was right.
Lee was not opposed to either freedom or democracy. He simply did not believe that Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy was a good fit for modern Asia. he believed in fundamental freedoms and human dignity and, above all, the rule of law, and he wanted those for all peoples, but he saw East Asia as having deep cultural differences from the West ~ Confucius versus John Wycliffe et al. Lee thought that East Asians were much more communitarian while the West, at varying rates, had become more and more individualistic, arguably since the introduction of Pauline Christianity but, certainly, since the social changes in late medieval Germany, Scandinavia and, above all, England. Lee thought that Britain left Asia with a priceless legacy, but one that needed to be adapted to suit East Asian cultural values.
The Chinese have experimented with direct democracy ~ every example with which I am familiar (or have just heard about) took place in a rural area or small village cluster and, invariably, followed some sort of failure by the governing team installed by the Party. The two examples that come to mind, that I saw fairly close up, involved, first of all, public apologies by Party officials and then an offer of elections. In both cases the local people agreed to elections and they were, I think, conducted in a fairly free manner. If the local situation improved then the Party worked very, very hard to co-opt the elected leadership (and succeeded in one example) or, when things went from bad to worse or just failed to improve, the provincial leadership said something like, “See, democracy doesn’t help.” To the best of my knowledge direct elections have not been tried in any city or district of any size or import.
I have read that the Chinese are experimenting with different sorts of opinion measurement, including polls on possible future course of action. I am aware of one such test in a small city that sought public reaction to two proposed alternatives to deal with the use of a popular historic site. I believe that something like 15% of the population was polled ~ with very high response rates, as one might expect in a dictatorship ~ and the results did guide the local leadership’s actions. But a problem with all that sort of thing, it seems to me, is that when people are at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, as Dr Yao expects the Chinese to be before 2050, they want more than just polling: they want to “say,” to “pick” and to “choose” and voting is the normal way to accommodate that urge.
I doubt that Xi Jinping or his successors can square the circle without looking where they don’t want to: at elections. But Lee Kuan Yew has told them, and the world, that one party can win elections, fairly, over and over and over and over again if it is willing to listen to the people and if it provides consistent good government. Lee also suggested, of course, that one duty of government is to help people clarify their “wants” and to understand what is “good,” Whether or not the Chinese Communist party can reform itself enough to accommodate that notion is the $64,000 question.
* I have been told that trusted senior academics like Professor Yao are encouraged to provide provocative article to foreign (and to Chinese foreign language) media in order to provoke internal debate and discussion and, sometimes, to “float” the government’s (the Party’s) ideas to solicit both foreign and selected Chinese public reaction. If that’s the case here then this could be a government “trial balloon” trying to “test the waters” for ideas about greater public participation in national policy making. I am pretty sure that the attraction of membership in the Chinese Communist Party has waned and I have been told that the government is worried that fewer of the “best and brightest” are interested in being Party apparatchiks. Proposing governance reforms might be a way to rekindle interest in bringing people back into the Party.