Debate: “China’s lack of political transparency will eventually undermine its socioeconomic progress”

News

Please answer the poll based on the proposition and opposition articles below. 

[yop_poll id=”4″]


Proposition

by Harry Gillow

For a decade now, we have been reliably informed that the age of Western dominance is over. A new economic behemoth will sweep in from the East, while Europe and the USA, unable to compete, will wither and decay. Given the startling growth in the Far-Eastern economies, such a view is plausible and, in the face of growing anti-Americanism, even popular. There is, however, a long way yet to go before it becomes convincing. Around the world authoritarian regimes have seized upon China as proof that economic growth can be combined with savage repression: they may yet be in for a shock.

The first point to make is of course that the current slowdown in the Chinese economy is not necessarily significant in itself. That an economy so dependent on exports should have slowed in recent times is no great surprise. The concern – bordering on panic – that has surrounded the news is reflective of a far more serious concern. The fear is not that China will fall victim to the recession, disastrous as that would be, but rather that we are witnessing the end of the Chinese miracle of growth.

The reasons for this are numerous, but the most important is the demographic crisis facing the country. China’s growth has been fuelled by cheap labour, the millions of men and women manning the factories that pump out goods for Western consumption. And that boom is coming to an end. The one child policy has stalled the population explosion, while the expansion in industry continues. At some point – by some estimates as early as this year – the demand for labour will outstrip supply, and that’s when things are going to get interesting.

The change is, of course, unlikely to be noticed immediately. Doubtless some time will pass before workers realise their bargaining power, and further mechanisation as the information revolution advances may slow the process. Ultimately, however, just as in the post-war period in the developed world, labour costs will skyrocket as workers become unionised, and China will be faced with the unappealing choices of adaptation or economic collapse, as the prevailing model becomes unsustainable. The changes necessary – from an industrial to modern, service based economy on the Western model – have already been begun, but will not be completed without raising many questions over China’s future.

So far, of course, this has nothing to do with lack of political transparency – surely, as the West has demonstrated, these problems are not restricted to autocratic regimes? The danger, however, comes in how the country adapts. In a democratic nation, where the wishes of the people are – however hazily, at times – represented, change may be problematic, but it is seldom crippling. For all that the nations of the West at times answer crises with paralysis – as now – and at times with anger – as in the 80s – ultimately they readjust and continue, imperfect but just about afloat. Ultimately the system will not back the status quo against popular resentment, but adapt to reflect the views of the people.

The same cannot be said for China, nor the other states around that globe that attempt a rule independent of popular sovereignty. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the dangers of inflexibility, and the inadequacy of standard methods of repression in the age of global communication and guerrilla warfare. The dictators of the Middle East have, at best, managed to cling grimly on while their countries descend into bloody chaos, even then only buying time, not victory.

If China’s rulers attempt to cling to the status quo, then the country will descend into chaos. The Communist Party is riddled with corruption that drains money from the economy and causes enormous resentment. While the Xi Jinping, the party’s new general chairman and de facto national leader, has promised to make tackling this a priority for his tenure, he faces an uphill battle against entrenched interests, and one he is by no means certain to win. If he cannot answer popular demands for reform, unrest will spread, and if he opposes the demands of the workforce, this will swiftly become unmanageable.

China’s leaders cannot simply respond to this by cracking down on dissidents.  The Chinese authorities may have a vast array of weapons at their disposal, ranging from simple military force to an entirely internalised internet, but as the Middle East has proved, these measures cannot, in the long term, hold back chaos. Attempting to distract the people from economic troubles by aggression towards its neighbours can ultimately lead only to a conflict that benefits no one. Unionisation will eventually tip the balance of power towards the majority: if the Party responds to this by trying to cling on to its authoritarian ways, the economy will collapse without a chance at reform; if it uses force, it will face revolution; if it expands elsewhere, a war it cannot possibly win.

Beijing  PHOTO/WIKIMEDIA
Beijing
PHOTO/WIKIMEDIA

Opposition

by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

According to figures published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in March of this year, the Chinese economy will be larger than the USA’s in 2016, maintaining a growth rate of 8 per cent a year this decade, and will be double the size of USA’s economy by 2030. This is in line with previous estimates; it is not new information. As for the politics of it, although the Financial Times concedes that, “the OECD drew particular attention to China’s urbanisation push” it also reports that “Li Keqiang, China’s new premier, has vowed to make urbanisation a centrepiece of his agenda”. China’s economic progress, then, is far from being politically undermined; moreover, transparency doesn’t come into the picture at all.

China’s progress is not purely economic. Their government spending on education is 13 per cent, 2 per cent more than in the UK, and an unprecedented welfare reform has been announced, entailing the spending of $6 trillion – more or less one year’s GDP – over five years on pensions, healthcare and raising the minimum wage to 40 per cent of the national average, with an especial focus on rural areas. 90 per cent of the population enjoys a higher standard of living than their parents, and wages are rising at an average of 10 per cent a year. These figures would be unheard of in Europe, and their comparative impact can be qualitatively felt too: in large Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, there are visibly fewer homeless people than in Oxford, a place that many of us have been taught to confuse with the epitome of civilisation.

The prospect and actuality of such socio-economic progress should be contextualised. Before the 1949 Revolution, China experienced what is now known as the “Century of Humiliation”, a period following the Opium Wars of the early 1840s and late 1850s, which consisted, among other things, of the concession of ports and the imposition of unpayable taxes on pre-industrial China in an effective multi-colonisation managed by various post-industrial European empires. Pre-1949 China was in an unstable and pillaged state, its governance regionally fragmented, its traditions and history forcibly subordinated, and its import and export values one-thousandth of what it is now (according to statistics released by the Chinese government). For comparison, the European industrial revolution is described has having taken place throughout the 18th Century – that is to say, more or less over a hundred years – and it certainly didn’t end in bullet trains and a annual growth rate of 10 per cent.

The last half of the 20th Century was of course also the era of the devastating Cultural Revolution, where political transparency was denied even to people in Mao’s most elite political circle: figures including the future premier, Deng Xiaoping, being publicly denounced by Mao as proponents of capitalist methods and thought. Progress for China has been, if anything, negatively correlated with political transparency. We may have done it first, but China has industrialised and entered modernity on its own terms.

This is not to say that the Chinese government is beyond political, economic or indeed humanitarian reproach; it is not, and any pretense otherwise would be highly disingenuous. However, neither are democratic Western governments in many different respects of their own, and yet we would not attribute those failures to our political transparency. That is not under debate, because we understand our system could not be so simply accounted for. The proposition discussed here is equivalent to this one, and, as shown above, is supported by considerably less statistical evidence.

The assumption that any deviance from the Western political values of freedom and democracy will preclude social and economic development – however successful such a deviance may appear – stinks of the worst kind of Orientalism, one that cannot imagine a modernity drawn in any image but its own.