Spotlight on Geopolitics

How China Made It to the Top

On the eve of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Geneva-based professor Zhang Wei-Wei felt compelled to summarize for Western audiences the principles which he believes explain China’s successful modernization drive.
In an op-ed published by The New York Times on September 30, he states that when China opened up in 1978, Deng Xiaoping (for whom Zhang acted as an English translator) decided to avoid both Soviet and Western development models for his country. By adopting a trial-and- error approach to major reforms, the Chinese leadership resorted to time-honoured Confucian pragmatism, opening the country’s markets to foreign products and technology, whilst refusing to democratize the Chinese society before modernizing it.
What professor Zhang does not mention in his article is the competition which took place in the 80s between the Soviet Union and China for the hearts and minds of their own citizens and those of their satellite-countries. To this date, the reform and restructuring path followed by the Soviet Union under the Gorbachev leadership, for example, is still being considered by Chinese intellectuals as mistaken. Keeping tight control over dissent and the monopoly of power of the Chinese communist party whilst liberalizing the economy and trade is, in a nutshell, what differentiates the Chinese modernization experience from that of the West or the Soviet-style perestroika and glasnost.
Zhang considers that the erstwhile achievement of the thirty-year modernization process in China is lifting 400 million people from poverty in one generation. According to him, the tough reforms undertaken in this period benefitted from popular support. This was obtained through good governance (from which Zhang derives the legitimacy of the current Chinese regime) and by trying to harmonize conflicting interests among various social groups.
The wisdom professor Zhang wishes to impart to his Western counterparts is that modernization of the economy should precede democratization, and not the other way around. Here again, his criticism is directed against the Gorbachev reformist team, which he believes is responsible for the break-up of the Soviet state. Morevover, he is convinced that the Chinese path towards modernization is a model worth following by nations worldwide willing to eradicate poverty and achieve their development goals more rapidly.
While some of the criticism aimed at the Soviet experience in the 80s is pertinent, the development path chosen by China is by no means unique. We should not forget that by the time China started its own modernization drive, the Asian tigers (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan) were ending theirs. The command-and-control economic model favoured by all these countries is basically what China has followed for the past three decades. These countries introduced democracy in the 90s, following almost 50 years of dictatorships and only after their populations’ living standards approached those of Western societies. The fact that China did it in half the time simply proves that history has a well-documented tendency to accelerate its pace : the West took about 150 years to reach its modern development stage, Japan needed a century, and so on.
The Chinese achievements are nevertheless tremendous by any standards and professor Zhang is rightfully proud. Sadly, what he forgets to mention in his op-ed is the essential fact that progress in Asia and elsewhere would have been unthinkable in the absence of Western ideas, know-how, markets and initial impetus. And this I consider to be a basic truth that should be taught to all Asian students, including in China. Otherwise, Chinese intellectuals run the risk of misleading their people into believing that all these achievements were solely due to the enlightened leadership of the Communist Party.
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