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Saturday, May 15, 2021

China and “Civil Society”

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Graham Perry
Experienced Arbitration Lawyer | China & Chinese Business Affairs | Public Speaker/Lecturer.

The world is waking up slowly to the challenge of China. The response has been in stages. The first stage was to view China as a mirror image of the former USSR and to dismiss its rise as of little significance because China would stumble and fail just as the USSR stumbled and failed in the period 1945 to 1991. The West saw what it wanted to see – an authoritarian government in Beijing dominated by a Marxist-Leninist Party that was autocratic, intolerant, exploiting its own people and led by a Communist Party whose sole objective was to remain in power in order to protect the interests – economic, social and political – of its Politburo and Central Committee. Essentially, the critics said, China was undemocratic, over-centralised and incapable of developing progress, growth and a better life to its people. It was not a challenge.

The West was waiting for China to crumble. China had not learned the lessons of the failed USSR. It would follow its path to failure and the Communist Party of China to oblivion. It did not happen. The Party and China grew stronger. The economy developed. Its people enjoyed growing prosperity. Average per capita income rose. Travel across the country was promoted and – as has often been quoted – in 2019 140m Chinese tourists travelled overseas. The bubble had not burst. The society remained stable and the outlook was positive as China planned ahead for its centenary in 2049.

In the face of this growing confidence and achievement, the West had to find a new explanation and a new set of reasons to dismiss China lest its model of development was a spur to other aspiring societies to follow. This search has led to China being labelled the Bad Boy of International Politics. Now the narrative focuses on other negatives, familiar to readers of this column, but still required to be listed. China now, say its critics, is oppressive, expansionist and guilty of genocide. China, they say, threatens India, Taiwan and countries in the South China Sea. It practices racism in its dealings with Tibet and the Uighurs and is using its Belt and Road Initiative to promote the New China Imperialism. It is also imposing harsh measures of control on the people of Hong Kong.

But despite this list of alleged negatives, China has continued to grow in popularity and its economy has emerged much stronger in its recovery from Covid -19. The point of this article is not to re-address the issues of complaint listed above but to consider a new line of argument that critics of China hope will deny China the future it seeks. 

The argument is that China will fail because it stifles the conditions necessary for the next stage of development.  Whilst it is accepted that the Chinese state is unquestionably effective and its people are hard-working and entrepreneurial, it lacks the rule of law and democratic accountability. The State is too strong and civil society is too weak and this will be the cause of its ultimate failure. The critics, among them Professor Francis Fukiyama of Cornell University, USA and Martin Wolf, Lead Writer at the UK Financial Times, see China as a despotism where corruption will flourish because of the absence of the rule of law. But there is one further point, clung to by the critics, which will condemn China to the same failure as the USSR and it is this – the driving force of change is the ideas inside people’s heads. People need incentives to create new and challenging things and China’s oppressive state cannot nurture these instincts and China will fail.

There is something in the argument that a thriving society needs people with ideas. There has to be dynamism, an entrepreneurial spirit, a drive to break blockages and obstacles, and advance society to a new level. But China is doing just that and without the Western concepts of the rule of law and human rights. It is breaking new ground and is challenging Western political theorists and their tired thinking. Let me back up my assertions with evidence that China today is the most dynamic society in the world. Two quite different points – first, lifting 500 m people out of poverty and second the willingness to allow Billionaires to flourish and develop.

First, the anti-poverty drive. Lifting half a billion people out of poverty is not just an economic achievement. It is much greater than that. It is not a matter of totting up the increasing productive capacity of the key engines of growth but a tribute to the creative thinking and imagination that enables the Party to devise new forms of political and economic structures to enable progress to be made. A key factor – and missed by the critics – is China’s embrace of economic decentralisation. A move away from the old Soviet Moscow based system of inflexible control to a new system that brought into the mix the new ideas that has enabled China to build more trains, hospitals, schools, airports, ports, motorways. Pause for a moment and look behind these words to imagine for yourself the enthusiasm of the people who conceive and then implement these new developments. This does not come from the Centre, from Beijing, from the Politiburo. They give the green light but the decisions at local level come from local people taking increasing responsibility to carry matters forward. This is about spirit, and daring and drive – the very qualities that critics of China say is absent in an authoritarian society.

Second – the Billionaires. The Western world has failed to understand the leap in thinking, outlook and politics that has been necessary to enable China today to be proud of having 768 Billionaires within its ranks. What does this step say about new creative open-mindedness? Consider the extent of political discussions at all levels of the Party about the political acceptability of giving Billionaires such an important role in bringing about significant and far-reaching changes. It is the atmosphere of openness and fresh thinking that brings about such a big change and yet this is lost on Wolf and Fukiyama. They are blinkered, incapable of seeing change and, in the process, guilty of missing the significance of what is going in China today.

China does not need Western notions of Civil Society to achieve progress. That is the significance of China’s achievements and this will take political theory and political sociology in the West to a new level. Human rights and the rule of law is not the essential route to a future that meets the needs of the people. You can imagine the exam question for university students in London, Washington and Paris in the future – “Western Concepts of Civil Society are an Obstacle to Progress – Discuss”

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