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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

China lacks “Civil Society” – Why Martin Wolf of the FT is wrong

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

The West – including Australia, India and the EU – is struggling to reconcile developments in China. It intrigues them. It unnerves them. It upsets them. These countries are losing their compass point – things just do not add up. China is run by a Communist Party that acknowledges a leading role for the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The Party is run on the concepts of Democratic Centralism. The Party is structured with a mass people membership of 87m, a Central Committee, a Standing Committee of the Central Committee and the Politburo. The membership is instructed to study Marxist works together with Chinese writings to ensure that China develops Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

China’s critics – some of whom are China’s enemies – believed that they had ensnared China into Western ways by admitting them to membership of the World Trade Organisation. The State Dept, the academics, the political elite congratulated themselves. They had taken a decisive step that would convert China from a structured Marxist entity into a pluralist society leading to the growth of democratic political parties that would blunt China’s Marxist political thrust and push the Party to the margins and eventually into early retirement.

China could see it coming but they knew how to handle themselves. They made two significant moves; first, they decentralised the economy – in stages and step by step – but China needed to change if it was to produce prosperity. Economic controls were relaxed to bring initiative and ideas into play. At the same time, China’s Communist Party further centralised its political structure and decision making. The West was thwarted. They had anticipated that more economic freedoms in China would lead – inevitably and inescapably – to political parties and the introduction of Western political norms. Ten years on and the West is still waiting. Not for the first time they got it very wrong. Flawed political sociology based on Talcott Parsons, and poor quality understanding by the State Dept and the Pentagon and the CIA led to a fundamental strategic error. China was not going to accommodate Western ways but, instead, was going to strengthen the development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

It brings me to another point that stymies Western writers, thinkers, journalists and politicians. How is China doing it? Why has Communism not morphed into Capitalism? Isn’t that the way it has to be? – a generation or two of grass roots socialism with much enthusiasm and endeavour but eventually yielding to good old fashioned capitalism either by way of martial law or elections. China has done neither – in fact China is “more of the same”. More Party direction, more determination and commitment and – to the amazement of the West – more prosperity. Just one statistic makes the point that the Party is stronger and more successful in a way never imagined by the White House, 10 Downing Street or the Elysee. In 2019 137m Chinese tourists travelled the world – and all returned home. They tasted “freedom” and caught the flight back to Beijing. They roamed the world and saw for themselves the successes and failings of the alternative to Communism and they came back to China.

But China is meant to be the Big Oppressor. Its people are “groaning under the brutality of the police state and the censorship and interference of the Party”. Wishful thinking. 500m citizens have been taken out of poverty. The Chinese have “never had it so good. There was almost no travel when I first visited China in 1965 – now the trains and planes are full to overflowing.

Now we come to the key question. Martin Wolf is a leading journalist with the Financial Times. In an article in July 2020 he wrote “China is increasingly assertive…pays no respect to western pieties about human rights as shown in the brutal treatment of the Uyghurs and the new security law in Hong Kong… China’s status as a despotism is complete…the West has valuable assets and many still admire its core values of freedom and democracy…China has weak foundations…the absence of a rule of law and democratic accountability makes the State too strong and civil society too weak”

This is the Western view of China and it is flawed. China is not increasingly assertive – not one Chinese soldier outside China. No Chinese Navy sails between San Francisco and Los Angeles as the US Eighth Fleet sails between Dalian and Kwangchow. The one theme running throughout China’s actions in Tibet, Xinjiang, India, Taiwan, S China Sea is national security not territorial acquisition. China will concede nothing when it comes to national security and territorial integrity. No land will be sliced away from China – that is its strength.

But coming back to Wolf and Civil Society. This is a significant misunderstanding – and it is wilful not accidental. Wolf and others have been brought up to believe there is only one way – the Western Way. China is confounding them. Just two examples to illustrate my point. First China and the Billionaires – for the West it does not add up. It cannot be. China does not have Civil Society so China cannot have initiative and original thinking. Wrong – and fundamentally wrong. China has examined, considered, discussed and debated and made a significant change to promote growth and increase prosperity. Billionaires have a role to play. Second, Belt and Road has shaken the West to their foundations. This immense concept – the product again of debate and discussion – shows that you do not need Western Civil Society to promote development and change and, again, prosperity. The West is on the back foot so it resorts to old fashioned negation of anything new and positive and falls back on the explanation that China’s purpose is to lull the world into debt so that China can take over the assets of debtor countries. China works on a fundamentally different approach that China can enjoy stability and prosperity if it assists the rest of the world also to achieve stability and prosperity. The win-win approach of Xi Jinping will prevail and the West will slip back further.  The real losers are China’s critics wedded, as they are, to Western norms of political society and political structures. “Our Way is The Only Way”. Actually, No.

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