Two Schools of Thought on China – Both Wrong

From President Barack Obama’s ceding of the center stage to his Chinese counterpart at the recent APEC gathering to frenzied attempts to decipher the country’s political and economic directions from the party’s just finished Third Plenum, the rising giant of the East often dominates Western political discourse.

Unfortunately, such discourses are taking place on a faulty paradigm. Ever since 1989, mainstream western opinions about China have been dominated by two divergent theories with opposite policy prescriptions. The ultimate aim of both was to build a universalized world order, which, of course, could not be credible without China.

One is the “imminent collapse” school. Espoused by cold warriors, it predicted wholesale collapse of the country. The one-party political system was inherently incapable of managing the intensifying social and economic conflicts as the country went through its wrenching transformation from a poor agrarian economy to an industrialized and urban one. The Western alliance should seek to contain China, so the theory went, and thereby hasten the fall of a threatening power ruled by an illegitimate regime.

The other is the “peaceful evolution” school. These are the panda-hugging universalists who made the “they-will-become-just-like-us” prediction. As the country modernized its economy, China would inevitably accept market capitalism and democratize its political system, and proponents urged deploying an engagement policy to speed up this evolution.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since the Western intellectual and policy establishment has been guided by these two schools of thought about arguably the most significant development of our time – China’s reemergence as a great power. The report card is not pretty.

The assumptions made by the imminent-collapse school include the following: China was run by a dictatorial party clinging to the dead ideology of Soviet communism. Its political system inherently lacked the ability to adapt to the rapidly modernizing Chinese society. The myriad social and economic conflicts would soon implode, and the fate of the Soviet Union awaited the party state. With that, a major ideological obstacle to a Western-designed universal order would be removed.

Of course, the cold warriors have had to postpone the effective date of their prediction year after year for decades. What did they get wrong? It turned out that the party has not been holding back or reacting to China’s modernization, but leading it. Self-correction, an ability many attribute to democracies, has been a hallmark of the party’s governance. In its many decades of governing the largest and fastest changing country in the world the party has pursued the widest range of policy changes compared with any other nation in modern history.

Most recently it has successfully managed a highly complex transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy – where many developing nations have failed. In the process it has produced the most significant improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest time in history.

Because of this performance record, China’s modernization process has strengthened the party’s rule, not weakened it. The key driver of the party’s success is inherent in its political institution. Over the decades, the party has developed a process through which capable leaders are trained and tested – eventually emerging at the top to lead the country. Whereas elections have failed to deliver in many parts of the world, meritocratic selection has in China.

As embarrassing as it must have been for the collapse predictors, the bitterest disappointment belongs to the universalists who foresaw with philosophical certitude the inevitable evolution of China towards liberal democracy and market capitalism. Their conviction was guided by the grand post–Cold War narrative: After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world would come together under a globalized order. Western values were universal values. Western standards were universal standards. Indeed, many have capitulated to that narrative. A large number of developing countries transformed their political and economic systems, some violently, to meet the demands of globalization.

But China walked a different path. As the party embarked on dramatic reforms, the country possessed a degree of national independence unmatched by most developing nations. This ability to control its own destiny allowed China to engage globalization on its own terms. Its one-party system remained intact and the party institution matured and strengthened.

Its economic integration with the developed world was carried out in ways that brought maximum benefits to the Chinese people. Market access was granted in exchange for direct investments that created industrial jobs and technology transfers. The government exercised political authority above market forces and led the largest investment expansion in infrastructure and health and education in history.

The dream of “they-will-become-just-like-us” has evaporated. After the Cold War, many were enamored by the material successes of the West and sought to emulate Western political and economic systems without regards to their own cultural roots and historical circumstances.

Now, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes and market capitalism remain mired in poverty and civil strife. In the developed world, political paralysis and economic stagnation reign. The hard fact is this: Democracy is failing from Washington to Cairo. Even the most naïve panda huggers could not sustain the belief that China would follow such “shining” examples.

If the West wants to deal rationally with China, a paradigm shift in thinking is urgently needed. And, perhaps, such a shift could provide fresh ideas on how the West can approach the world differently and even begin to solve its own problems.

To begin a reassessment, it is useful to first recognize what China is not. It is not a revolutionary power, and it is not an expansionary power. It is not a revolutionary power because, unlike the West of late, it is a non-ideological actor on the world stage and not interested in exporting its values and ways to the outside world. Even as its interests expand far beyond its borders – and make no mistake, these interests will be vigorously defended – it will not seek to actively change the internal dynamics of other countries.

It is not an expansionary power because that is not part of the Chinese DNA. Compared with the many empires in human history, even at the zenith of its own power during its long civilization, China has seldom invaded other countries in large scale. The Chinese outlook is that of centrality, not universality. More practically, the Chinese see, rather wisely, that, although it could not accept wholesale the current global architecture, its rise must be peaceful. Otherwise the consequences are unimaginable. China’s sheer size makes this so. Self-interest will dictate that China is likely to err on the side of restraint as it reemerges as a great power.

History is littered with precedents of failures to accommodate rising powers leading to tragic conflicts. But that does not have to be destiny. Give China time, allow it the space and independence to continue on its own path. Live and let live. The forced convergence led by the West is costing everyone, not least the West itself. Perhaps a healthy respect for divergence could pave the way toward a convergence of a more peaceful and sustainable kind.

(Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the Oxford Union. It first appeared on the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization.)