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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Is there a China model?

Speaking of interesting conferences, check out this one hour documentary on a recent meeting between Chinese and Western intellectuals. I found this while searching for an interview with Azar Gat, whose book War in Human Civilization I am now reading.

The two most outspoken Chinese professors, Cui (Tsinghua) and Wang (CUHK), are fairly aggressive in stating their view that the Chinese government is pragmatic and highly competent. However, they didn't fully address the issue of legitimacy in the absence of elections. Reliance on polls and performance indicators presupposes that they are instituted in an honest and effective way.

It's odd that all the Chinese academics seem to agree on the main points -- I am sure it would not have been difficult for the organizers to find some dissident perspectives, highlighting problems like corruption, misallocation or resources, social unrest, etc. Still, the overall impression is that few China experts doubt the stability of the current system.

At one point Cui notes that (extrapolating current trends) by 2020 the per capita GDP of 300 million urbanites on the eastern seaboard may equal that of Portugal, accounting for a total GDP roughly that of the EU. His numbers seem a bit aggressive, but not totally crazy; see here and here.

Is there a China model? -- a video documentation of a China-West Intellectual Summit.

...Can we now speak of a Chinese model, an authoritarian capitalism, which perhaps can even inspire others, in particular now when the crisis that has emanated from the USA drives many people to a critical view of the West?

Glasshouse Forum assembled prominent academics from China and the West at Maison Louis CarrĂ© outside Paris on 23-24 February 2009 to an intellectual summit on the theme “Is there a China model?” In the video documentation which Glasshouse Forum has produced in cooperation with the production company Edinim, we can follow the occasionally tense debate, moderated by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, on the issue of whether there is such a model and whether the rest of the world, including the West, might have something to learn from it.

It is significant that no one at the meeting subscribed to Fukuyama’s theory on the end of history. No one saw any signs of China adopting liberal democracy. It was also evident that the Chinese participants considered China to have good prospects to overcome the global economic crisis.

This documentation gives fascinating and thought-provoking insights into what may become the political landscape of the future.

The participants in the film are: Gideon Rachman, moderator of the summit and Chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford University, Daniel A. Bell and Zhiyuan Cui of the Tsinghua University in Beijing, Azar Gat, Tel Aviv University, Simon Long, Asia editor for The Economist, Vivienne Shue, Oxford University, Shaoguang Wang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Feng Zhang, The Foreign Policy Centre in London, Wei-Wei Zhang, Centre for Asian Studies in Geneva and Fudan University in Shanghai, and Yongnian Zheng, National University of Singapore.

Gideon Rachman described the meeting as follows (comments are also good):

Chinese views of the crisis

February 25, 2009 11:11am

I have just spent a fascinating couple of days, closeted with some Chinese academics in a house outside Paris, at a seminar organised by Sweden’s “Glasshouse Forum“.

Several of the assembled profs were members of China’s “new left” - people like Zhiyuan Cui, an economist from Tsinghua University and Shaoguang Wang of Hong Kong university. I was surprised by how confident they seemed. The consensus seemed to be that China would weather the global economic crisis better than most - and that the Chinese political system is sufficiently robust to withstand higher unemployment and slower growth. One of the participants pointed out that in the late 1990s, 60m Chinese people had been thrown out of work in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis and the restructuring of China’s state-owned enterprises. But the country’s long-term trajectory remained ever upwards.

Another participant joked that China had discovered that whatever country it models itself on is doomed. In the 1950s China had modelled itself on the Soviet Union; in the 1980s there was a fashion for imitiating Japan; and more recently, there has been a fascination with American capitalism.

It was a nice joke that I think contained a broader insight. Western analysts tend to measure China’s economic and political progress by asking - are they becoming more or less like us? More democratic, more free-market; or more authoritarian and state-directed?

The Chinese participants seemed to be arguing that their country was finding its own unique way to modernity. Zhiyuan Cui was keen on the idea of a “socialist market economy”, which allowed space for both private enterprise and for a large and profitable state sector. The new left generally believe that socialism remains a genuine ideal in China - and not just a rhetorical hangover from a bygone age. Others, in particular, Daniel Bell - a Canadian who teaches philosophy at Tsinghua - reckoned that the Confucian tradition was increasingly important in modern China.

And Zhang Wei-Wei, who used to be Deng Xiaoping’s translator and is now a professor at Fudan University, argued that the idea that legitmacy is conferred on a government by elections is a western-obsession. The Chinese believe in “performance legitimacy”. If the government governs well, it is percieved as legitimate.

I am sufficiently western to find this not entirely convincing. And I am not sure what kind of results the Chinese government will be able to produce, in the face of a world-wide slump.

See also this related LSE discussion (podcast), particularly Chen Jian's comments in the last 20 minutes or so:

Rising Asia in the World Crisis

Asia’s rise has brought about profound changes to the international system and the current world crisis presents the continent with both opportunities and challenges. The initiatives and responses by Asian countries, China and India in particular, have the potential to define the world’s path of development now and in the future.

Chen Jian holds the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2008-09 and is the Michael J Zak Chair of the History of US China Relations at Cornell University. Danny Quah is head of department and professor of economics at LSE. Athar Hussain is director of the Asia Research Centre, LSE.

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