Why Can’t China Just Become Like Us?

by Zhenbo Hou The biggest anxiety that some people have about China’s rise is whether a rapidly-growing authoritarian capitalist economy, ranked 2nd largest in the world, will be able and willing to adapt to the unique global responsibilities and pressures that arise from being number one. For a development establishment most familiar and comfortable with liberal democracy, it is an article of faith that, in order for China to truly lead the world, they must eventually become “like us.”

What people in the “West” must realize and eventually accept is that China’s contribution to the 21st century is not only about lifting 300 million people out of poverty, but also about enriching the debate about how development happens. From the orthodox perspective, several seemingly contradictory phenomena have taken place in China over the last thirty years: A property boom occurred, although the right to personal property was not guaranteed until a constitutional amendment in 2004; the state has maintained a level of control over the banking system and capital markets that was regarded outside the country as hopelessly “inefficient;” finally, and most notably, the party has remained in power - managing a country of 1.3 billion people.

For Western tastes, China’s political reforms might seem too gradual and marginal in nature. However, for any Chinese citizen who lived through the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, when hard-line ideological policing dominated daily life, the shift has been drastic, and the freedoms that most people enjoy in China today are worthy of being cherished. Society is now relatively disease and hunger-free; cars and home ownerships has become a strain on the nation’s ability to supply, rather than a rare luxury; travel and study abroad are commonplace for those with the means. In last week’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, Apple revealed that they have started to develop more “China friendly” apps on its newest Macbook Pro, in order to cater to their largest market. Surely such evidence doesn’t support the notion that China is headed for a Soviet-style collapse.

All this being said, China has no room for complacency about its next phase of reforms. As Chinese people become more aware of the issues that are happening around them, they will want to make their voices heard, and want their opinions to matter. It is estimated there are 500-600 million netizens in China, with 300 million of them posting onto Weibo (China’s Twitter) on a daily basis. The government has responded gradually but surely: the peaceful resolve of the Wukan incident signaled support for village –level elections in China and the release of public expenditure record by central government ministries will attract more public scrutiny. Whether these measures will be enough remains to be seen, but they reflect the cautious approach to politics epitomized by Zhou Enlai, Chinese Premier under Mao, whom when asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789 by President Richard Nixon, responded, “It is too early to tell.”

Zhenbo Hou is a fellow of Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in Westminster, London. He is currently working as an economist in the Millennium Development Goals Unit of the Nigerian Presidency in Abuja. A Chinese national, Zhenbo is a graduate of Warwick University and the London School of Economics.

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