October 7, 2009
Professor Zhang Wei-Wei, in an op-ed published in the New York Times on 30 September, on the eve of the 60th anniversary celebrations, offers eight ideas which have enabled China to change within one generation from a poverty-stricken country to one of the world’s largest economies.
Zhang, of the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Tsinghua and Fudan Universities, was a senior English interpreter for Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders in the mid-1980s.
The following is a summary of the article:
1. Seeking truth from facts. This is an ancient Chinese concept, as well as the credo of the Deng Xiaoping, who believed that facts rather than ideological dogmas should serve as the ultimate criterion for identifying truth. Hence Beijing decided in 1978 to explore its own path of development and to adopt a pragmatic, trial-and-error approach for its massive modernisation programme.
2. Primacy of people’s livelihood. Beijing has embraced this old Chinese governance concept by highlighting poverty eradication as the most fundamental human right. China has arguably corrected a historical neglect in the range of human rights advocated by the West, which since the Enlightenment have focused almost exclusively on civil and political rights. This idea may have lasting implications for the world’s poor.
3. The importance of holistic thinking. Influenced by its philosophical tradition, Beijing has been able to establish a clear pattern of priorities and sequences at different stages of transformation, with easy reforms usually followed by more determined and difficult reforms — in contrast to the populist, short-term politics so prevalent in much of the world today.
4. Government as a necessary virtue. In China’s long history, prosperous times were all associated with an enlightened, strong state. Contrary to the American view of state as a necessary evil, China’s transformation has been led by an enlightened developmental state. And contrary to Mikhail Gorbachev, who abandoned his old state and then found his empire shattered, Deng Xiaoping re-oriented China’s old state from pursuing the Maoist utopia to promoting modernisation.
The Chinese state, however flawed, is capable of shaping national consensus on modernisation and pursuing hard strategic objectives,
5. Good governance matters more than democratisation. Notwithstanding its deficiencies in transparency and legal institutions, the Chinese surveyed in 2008 felt optimistic about their future, topping the 17 major countries surveyed by Pew, a Washington-based research centre.
6. Performance legitimacy. Inspired by the Confucian tradition of meritocracy, Beijing practises, though not always successfully, performance legitimacy across the whole political stratum. Criteria such as performance in poverty eradication and, increasingly, cleaner environment are key factors in the promotion of officials. China’s leaders are competent, sophisticated and well-tested at different levels of responsibility.
7. Selective learning and adaptation. China represents a secular culture where learning from others is prized. The Chinese have developed a remarkable capacity for selective learning and adaptation to new challenges, as shown by how quickly China has embraced the IT revolution and then excelled in it.
8. Harmony in diversity. Beijing has revived this old Confucian ideal for a large and complex society. Rejecting Western-style adversary politics, Beijing has worked hard to emphasize commonality of different group interests, to defuse social tensions associated with rapid change and to establish as fast as it can a social safety net for all.
China is still faced with serious challenges such as fighting corruption and reducing regional gaps. But China is likely to continue to evolve on the basis of these ideas, rather than by embracing Western liberal democracy, because these ideas have apparently worked and have blended reasonably well with common sense and China’s unique political culture.
While China will continue to learn from the West for its own benefit, it may be time now for the West, to use Deng’s famous phrase, to “emancipate the mind” and learn a bit more about or even from China’s big ideas, however extraneous they may appear, for its own benefit.
This is not only to avoid further ideology-driven misreading of this hugely important nation, a civilisation in itself, but also to enrich the world’s collective wisdom in tackling challenges ranging from poverty eradication to climate change and the clash of civilisations.
While not agreeing with everything Professor Zhang writes, he makes some interesting points. In discussing this article with Chinese experts, I found the following reaction of particular interest:
“There is a huge perception gap between China and the rest of the world about the position of China in the new international economic and political order. We are a big power with the mindset of a medium-power. The military parades and the pagentry only brought back memories of how the Chinese felt in the same place at the same time 60 years ago. Liberation. But we cannot always lock ourselves up in the shadow of congratulating ourselves on the liberation. We have to realise that we ourselves are the real mental barrier or wreck. The real enemy is ourselves and real threats come from within.
We are liberated but not free, we are emancipated from the shackles of feudalism but still practise autocracy. We have flawed but effective governance and yet lack serious and critical supervision to ensure a level playing field and real harmony. I am not saying we have to practise multi-party democracy. But there must be some ring of truth arising from the Western institutions, which are part of human civilisation. Universality is the word that we have tried to dodge. But we are becoming integrated into the same world, albeit through a different path.
The purpose should remain the same, regardless of the constant nasty national geopolitical rivalry.
We are a great power but we do not act as such. But when we do try to behave like a real power, Napoleon’s words about China are like a bitter pill and send shockwaves throughout the world.
The EU and China both have to grow up through clashes and cooperation. We do not have to like and respect each other in the cooperation. We need the other side to act motivated by interest. Both have to be realistic. Responsibility means sacrificing one’s own decency and dignity to accommodate the other’s needs. According to a Chinese saying, friendship is generated through clashes.
That said, more has to be done to discover and rediscover the other side’s virtues. Arrogance is a side effect of good education, family and tradition, if not race.”