Bold Steps, But Caution

Josef Gregory Mahoney China Plus Published: 2017-12-28 15:20:04
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Photo taken on March 26, 2017 shows a glass production line of an enterprise in Shahe City, north China's Hebei Province. [Photo: Xinhua]

Photo taken on March 26, 2017 shows a glass production line of an enterprise in Shahe City, north China's Hebei Province. [Photo: Xinhua]

The past five years of political rectification in China have had three interrelated goals in mind. First, clean up corruption and improve the moral standing of the Party in the eyes of the people. Second, reestablish Party discipline and a strong core capable of advancing much needed reforms, particularly related to the national economy. Third, advance those reforms in ways that either sustain or find new pathways for national progress. With these three points in mind, we might well understand that the recent central economic work conference, following on the heels of the 19th Party Congress, which effectively signaled the first two goals as being achieved, is now moving onward to the third. As that conference has indicated, the main tasks at hand have shifted from maintaining high growth rates to quality growth, which is to say, is not fueled so starkly by either debt or polluting industries, and towards alleviating possible systemic financial risks and poverty. This sober assessment of immediate needs is in line with international assessments from the IMF and others, and has reinforced Xi Jinping’s mandate that the common denominator of reforms should be the improvement of people’s lives.

Among China specialists there has long been a great deal of noise regarding “Chinese exceptionalism.” This term refers to the idea that some things about China are unique and exceptional to China. For example, whether China has experienced a unique civilizational and cultural development, whether its history or national development can be understood as taking a distinct path, and so on. Like many debates, the truth is probably closer to a middle position that is hard to define, although the loudest and often most vulgar and irrepressible voices are those at opposite extremes, who preach absolute universalism or absolute exceptionalism. Recently, as the Party took stock of its achievements and outlined new objectives, the exceptionalist position was advanced in many respects. Nevertheless, the public offer to share “Chinese wisdom” regarding a unique development path that had allowed a major country to mature into a mature power contained at its core the dialectic of such an expression: it might be an exceptional path, but it is one that has learned from others, learned from itself, and these lessons can be shared with others. 

However muddy such arguments become, and however much China should still learn from others, it should be clear that many aspects of Chinese political and economic development are unique and require bold initiatives with few if any directly comparable precedents. And if China is truly exceptional, then it faces the daunting prospect of figuring things out largely for itself, given China’s unique size, advanced but uneven development, political system, and governance models. Thus, some forms of knowledge and technologies can be acquired from others, innovation and bold leadership must serve as the railhead of progressive policymaking as China enters this new stage of national development. 

But exceptionalism and innovation are not without their material bases or the precedence of exceptionalism itself. Engagement with the people, understanding their conditions, needs, and potential, while providing stability against possible disruptions at home or abroad provides a basic mechanism for success. In part, Deng Xiaoping described such policymaking as “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” which is to say, set clear goals, and advance cautiously step-by-step. This remains sound advice, but as China’s economy and global position have grown exponentially, the river, so to speak, has gotten wider, deeper, and faster. While the Party’s knowledge and ability have also advanced and become more nuanced over the past forty years, it remains essentially Leninist system that disciplines around a core leader and, when well managed, can drive the remarkable growth and development China has experienced. But given China’s commitment to following a development path that differs substantially from other models, given the changed global political economy, and given the acknowledged complexity of the task at hand, we should recognize that some efforts may come up short in ways that prove both painful and embarrassing.

One of the fundamental lessons we can derive from history, from politics, business, sports, and so on, is that every great leader or leadership team experiences significant ups and downs. Two of the Party’s greatest leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, faced major setbacks, and yet, also found paths forward. However, there is a general tendency to recall only the successes, or to wall off the shortcomings in ways that neglect potentially valuable lessons. These narratives of success serve publicity purposes, but they can complicate the necessary work of creating reasonable expectations, effective contingency planning, reliable reporting, and flexibility. 

Recent experiences with implementing gas over coal in China’s northeast, confronting unsafe and illegal housing in Beijing, and so on, help illustrate the point. Even highly developed economies like the US and the UK experience tremendous stumbles when dealing with much smaller tasks, e.g., Obamacare in America, or the incredibly myopic misadventure known as Brexit. Although the Party is uniquely suited to take on both unprecedented and unavoidable work of advancing major economic reforms under such conditions, it will surely be tested, as Xi Jinping has acknowledged. To be sure, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing leaders setting themselves and others alight with the fire of progress; but let’s hope that few get burned along the way, or left in the cold.

(Josef Gregory Mahoney, PhD, is Professor of Politics and Executive Director of the International Center for Advanced Political Studies at East China Normal University.)

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