In-Depth

by Malcolm Riddell

What the West Gets Wrong About China
2

Part 2 | ‘Myth 1: Economics and Democracy Are Two Sides of the Same Coin'

Harvard Business Review

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Rana Mitter | Oxford
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Elsbeth Johnson | MIT Sloan School of Management

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June 20, 2021
Part 2 | ‘Myth 1: Economics and Democracy Are Two Sides of the Same Coin'
Part 2 | ‘Myth 1: Economics and Democracy Are Two Sides of the Same Coin'
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Rana Mitter | Oxford

What the West Gets Wrong About China

2

BIG IDEA | ‘The truth, then, is that China is not an authoritarian state seeking to become more liberal but an authoritarian state seeking to become more successful—politically as well as economically.’

‘Many Westerners assume that China is on the same development trajectory that Japan, Britain, Germany, and France embarked on in the immediate aftermath of World War II—the only difference being that the Chinese started much later than other Asian economies, such as South Korea and Malaysia, after a 40-year Maoist detour.’

  • ‘According to this view, economic growth and increasing prosperity will cause China to move toward a more liberal model for both its economy and its politics, as did those countries.’

‘But this argument overlooks some fundamental differences between China and the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, and France.’

  • ‘Those countries have since 1945 been pluralist democracies with independent judiciaries.’
  • ‘As a result, economic growth came in tandem with social progress (through, for example, legislation protecting individual choice and minority rights), which made it easy to imagine that they were two sides of a coin.’
  • ‘The collapse of the USSR appeared to validate that belief, given that the Soviet regime’s inability to deliver meaningful economic growth for its citizens contributed to its collapse: Russia’s eventual integration into the global economy (perestroika) followed Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms (glasnost).’

‘In China, growth has come in the context of stable communist rule, suggesting that democracy and growth are not inevitably mutually dependent.’

  • ‘In fact, many Chinese believe that the country’s recent economic achievements—large-scale poverty reduction, huge infrastructure investment, and development as a world-class tech innovator—have come about because of, not despite, China’s authoritarian form of government.’

‘China has also defied predictions that its authoritarianism would inhibit its capacity to innovate.’

  • ‘It is a global leader in AI, biotech, and space exploration.’

‘Some of its technological successes have been driven by market forces: People wanted to buy goods or communicate more easily, and the likes of Alibaba and Tencent have helped them do just that.’

  • ‘But much of the technological progress has come from a highly innovative and well-funded military that has invested heavily in China’s burgeoning new industries.’

‘This, of course, mirrors the role of U.S. defense and intelligence spending in the development of Silicon Valley.’

  • ‘But in China the consumer applications have come faster, making more obvious the link between government investment and products and services that benefit individuals.’

‘That’s why ordinary Chinese people see Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Huawei, and TikTok as sources of national pride—international vanguards of Chinese success—rather than simply sources of jobs or GDP, as they might be viewed in the West.’

‘Thus July 2020 polling data from the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government revealed 95% satisfaction with the Beijing government among Chinese citizens.’

  • ‘Most ordinary people we meet don’t feel that the authoritarian state is solely oppressive, although it can be that; for them it also provides opportunity.’

‘The past decade has, if anything, strengthened Chinese leaders’ view that economic reform is possible without liberalizing politics.’

  • ‘China has become an economic titan, a global leader in technology innovation, and a military superpower, all while tightening its authoritarian system of government—and reinforcing a belief that the liberal narrative does not apply to China.’

‘The truth, then, is that China is not an authoritarian state seeking to become more liberal but an authoritarian state seeking to become more successful—politically as well as economically.’

‘In much Western analysis the verb most commonly attached to China’s reforms is “stalled.” ’

  • ‘The truth is that political reform in China hasn’t stalled. It continues apace. It’s just not liberal reform.'

‘One reason that many people misread China’s trajectory may be that—particularly in the English-language promotional materials the Chinese use overseas—the country tends to portray itself as a variation on a liberal state, and therefore more trustworthy.’

  • ‘China is also often at pains to suggest to foreign governments or investors that it is similar to the West in many aspects—consumer lifestyles, leisure travel, and a high demand for tertiary education.’
  • ‘These similarities are real, but they are manifestations of the wealth and personal aspirations of China’s newly affluent middle class, and they in no way negate the very real differences between the political systems of China and the West.’

Which brings us to the next myth.’

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