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Reform can help China win strategic contest

By Yan Xuetong | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-24 07:15

[Cai Meng/China Daily]

There are many opinions on why China and the United States are locked in a trade dispute. For example, Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, has argued in an article he wrote that the two countries are engaged in a "model competition", an idea shared by many Chinese scholars.

China's achievements over the past four decades can be attributed to reform and opening-up under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and this is exactly what I have said in my new book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. Since the Chinese leadership is better placed compared with its US counterpart when it comes to implementing reform, it has narrowed the power gap between China and the US.

Look at the histories of China and the US, and you will find that the basic social system of neither China nor the US-China's socialist system and the US' capitalist system-has changed since 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded.

In 1978, the Party, then headed by Deng Xiaoping, launched reform and opening-up, which helped China to develop at an unprecedented pace as well as gain in national strength. The trend has continued in the 21st century.

During my recent visit to the US' Constitution Museum, I found that in the early period of the US, its leaders carried out a lot of social reforms. Almost every US president during the early period has a wall listing his achievements in social reform. The presidents who were not so prolific in implementing social reforms share a wall with their successor or successors. But after the Cold War, all US presidents share one wall of achievements. Which means the US leaders didn't pay the needed attention to reform in post-Cold War America.

Why the growth of a country's national strength has been faster at times and slower at others despite the country's social and political system remaining the same? I developed a new theory of moral realism, which measures the level of responsibility a state or government has toward its people. To put it simply, a state or government should be judged based on the number or extent of reforms it implements, because that decides how fast the country will move ahead on the economic and social fronts.

After the publication of my book, some people asked me how reform can hasten the development of a country. The answer is, reform provides hope for the young generation, and the future of a country depends on the young generation.

A country's leaders carry out reform to instill confidence in the youths that if they work hard and use creativity and innovation, they can lead a better life than their parents. If a government does not implement reform, the country will not develop fast enough to keep pace with the times and thus fall behind in the economic development race.

Some say China has accomplished many of the easier reforms and now fulfills the difficult tasks. But as a witness to the 1980s, I can say the environment for reform during that decade was no better than what it is today, not least because China didn't have many resources to propel reform at that time.

As I see it, the problem we face today is not as difficult as the one we faced in the 1980s. The question is not how much you talk about reform, but how much reform you implement.

I think the competition between China and the US will continue. And the side that replenishes its foreign policy with moral realism will win more support from the international community and thus emerge winner in the competition. Conversely, the side which ignores moral realism while over-emphasizing material interests and does not pay enough attention to its strategic credibility will fail. Strategic credibility means honoring all the promises a country makes no matter how small or large their number is.

A country, after all, should not only do but also be seen as doing everything within its capability to help and protect a friendly or supporting country. And a country with high strategic credibility can more easily garner the support of other countries.

The author is a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University. This is an excerpt from his speech at the recent launch of his recent book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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