Domestic Affairs

Overlooked ingredient of China's economic success

By Wei-Wei Zhang (
Updated: 2011-04-01 17:35
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China has impressed the world by its dramatic rise since 1979, when reform policies were implemented in the wake of the Mao era. In 30 years, its GDP has soared 18 times over, and in 2010 China replaced Japan as the world's second largest economic entity behind only the United States.

While this miracle has been increasingly acknowledged by Western powers as the success of economic transformation, China's progress in political reforms seems to have disappointed the Western supporters of democracy.

Throughout the past few decades, there have been three reform models in socialist countries. The first is the "Conservative Reform," which imposes limited economic structural reform and leaves the political structure untouched. The second is radical change in both economic and political systems.

The third, namely the "Chinese model," is distinguished by "great economic reform with lesser political reform," and is deemed the "steady model." Politics change mainly to serve the economy transformation and to lay a solid foundation for the improvement of the common good.

The great success of this model is obvious. It fuels the national economy and revitalizes the society without paying the cost of political unrest.

With regard to political reform China will change in its own way. In a review published in October 2004 in the New York Times and International Herald Tribute, I stress that China could have not risen so rapidly and achieved such successes without implementing a massive amount of "lesser political reforms."

The reforms listed range from the political structure itself to the supplementary measures to facilitate the development of the economy. First, the central government repudiated the mass ideological campaigns based on the Maoist doctrine of class struggle, which allow people to pursue their normal lives and material interests.

Second, is to virtually rehabilitate all political victims under Mao and to capitalize on their talents and overseas connections. Third, the people's communes were abolished, marking the official end of this rigid political, economic and administrative system.

Fourth, rudimentary democracy was introduced by organizing village-level elections in the Chinese countryside as a massive political experiment. Other political reform experiments are being carried out, such as e-government and the practice of "small government and big society," which reduces bureaucracy and forsakes its many functions that can be better performed by society.

In fact, anyone with a common sense understanding of Chinese politics would clearly understand that it is in its nature a political reform process to step away from the traditions of "Political Supremacy" and the "Planned Economy." The old structure is a trinity of Party control, political power and economic entities. Thus, the process of reform is interplay between economic transformations and the mild political changes, which both attempt to dismantle the three-in-one.

It is therefore from this perspective that some political reform measures are indeed integrated within the economy reforms. But the mix prominently serves the interests of improving the economy on a macro scale and the betterment of people's standard of living.

Those political reforms, considerably accumulated as historical facts, are much more profound and extensive than the outsiders' can perceive. The unique philosophy that China adopted at least has avoided the potential huge social risks of one-way radical political reform, such as unrests or even the disintegration.

Of course, there are still some insist that those political changes in China for decades are not yet the authentic political reforms. Such school fails to adjust their pre-set frameworks or to break their stereotypes of what a democratic political system is. In other words, their knowledge about democracy depends solely on the Western model other than wider reform philosophies that have been shaped in the process of globalization and localization and therefore fit perfectly in a certain country.

A more tolerant view that incorporates the diverse forms of democracy is strongly suggested, and at least it helps us to evaluate China's political reforms fairly or even with appreciation.

Wei-Wei Zhang is a senior research fellow at the Modern Asia Research Center, Geneva.