The Chinese Way – Our Model?

Western perceptions of China were recently quite ambivalent. On the one hand, Chinese leaders were quick to exploit President Trump’s contempt for liberal organizations and institutions, and to offer Chinese leadership in defending liberal values, especially open trade (see President Xi’s speech in Davos last spring). At the same time, there are more and more indications that China is moving with breathtaking speed toward a more illiberal, authoritarian form of governance.

A new state agency against corruption will double the existing intra-party body addressing the same task, with competencies contradicting existing laws and the constitution. Apparently there are provisions allowing for arbitrary arrest (NYT, China anti-graft plan criticized, NYT, December 2, 2017). This has triggered an unprecedented wave of protests by Chinese lawyers – so far to no avail.  In an unrelated development, a harsh campaign against migrant laborers living and working in the Beijing suburbs is disrupting their living conditions, compelling them to leave on very short notice. This campaign is allegedly directed at preventing new fires in communities with hazardous fire protection, but its manner of execution is being criticized even by established Chinese citizens.

The conditions for external actors being active in China are worsening as well. The law on foreign NGOs is well known. And it gave headaches to many foreign organizations looking for one of the few available Chinese partners, and the new rules for their work. In addition, the Chinese government is now trying to stipulate that Communist party cells must be established in all mostly foreign owned private enterprises. The rights of these cells are impressive, up to co-deciding or overruling investment and other issues, thereby infringing on property rights. The normally quite hesitant chambers of commerce (like the German ones) sent out clear official warnings that German companies may have to withdraw from China if this policy is enforced. Along similar lines, academic cooperation also is becoming more difficult. President Xi gave at least two speeches stating that there are too many foreign professors and foreign textbooks in China, apparently ignoring the fact that Karl Marx also was (and remains) a foreigner, with lots of ‘textbooks’ still in use in China that carry an official imprimatur.

A very worrisome trend is the Chinese strategy of making international companies bow to special Chinese rules. Big U.S. IT companies are all under pressure to allow Chinese state authorities access to their customers’ data, a debate also common in Western countries. The big five are open to accommodating these ‘wishes’ to different degrees; if they do not comply they are blocked (like Facebook). What is more specific is that publishers, especially academic ones, are also under a lot of pressure to make certain journals inaccessible for Chinese customers. Last summer, Cambridge University Press agreed to remove 300 articles from its Chinese website. The same goes for Springer Nature publishers. Later this year, Cambridge UP reconsidered. Even more surprising, in Australia the publisher Allen & Unwin withdrew a book (Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia Into a Puppet State) from the Australian (!) market, after China ranted against the publication.

In the international arena, China is continuing to broaden its ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative. This ‘New Silk Road’ has implications far beyond economics, and is often tied to political interests. Recently, there was another meeting of the ’16+1′ format, where eleven EU members and five Balkan states, plus China, came together in Budapest. It is not stretching the imagination too much to claim that some of the Eastern and Central European participants enjoy the presence of China in this format – not only as an investor, but also as a partner who does not issue reprimands about their human rights practices and worsening separation of powers.

The most frightening trend is the introduction of an all-Chinese ‘social credit point system’, where not only social, health and work-place relevant data and parameters are collected and combined for each Chinese citizen, but also assessments of peoples’ social and political activities, opinions, and social network activities. When people move beyond a threshold of negative points, they are punished by, for example, being unable to buy train or plain tickets, or to send their kids to school. This is a combination of (in Western parlance) ‘big government’ and ‘big business’ data parameters and algorithms, leading to immediate consequences for the person’s well-being and mobility options. This resembles a super-Matrix, where hardly anybody can escape from total control. Orwell 3.0.

While properly assessing all these trends, we should not overlook that in some instances there are responses and criticism inside China. I do think one only can admire the risk-taking of these individuals.

But the question this week is: Are these trends now unstoppable, and is this what we have to anticipate for other parts of the world as well? Is this our future? I know that this post may be not so well suited for advent time; or maybe, it is?

– Klaus Segbers

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  1. Thilo Bodenstein 2 years ago

    Two weeks ago Hungary hosted the 16+1 summit in Budapest. When I walked along the Danube river I saw dozens of groups with huge Chinese flags cheering China’s prime minister. He promised a high-speed rail connection between Athens and Budapest – a project that has been enthusiastically welcomed by east European leaders. The hype is easy to understand. China has achieved high growth rates and is now connecting the world on its own terms. Upon closer inspection, however, China’s foreign assistance resembles the least successful part of western aid – massive investments in infrastructure that ended up as white elephants. The ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative still has to stand the test of time. And although predatory governments are impressed by the absence of democratic accountability in China, no country has dared to adopt its political model. The Chinese version of development has its own limits, which aspiring authoritarian leaders might be aware of.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 2 years ago

    Changes are going on in many countries, and in the West as well as in China. Changes are inevitable because the present found to be more complex, less safe, with many unexpected challenges and much more difficult as we all thought in a recent past. For China, the present and the future are maybe much more difficult to adjust to than to some other states: the Chinese leadership managed to balance the order and the openness in a way that China became the second largest economy in the world. But the balance between order and openness was incredibly shaken by Bo Xilai case and broadening corruption. Hense Xi's attempt to rebalance the economic and political system in a much alike manner as Deng did after Tiananmen in order not to have a second Tiananmen. However, China is now much more tied to the world and thus much more vulnerable to political shakes of its slowing down economy. Hence the duality in its policy: on one hand attempting to grab a position of a number one trading state and enforce transregionalisit projects like "one belt, one road" that requires more openness in order to keep going according to the way envisaged by Deng, but on another trying to keep order to prevent revolts and dissolution of the communist party like it happened in the USSR. The 'Soviet way' may lead to the collapse of the state in its present form but the communist political elite and the deep state are not ready for the introducing multi-party system or even more pluralism. At the same time, a too rigid system may collapse by itself at any moment. How China resolve this dilemma it is not known yet, but China prepared to do all not to follow the Soviet Union. Another question with no answer yet, if this will allow China to keep the same speed of its economic growth at least as during the last year. The answer to these challenges may be quite unexpected: some are arguing that this gives a chance for a deeper Russian-Chinese cooperation and an emergence of the real Russian-Chinese entente.

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  3. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 2 years ago

    China and its government do indeed pose a threat to the liberal world. A highly efficient au-thoritarian state that – as the image goes – never fails to deliver is an attractive model to many in a world where limited access to drinking water and malnutrition are still not rare. There are however two silver linings of this cloud, I can see. The one is that even China with its huge economy is not the only business partner out there. There are multiple countries – especially in Asia – that are big a growing, that rely on (partially) other state models and frequently compete with China. If European businesses become more open-minded and discover Indonesia or Vietnam more, the self-fulfilling proficiency of the irreplaceable China would fade. Hand in hand with it goes the fact that China is as dependent on the West as the West is on China. Westerners have to learn to say no to Chinese demands and ask for equality in relations be it business (no MES till the European companies have equal market access) or academia (why are Chinese students studying engineering in Germany for free?).

    Another thing is that China’s initiatives are not only tremendous projects; it’s also very often big cheap talk. Take 16+1: sure, it is an initiative aimed at splitting the EU and sure, Com-mission has to keep pushing for a unified EU (ideally EU plus admission candidates) position towards China. Truth also is, that the construction of one of the cornerstones of the Balkan part of the Silk Road – the Belgrade-Budapest railroad – has been stopped due to environ-mental concerns and after the recent summit Xinhua was praising a Check brewery acquisition by a Chinese investor as a 16+1 success.

    Europeans have to learn standing their ground against China. We have (almost) no colonial past there and it is not (anymore) a developing country. It is a country that benefits a lot from the liberal world order created by the West and it has to stick to its rules.

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  4. Friederike Kies 2 years ago

    China is a rising power. The country has shown the world an impressive and rapid economic growth. Thereby it seems only normal that a rising power also wants a rising voice within the international system. This voice should be heard and taken seriously by the international community. Recently in his speech at the 19th National Congress President Xi Jinping called for a more active China. Regarding recent trends in China, the question remains: To what extent will the country be able to influence other regions of the world, aligning them with its own interests? Certainly, the country will aim for a louder voice. Nevertheless, rapid economic growth also comes along with increasing challenges. In the nearby future China will have its hands full tackling rising internal challenges. Despite recent trends, Western states, com-panies, publishers and academics should continue engaging in an active dialogue with China, however, always bearing in mind the importance of their values.

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  5. Mina Sumaadii 2 years ago

    I would say that these trends are more likely to affect its immediate neighbours with high de-pendency on China and are the problems for the Asia-Pacific region. In short, the price for dependency will be media censorship which is bad news for China watchers. In some in-stances, censorship may have been successful, in particular when commercial interests overtook, but soon it will start to run into political limits. In the news, there are already reports about the problems that China is experiencing with investments in Nepal and Pakistan, as it wanted sovereign guarantees (Belt and Road initiatives). Also, there are reports about Chi-nese loss of investments in Australia (Mineralogy case). Most of the recipient governments want the money but not the responsibility or political costs. Thus, there is a limit on how much the neighbours can take without political backlash.
    Moreover, I don’t think the trends are unstoppable since there is also a limit on the resources at China’s disposal. They cannot buy everyone, especially since China’s economic growth is slowing down and hierarchical systems are too expensive to maintain domestically and inter-nationally. Also, not to forget there are Japan and South Korea who would not give up easily under Chinese pressure. So, there are forces of resistance to these trends.

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