Are the governance challenges facing China’s new leadership really that different from other countries?

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Quentin Cheung's picture

As China’s ‘Fifth generation’ leadership takes on the reigns of country- inheriting the challenges of the CPC’s ever delicate responsibility as it balances its role to deliver economic growth, whilst preserving national sovereignty and maintaining ‘good’ governance, it is perhaps only apt to reflect on China’s gargantuan political and economic transformation- and to ask: ‘Are China’s governance challenges unique?’. I believe that this question not only begs for the case if there exist candidates for comparison, but whether China bears distinctively special influences and contexts that make it ultimately impossible to construe its challenges in terms relative to other countries.

Any comparison between China and its developing peers therefore, must firstly warrant some metrics for comparative study. In general governance challenges in most developing countries can be distilled into four main categories- legitimacy, equality, regulation and globalization. These are all universal problems that face developing countries, but more so those which emerged from the 1970’s lexicon of Newly Industrialized Countries, especially with those that have just arose from political regimes and undergone relatively short periods of economic or political liberalization.

Contemporary China encompasses a myriad of these challenges. Legitimacy problems in governance are reflected in the top leaderships’ desire for greater economic development and political stability as employment and a high-growth environment are key to reducing political discontent and restoring trust. Moreover, equality is also a rising issue with ‘village riots’, and huge disparities in the amount of wealth has prompted the Chinese government to commit to redistribution programs along with addressing poverty through vehicles such as social insurance. Regulation refers to the management of property and the need to introduce a legal and financial system that works effectively, exacerbated in light of current events surrounding the safety of food products. Lastly, Globalization allowed for heightened influence from capital flow, and information flow as China is both affected by the global economic slowdown and influx of internet information from abroad.

Another defining feature is China’s political structure, which is characterized by ideology and the single party. This party-centered leadership stresses dominance over all aspects of state control, acting as the shield for the state. As the emergence of economic nationalism as a form of ideology appeared from the Deng period, in the name of economic reform; there are weak formal institutions or emphasis to protect property rights, environmental concerns, or the urban-rural disparity. This deepening strength and reliance of economic nationalism- has manifested into issues such as ‘China says no’ or extreme forms of patriotism as witnessed by the anti-Japan riots. This directly undermines the legitimacy of the party as painful reforms cannot be instituted unless there is a high-growth, favorable macroeconomic environment, and current issues- such as poor export prospects, high land prices and hostile regional and international environment all point to political instability.

Therefore, although a gamut of these challenges- economic development, employment, legitimacy, regulation, and globalization are all similar to those faced by many LDCs; they are particularly acute for China, a hugely diverse country. The authoritarian state that has so far been very adaptive and managed to achieve a high speed of growth, whilst unwilling or unable to introduce major political reforms despite the swathe of social-economic tensions. The ability to undergo multiple transitions within such a short time- from a revolutionary to reformist regime, from rural to increasingly urban, and finally from isolated to fully integrated to the world economy, is highly unusual for such a large country and economy.

The academic discourse, however, is not shy to compare China especially in regards with ‘Beijing Consensus’ and the dragon’s esoteric rise in the world economy. Few countries exist that share China’s size and scope, hence particular interest has been between India. Indeed, there are many parallels between the ‘Dragon’ and the ‘Elephant’, with both countries facing the problems of high-growth, high levels of dissent and a generally extremely heterogeneous society. The commonalities extend much beyond governance challenges, as both countries enjoy immense presence in the global sphere, being not only members of the UN but also economically through summit such as the G20. Academics are quick to point out that despite the vastly different political structures; at a political level the challenges are very similar- socially and economically both nations are very fragmented. Both parties- the CCP or democrats in India- must rely on mobilizing a populace where “the general education is low, civic associations relatively weak, and public debates relatively uninformed1”. Both the economic elite and middle class of the two show strong nationalistic tendencies, a more western-style lifestyle and subsequently greater concern (and awareness) on domestic policy. This has led to a greater level of complicity and reliance of these classes for ruling parties so long as they are incentivized are fruitful economic opportunities. Economically, they must contend with the geographical economic inequalities aggravated by their early policies of economic decentralization, resulting in rural budget crises leading to corruption, protests and contested sovereignty on territorial fringes, and widespread poverty. Inflation is also a pertinent challenge for either Nation.

Despite the anecdotal evidence- centuries of revolution, unrest label the two as unmanageable, uncontrollable countries that are simply too large in size to rule, differences in governance, diplomacy and economics separate the difficulties of managing Delhi to Dalian. China’s unique blend of state and market- along with the character of not only Chinese development, but also its political system, make the ‘Beijing consensus’- and its governance challenges exclusive. Similar to the old adage, is said that it is much easier to tame an elephant than a dragon.


Works Cited: 1. Bardhan Pranab, “India and China: Governance Issues and Development”, Journal of Asian Studies Vol 68, May 2009