David Shambaugh: Is there a Chinese model?

During 2009 there was an upsurge in Chinese academic and journalistic writings concerning the question of a “Chinese model”. Since last year Chinese intellectuals have been heatedly debating whether there is such a distinct Chinese model for development – and, if so, what are its contents and is it transferable for other countries?

This new interest inside of China seems to be heavily stimulated by the global financial crisis of 2008 -2010. Compared with the global fiasco brought on by this crisis and the questionable economic ideology underlying it, Chinese thinkers have found greater faith in China’s own development policies. The recent Chinese debate concerning the “China model” follows earlier such debates in the West, Africa, and Latin America about the so-called “Beijing Consensus.”

My reading of the Chinese discourse in recent months on this question reveals that there is no agreement among Chinese scholars. Some think there is a model, some not. Some think it’s exportable, some not. Yet others argue that it is a waste of time to even discuss a “Chinese model” for others, as China has too much to do to continue its development at home.

David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University.

From my perspective, in order to assess whether there is such a thing as a “China model” the concept must be broken down into several constituent parts of China’s development experience. In evaluating each part, one must ask if this is unique to China – or is it simply common among other newly industrialized countries (NICs)? If the answer is yes, then China’s experience may constitute a partial or full “model” and may therefore be transferable.

First, I think China’s political system is unique-but not transferable. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has indeed evolved a political system out of a classic Leninist/Communist/Soviet style system into a hybrid political system today. This system still has many of the classic elements of Soviet Leninism, but allows for much more intra-party democracy, public participation at the local level, and puts great emphasis on meritocracy and competent governance. Only Leninist-style party-states (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba) can learn from these Chinese political practices. It is different from Asian or African authoritarian systems.

Second, China’s economic system is also a hybrid. It too still maintains many elements of the Soviet central planning and investment system. While the state sector of the economy has shrunk significantly (to approximately 30 percent of the national economy), this is deceiving-as the state remains the “invisible hand” dominating the economy – through state banks, state assets, state ownership, state manipulated prices, state cadres, and unpredictable state intervention in various economic sectors.

On the other hand, China’s collective sector remains large (approximately 30 percent) and the private sector has boomed accounting for approximately 40 percent of GDP growth. Both the collective and private sectors have benefited from a close relationship to local governments (known as “local state corporatism”). Finally, the Chinese economic success has owed much to the introduction of free market mechanisms into the rural agricultural sector (with some state subsidies and price supports).

Are these elements of China’s economic experience unique? Considered individually, no-considered collectively, yes. Are they transferable? Probably not-given the size of China, the continuing legacy of the “Soviet model,” and the heavy hand of the central and local state in the economy.

Third, what about China’s provision for social welfare as a component of its development model? Generally speaking, during the past 30 years, China has dismantled its social welfare state – leaving hundreds of millions of citizens without any or adequate provision of healthcare, unemployment insurance, cost of education, and a variety of other social services.

This is not a model to admire or transfer to other societies. What was good about the Chinese social welfare model before 1978 has been lost. Only by maintaining the world’s highest household savings rate and drawing on hidden subsidies and family connections are Chinese citizens cushioned against these costs and unexpected personal catastrophes. This is a major challenge for China in the future: to rebuild its social welfare services.

Fourth, and finally, one can ask: does Chinese diplomacy offer a unique “model” in international affairs? Here, the answer is yes-at least rhetorically. China’s concepts of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” “New Security Concept,” “New International Order,” “Strategic Partnerships,” and “Harmonious World” are all unique and collectively do constitute something of a diplomatic model. Unfortunately, despite years – even decades -of promoting these concepts, they mainly fall on deaf ears abroad. Many countries do not wish to emulate and practice these concepts. The world is now more interested in what China does on the world stage, not what it says.

In sum, when considering these four factors, one must conclude that while there are some individual elements of China’s development experience that are unique, they do not constitute a comprehensive and coherent “model”- nor are they easily transferred abroad. If anything, what is unique about China’s model is that it flexibly adapts to elements imported from abroad and grafted on to domestic roots in all fields, producing a unique hybrid and eclectic system – this is China’s real “model.”

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