Completing China’s Growth Model through Political and Social Reform

Sino-U.S. relations have come a long way since the Cold War era. But as China has become the world’s second largest economy, is conflict with the United States inevitable? Will social issues hold China back from claiming the top spot? In an interview with the Global Times, Cheng Li addresses these issues.

Global Times: With China now the second largest power, will there be an ideological clash with the U.S.?

Cheng Li: This remains a debatable issue. The Sino-U.S. relations now are different with that during the Cold War era. In the Cold War there were two totally opposite ideologies. Through 30 years of reform and opening-up, many concepts in China have changed.

“One world, one Dream” in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the universal values supported by Premier Wen Jiabao reflect the changes of China’s thinking about the world. The recent erection and rapid removal of the statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square showed the diversification of Chinese values.

Now there are two kinds of different value trends globally. Some believe in a set of “universal values” applicable to all countries, while others insist on diversified value systems suitable to specific societies. I think the two value systems are complementary, not contradictory to each other. A democratic China will have its own characteristics, and no one could request that its system be totally the same as that of the United States. Democracy is shared by the whole world. In the past 30 years, many countries have become democratic states. We should pay attention to the exchanges between different values and cultures, instead of exaggerating the differences. The development of democracy in China should have its own characteristics.

GT: The idea of “China model” is very popular now. Does it really have a bright future?

Li: In the past 30 years, China has produced miracles of economic growth. I think China is on a suitable development road. In the economic reform, we developed the cities first, and then the rural areas. We developed the coastal areas first and then the inland regions. We let part of the people get rich first, and are now trying to achieve a fairly comfortable life for everyone. Politically, wecan reach a democracy within the Communist Party of China first, and then a national democracy. We can have the rule of law first, and then democratic elections. This is the strategically reasonable route to take for development.

However, the goal of development is not only economic prosperity, but also to ensure our citizens have justice, dignity and freedom. We haven’t achieved this goal yet, so the “China model” is incomplete. If the economic development of China can be called the first miracle, now we need a second miracle: We have to discover a political model with Chinese characteristics. The “China model” can be accepted worldwide only if we find this special political model.

Now many people think that “China model” should be totally different from the Western society and we must make other countries learn the “China model” from us. However, although the so-called China model has made some achievements in development, it is incomplete. There are also many economic problems. As Premier Wen has said, China’s current mode of economic growth is not sustainable.

Also we should focus on China’s society in the next 10 to 20 years in order to see whether China can deal with some political troubles and social contradictions well, and whether China can build a harmonious society.

GT: Some U.S. scholars are now studying the Chinese system. What can they learn?

Li: They actually want to learn from Chinese people’s diligence, emphasis on infrastructure and the value placed of education instead of from China’s political system. Besides, Chinese people like to scrimp and save in their daily lives rather than consume excessively.

Many Americans believe that there is not much in Chinese politics for Americans to learn from.

Americans have always paid attention to the great economic progress achieved by China but they also know that China is now confronted with arduous adjustments in its economic structure. China will make some tough adjustments to the previous model of cheap labor and high environmental costs, which Americans don’t need to study. What’s more, although the strong entrepreneurship of China’s private sector is remarkable, they have met with some frustrations in the past few years as the state advanced while the private sector receded.

GT: Can the ambition of young Chinese people overcome the nation’s social problems?

Li: We have a generation of young people who are confident in the future. They also include some young people who were born in the countryside and have achieved success by their own efforts. They keep fast pace with the world. Most of them are the only child in their families. They share one common idea, that their country is rising.

This conviction provides them with the abilities to handle various emergencies appropriately and grasp more opportunities.

But China’s future will meet various stern challenges, especially with the arrival of the aging society that menaces China’s productivity.

Various interest groups have monopolized social resources, which leaves entrant young graduates not many opportunities. The enthusiasm for getting a job as public servant and the tough competition for such posts also refutes the theory that Chinese youths tend to challenge the existing system.

Kai-fu Lee, former Google China head and a friend of mine, told me that no college students who chose to dive into China’s IT industry right after graduation could succeed by themselves. If they want to succeed, they probably have to rely more on social contacts than on their ingenuity.

I believe that each generation has its own shortcomings. Many people are criticizing the younger generations but are they really qualified to throw stones? They grew up in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) period and then experienced 10 or 20 years of reform and opening-up when people were eager for quick success and instant benefit.

China is now probably in the best period of its history. But it is also faced with many uncertain challenges. A nation’s maturity lies in its own confidence and self-examination. I’m afraid that excessive confidence will bring about blind complacence.

GT: Which younger generation has the most advantages, Americans or Chinese?

Li: I think that they are complementary. Because of cultural reasons, Chinese students are better than U.S. students when it comes to math, chemistry, physics and the knowledge of world affairs. But Western education pays more attention to social responsibilities.

For example, the U.K.’s Prince William went back to his military service a week after his marriage. In China, how many children of high-ranking officials join the military nowadays?

Only a small number of children of the nation’s rich and powerful people are active in social or community work, because the worship of money over the last 30 years has affected the younger generation.