Book reviews: Debating the “China model”

The China Model and Global Political Economy: Comparison, Impact, and Interaction, by Ming Wan.[Routledge Contemporary China Series Vol. 111.] Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. xx + 194 pp.

China and Global Capitalism: Reflections on Marxism, History, and Contemporary Politics, by Lin Chun. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. viii + 266 pp.

mwMuch has been written about the unique path that China has taken to economic growth. Much of this work turns on a number of key points: whether the Chinese development model is sustainable either for China or for the global economy, and whether the Chinese model can or should be replicated elsewhere. These two books present two very different approaches to these same questions.

Ming Wan’s book presents China’s path to development in a comparative perspective, weighing it against a number of historical cases, at the same time examining the effects of China’s integration into the global economy. Wan takes a holistic approach to the substance of Chinese development, including in his analysis the pressures of domestic political legitimacy, as well as global economic trends. He cautions against equating the story of China’s development with the so-called “China model,” since no single China model properly exists, at least not one that the Chinese government officially promotes to the world as an ideological and institutional package. Rather, the idea of a China model retains currency precisely because it is undefined, and thus can mean different things to different people. Wan demonstrating the broad rhetorical power that the idea of a replicable China model now carries both inside China and on the world stage by incorporating voices from academia and government, as well asthose of social critics from all sides of the political landscape. Although such a multifaceted approach occasionally feels inconclusive, the book as a whole is clear on a number of points: the Chinese experience of development is a fundamentally pragmatic and constantly evolving set of policies. It draws inspiration from a variety of sources, but does not copy any particular model. It is highly specific to Chinese political and economic circumstances and thus cannot be exported or reproduced. Finally, because China’s development aims above all to protect and expand China’s interests, it does not intend to pose a systemic threat to the United States.

Wan begins by separating the reality and rhetoric in China’s development since the late 1970s. He distinguishes broadly regional trends such as high levels of savings and investment, and the emphasis on political stability, from those that are more unique to China, such as the high degree of local government initiative and competition. This reality is only loosely tied to the various portrayals of China’s development, be it as the “China model,” the “Beijing consensus” or the “China dream.” Although each of these formulations does capture certain essential lessons that admirers and critics hope to draw from China’s development, Wan dismisses their analytical value.

True to its title, the primary emphasis of the book is the place of China model in the world. Wan presents chapters on the two most influential models: the free market and open information pragmatism of the Washington consensus, and the highly centralized developmentalism of postwar Japan, followed by a third chapter on the rest: the Four Tigers, Soviet Union, and BRIC countries. These comparisons (summed up in helpful charts) all serve to highlight the distinctive features of the Chinese case, but also drive home the point that Chinese development policy since the close of the Mao era has consistently preferred realism over systemic ideology. Despite obvious divergences, China shares a fundamental pragmatism with the American model of consumer-driven growth, and has thus been able to emulate many of its useful institutions. In contrast, despite expectations that China would follow in the footsteps of Japanese developmentalism, Japan’s recent inability to successfully emerge from the economic problems of the 1990s has left it more of a cautionary tale than an inspiration. China has watched closely the recent experience of the Four Tigers, but its admiration is not uncritical.

The remaining chapters examine the place in the world of China’s rise. Although China’s development has presented a certain rhetorical alternative to US hegemony, it has not been taken up by other countries as a programatic model for development. Nor has it been promoted as such by the Chinese government. A case in point is China’s recent activities in Africa. China has won both praise for driving growth, and investing in African infrastructure projects, as well as accusations that it is engaged in a neo-imperialist quest for cheap commodities. Yet in the end the lesson of Africa is that China exerts far greater influence by joining the global economy than by seeking to divide or dominate it through the imposition of an alternative model of development.

By the same logic, Wan sees little potential for other sorts of conflict, particularly a global contest for hegemony with the United States. Although China is indeed stronger than it ever has been militarily, Wan sees China as an essentially economic power, one that would have nothing to gain from seeking out conflict with the United States or its allies. Both sides profit from maintaining the current status quo, including China’s rise, which has benefitted not only American companies, but global capitalism as a whole, particularly in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. The book’s final chapter aims to examine the effect that this crisis has had on China and the United States, but gets bogged down in defending the idea that financial shocks alone do not unseat hegemonic powers.

lcLin Chun presents a very different perspective on many of the same issues. In a book that at times reads more like a collection of individual essays, Lin delivers a scathing Marxist critique of Chinese development in a world defined by the dominance of global capitalism.

Lin begins seeking to upend two myths about China’s historical relationship to the global economy. She begins with an attack on the “Asiatic mode of production,” a Marxist claim that cultural stagnation and political despotism historically combined to derail Asia (Marx was speaking of India, but the idea is easily made to speak for China) from the universal trajectory of development. Although the AMP has largely been forgotten by Marxists, Lin takes it as symptomatic of the more general (and often unspoken) assumption that China was somehow unable to progress without Western interference. The second target is the relationship between capitalism and development. Lin asserts that China’s advanced commercial economy was developed, but unprepared to face the onslaught of Western capitalism, which she defines as predatory and therefore reliant on political and military backing. This reassessment both of Chinese historical development and of global capitalism is meant to shift the basic assumptions of a debate that asks why China “failed” to develop along the very particular track that led to industrial capitalism, particularly when that course was inseparable from a history of capital accumulation under European imperialism.

The heart of the book is its second section, which locates the Chinese communist revolution within these larger questions of global development. Lin reexamines Marx’s own ideas about the stages of economic development in order to refute the post hoc equation of capitalism and accelerated economic development that underlies China’s own decision to “abandon socialism in the name of reform” (Lin 46). She further argues that the revolution was not a deviation from development, but was in fact the core of China’s current success. The revolution laid the foundation for participatory democracy, broke clan and landlord power in the countryside, and secured national food security. Rather than producing progress, recent “reforms” have backtracked on all of these gains. Deep concessions to the WTO have eroded China’s financial sovereignty, while production without technology transfer has proletarianized China’s industrial workforce. The policy of prioritizing growth above all else has entered China in a global “race to the bottom.”

Selling this new positioning (Lin would call it a betrayal) of socialism has required a revision of China’s priorities and its assessment of the revolution. Having handed over unchecked power to a new stratum of elites, the Party has completely eradicated the ideals and language of class struggle, even as it indulges in transparent sloganeering and empty ideological campaigns. (Lin reserves particular disgust for the Marxist project: “what a misuse of public money; and it dishonors Marxism in whose name, greed and fraud are rampant.” Lin 70) The most disturbing trend is the replication inside China of the exploitative nature of global capitalism itself. The growing trend towards financialization and the “empowerment of capital” promises to close the door on any manner of reform through the Party or public discourse. Once these trends take firm root, the only hope for change will be agitation from below.

As an alternative to the current program of aimless and divisive growth, Lin revives the idea of basing production on the principle of popular wellbeing, or minsheng. Voiced by Sun Yat-sen, among others, the minsheng ideal balances the needs of production with the welfare of the producer. Nowhere is the need for minsheng more immediate than in agriculture, which balances the needs of food security with the livelihood of the largest segment of China’s population. Agriculture also has particular meaning for the Communist Party: the question of landownership is one area in which China’s revolutionary legacy is particularly strong, and one which today continues to produce some of the worst instances of conflict. Lin firmly rejects the call to “rationalize” agriculture through the imposition of large scale managed farms, since any gains in rural productivity would come at the cost of millions displaced and impoverished. Instead, the reform of agriculture points the way to a new set of values, one in which commitment to productive and ecological sustainability would offer solutions to real problems. In this Communist “moral economy,” quality of life will take precedence over aggregate output, while highly localized and socialized petty production also become the main source of sustenance for the rural population.

In the final section, Lin returns to themes developed in the first, looking now to the future instead of the past. Rather than asking why China did not develop, Lin suggests asking instead why Europe did develop into the insatiably resource intensive, and ultimately self-destructive form of capitalism that China has come to idealize. The hope for China, for socialism, and for the world is not to replicate the Western model, but to create a new path.

These are obviously two very different books. Ming Wan presents a very straightforward and balanced view that draws on IR literature and will speak particularly to that audience. Because he sees the China model at least as much as a rhetorical entity as a set of policies, he gives voice to any and all of its commentators, but ultimately concludes that no iteration of the China model can be explained by ideology alone. In contrast, Lin Chun is nothing if not provocative. She pulls no punches in her criticism of global capitalism, or what she sees as the venality and “intellectual poverty” of the current Chinese government. She is also more easily accused of allowing idealism to color her analysis: she is uncharacteristically mild in her criticism of the “mistakes” of the Maoist period, including the utopianism of collectivization. Her portrayal of the “participatory democracy” of the Cultural Revolution is unlikely to convince many readers.

My purpose is not to criticize Lin for having taken a strong stand, or to emphasize the superficial differences between these two books. Rather I see value in the surprising number of fundamental questions that they share in common. Whether they draw their inspiration from Marx or Mearsheimer, both books join a larger debate about the origins, costs and durability of China’s development model, and the relation of China’s development to long term global trends. Both authors champion an approach that integrates economic and political considerations, in both the domestic and international spheres. However, they do differ fundamentally on a number of key issues. Wan measures the success of China’s model in conventional terms of aggregate growth, a yardstick that Lin explicitly rejects. Wan has little to say about the erosion of social justice or lack of planning for ecological sustainability, issues that Lin sees as fundamental failings of recent policy.

Moving from interpretation to points of fact brings these differences into clearer focus. Again representing the more conventional approach, Wan dates China’s development from the Deng Xiaoping era of reform, and explicitly targets the arguments of the “new leftists” (of whom Lin is clearly representative) in his assertion that China’s economic growth “has little to do with socialist legacies or residual socialist elements.” (Wan 17) The difference extends to explanations of China’s historical weakness. Lin argues that China was the victim of global capitalism (of which historical imperialism is one particularly aggressive subset) which robbed the country of productive capital, a process that is similar to the threat posed by overfinancialization today. Wan argues precisely the opposite: that the West and later Japan rose because of innovations in the sale of public and private debt, and that China’s historical weakness derived from its inability to create a successful financial system. (Wan 54, 165)

These two authors are important because they speak for views that are at fundamental cross purposes: Wan sees China’s success primarily in terms of its ability to accommodate to the international system, precisely the opposite of Lin’s call for China’s leaders to stand up to global capitalism. There is little question that most Western readers will find Wan to be the more accessible and perhaps the more reasonable of the two, but the continued popularity of political figures such as Bo Xilai shows the vitality of leftist thought in China, and should also caution against the casual marginalization of voices such as Lin’s. In the end, the fact that each of these two authors speaks eloquently and convincingly for contending schools of thought is of course all the more reason to read them together.