Letter from China: What if Beijing is right?

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: November 2, 2007
BEIJING: What if the doubters have been wrong all along?
Big government and an all-powerful state are good, not bad.
What if the business cycle, hitherto thought to be inevitable, if completely unpredictable, could be repealed? After all, China’s economy is growing at an 11.5 percent annual clip, after years and years of similar performances, and inflation, though up a bit, still seems well controlled.
If that’s not impressive enough, consider what the Shanghai stock exchange has done. Since the beginning of this year, stocks are up twofold, and over the last five years, the total increase has been nearly fourfold.
These thoughts came to me as I drove the streets of central Shanghai the other days, only half listening at first as a driver mumbled, mostly to himself, about the new buildings going up there. He caught my attention when he started pointing out city government office towers I’d never given a second thought to.
“All of these were built by Chen Liangyu,” the man said, referring to Shanghai’s recently disgraced Communist Party secretary. “Every one of them is bigger, taller and nicer than the last.”
By now, what China has achieved in the last couple of decades legitimately lays siege to many of our most deeply held notions about the realities of government and economics. The Chinese experience of success is too short – and the Chinese themselves make few claims about the universality of their model – to speak of new laws, or even of amending old ones.
But whether they stem from Chinese achievement or Chinese rhetoric, certain billboard questions loom large.
What if popular consent in the form of real democratic participation by the citizenry had no bearing on a state’s ability to conducts its affairs with success? In myriad ways in today’s China, the government all but commands people to keep their minds off of politics, and consultation with the people is all but nonexistent.
From the red banner slogans that hang in every neighborhood and on every factory floor, the people are still exhorted to behave in “civilized” ways as defined by their rulers, and yet no clear corresponding mechanism exists for the message to pass in the opposite direction, from the bottom up.
Here, popular entertainment, down to the kind of music that makes the radio airwaves, passes through a filter whose manipulators remain scrupulously hidden behind the scenes, unsuspected by most consumers, who take the menu of publicly available choices as the natural reflection of what is popular, as opposed to what it is: something deliberately served up to help forge a “new man” in China’s brave new world.
What if personality were rendered irrelevant to the public practice of politics? Since China’s leaders are not chosen in any meaningful way by the people, there is almost no pandering to the base of the kind that often seems to keep American politics welded at election time to issues that arguably have little to do with the nation’s real destiny.
Yes, Chinese politicians sometimes pander a bit, on the Taiwan issue in particular. But that is the closest thing there is here to a hot-button issue, something like abortion in the United States.
And yes, political leaders here all emerge from bases. President Hu Jintao’s launching pad, for example, was the Communist Youth League. But on this score the difference between Chinese and American politics is an order of magnitude.
What if politics with a capital “P” could be eliminated altogether, or very nearly so, at least, and a secretly selected circle of wise men (and infrequently, women) could proceed straight to policy formation and execution based purely on their own – and this is Hu’s own favorite description – “scientific” assessment of the nation’s needs and priorities?
In such a world, long-term strategic planning could be carried out forthrightly and without the distractions and abrupt course changes brought about by that inherently unstable system known as democracy, with its fixation on rival parties and alternation.
What, moreover, if sure-footed bureaucrats – chosen purely on the basis of merit, rigorously trained and ideologically vetted – were allowed to implement and execute, free of harassment from a meddlesome congress? Might that not be the explanation, for example, for the extraordinary marshaling of resources here to create world-class infrastructure, majestic cities, airports, highways and dams rising in record time out of the economic rubble of the Maoist past?
What if a country could become great and powerful without ever becoming a “great power,” or at least not with any of the connotations that we have come to expect with such a label?
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