A ferment of debate in China about the way ahead

My fourth visit to LSE SU The China Development forum and the most interesting yet

The change in leadership has resulted in a ferment of debate about the way forward

Much of this open and enabled by Weibo. Public intellectuals (and not just the people) now use Weibo to air their views and get a following.

It may not be democracy but clearly there is much less self-censorship when it comes to talking about reform and everyone is talking about it

What stood out?

1) The symbolism of the new leader’s behaviour

Kevin Rudd pointed out that the first acts of Xi Jinping have been very significant – visiting the same places as Deng Xiaoping such as Shenzhen to signal he is a reformer/conspicuous absence of speeches praising the previous leaders /No crackdown on the Southern Weekend journalists who were striking in support of free speech and much more. Everyone in China-where leadership symbolism is closely followed will have got the point. The expectations for reform are now high and will most likely be revealed at the Third Plenum in the autumn

2) Reform, Reform Reform

Everyone was for it and thought it long overdue. Bear in mind though that left-wingers, nationalists and authoritarians were not well represented at the Forum.

But there were lots of different views on what reform is needed

(More on what type of reform in the next posting)

3) Prospects for the economy

Some things don’t change. The usual Manichean view of the Chinese economy were on display- “it’s about to collapse/the statistics are made up/” (Gordon Chang)

” It’s powering ahead only a bit slower” (Everyone else). There was, of course, the barely suppressed triumphalism (lips being metaphorically smacked about when China will overtake USA) and some bien pensant lip service to the idea that there are not really any winners if Europe stagnates and the USA grows very slowly.

Couple of predictions:-

When China overtakes the USA there will be a surge of national pride, as there was when Hong Kong was returned. (But in this China will be no different to the triumphalism in USA in the 20th century and Britain in the 19th century.)

At the same time American Economists and commentators will say that the number are falsely inflated

3) The meaning of Brand China

Much talk about “soft power” and what it means but no consensus. Economic power brings with it a growing interest in Chinese culture -what will be China’s distinctive contribution to the world apart from cheap goods and rampant resources hunger in Africa?

The most interesting insight here was into the “brand meaning” of USA v China

USA stands for reinvention. It is an immigrant society – people left their old countries to reinvent themselves in a new country. You can reinvent yourself many times in lifetime-go bankrupt and rise again or have cosmetic surgery and reinvent your look. In America it is never too late and you are never too old to reinvent yourself. This is reflected in the optimistic language and faith that US politicians have about a return to growth. The American economy will reinvent itself through individual endeavor and entrepreneurship. That is the master narrative.

China, by contrast, is an ancient culture. Very conscious of its history. And that is a history of frequent collapses and chaos. The discourse of its politicians is altogether more guarded. China may be growing at the rate of 10% – X 3 that of the USA-but leaders talk of “challenging conditions.”

4) Rediscovering the humanities and humanity

The rush to modernity in China is causing more public intellectuals (Tu Weiming) to talk about the need to cherish the more balanced and interdependent philosophies of the ancients and especially Confucius.

Education- it was argued- needs to change in China- fewer people studying business administration to get a top job and a rediscovery of the humanities.

An appreciation that happiness is not just about wealth but human flourishing in the broader sense.


The problem with this is that Confucian ideas are subtle and not as easy grasp as the readily understood concepts of individualism, freedom and democracy

5) “Soft Power”

So it is difficult to see Confucianism as China’s soft power- not least because a grasp of the language is needed to truly understand its concepts.

In the west (Martin Jacques’s point) a Chinese lifestyle will not (for many years) be aspirational because the vast majority of people are still poor. China may be a powerhouse but the reality of many people’s lives is hard and limited. The average American and Brit have lifestyle that is the envy of most Chinese- and will do for the foreseeable future

Soft power is however already being exerted in Africa. The dominant idea that China stands for here is Competent Authoritarian Government.

 6) CCP=competent authoritarianism

If the CCP can maintain it legitimacy through tackling corruption (and perhaps introducing some internal democracy within the party) this model and this idea will become more appealing.

If the EC remains stuck in battles over the future of the Euro and if the USA remains in gridlock (more fiscal cliffs and a president locked in antipathy with Congress) then the competence of the Chinese model will look more appealing. That a lot of ifs – but you have to say the Chinese Leadership have been better at economic management and are very conscious of the need for radical reform to achieve the next phase of growth. How far they go remains to be seen – but you cannot miss the public symbolism of Xi Jinping.

Prepare for black swans to make a nonsense of all the economist’s predictions (as well as mine)

Published by joinedupthink

Strategist, writer and teacher. Ex Ogilvy and ex Google. I am currently working on a start up called Chimnie, which will revolutionise the property market

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