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Two Schools of Thought on China – Both Wrong

China’s Communist Party has concluded its Third Plenum, and analysts in the West scrutinize details, hoping to pinpoint the direction of the world’s largest emerging power. Two theories on China’s rise have dominated since 1989, and both are wrong, argues Eric X. Li, venture capitalist and political scientist, in an essay adapted from his lecture at the Oxford Union: The “imminent collapse” school suggests that a one-party political system cannot manage social and economic conflicts, and the “peaceful evolution” school maintains that modernization, market capitalism and engagement could ultimately force Chinese politics to become more open for democracy. For China’s leaders, Western standards are neither irresistible nor applicable to China. “As the party embarked on dramatic reforms, the country possessed a degree of national independence unmatched by most developing nations,” Li explains. “This ability to control its own destiny allowed China to engage globalization on its own terms.” He urges respect for healthy divergence. By anticipating a forced convergence to Western ways, many stumble in their relations with China. – YaleGlobal

Two Schools of Thought on China – Both Wrong

With its “imminent collapse” or “peaceful evolution theories,” the West is wrong on China
Eric X. Li
YaleGlobal, 19 November 2013
Neither revolutionary, nor expansionist: Chiina's self-correction led by Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, with President Jimmy Carter in 1979, top; peaceful rise led by President Xi Jinping, with Russia's Vladimir Putin in 2013

OXFORD:  From President Barack Obama’s ceding of the center stage to his Chinese counterpart at the recent APEC gathering to frenzied attempts to decipher the country’s political and economic directions from the party’s just finished Third Plenum, the rising giant of the East often dominates Western political discourse. Unfortunately, such discourses are taking place on a faulty paradigm. 

Ever since 1989, mainstream Western opinions about China have been dominated by two divergent theories with opposite policy prescriptions. The ultimate aim of both was to build a universalized world order, which, of course, could not be credible without China. One is the “imminent collapse” school. Espoused by cold warriors, it predicted wholesale collapse of the country. The one-party political system was inherently incapable of managing the intensifying social and economic conflicts as the country went through its wrenching transformation from a poor agrarian economy to an industrialized and urban one. The Western alliance should seek to contain China, so the theory went, and thereby hasten the fall of a threatening power ruled by an illegitimate regime. The other is the “peaceful evolution” school. These are the panda-hugging universalists who made the “they-will-become-just-like-us” prediction. As the country modernized its economy, China would inevitably accept market capitalism and democratize its political system, and proponents urged deploying an engagement policy to speed up this evolution.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since the Western intellectual and policy establishment has been guided by these two schools of thought about arguably the most significant development of our time – China’s reemergence as a great power. The report card is not pretty. 

Western policy is guided by two schools of thought on China’s reemergence as a great power.

The assumptions made by the imminent-collapse school include the following: China was run by a dictatorial party clinging to the dead ideology of Soviet communism. Its political system inherently lacked the ability to adapt to the rapidly modernizing Chinese society. The myriad social and economic conflicts would soon implode, and the fate of the Soviet Union awaited the party state. With that, a major ideological obstacle to a Western-designed universal order would be removed. 

Of course, the cold warriors have had to postpone the effective date of their prediction year after year for decades. What did they get wrong? It turned out that the party has not been holding back or reacting to China’s modernization, but leading it. Self-correction, an ability many attribute to democracies, has been a hallmark of the party’s governance. In its many decades of governing the largest and fastest changing country in the world the party has pursued the widest range of policy changes compared with any other nation in modern history. Most recently it has successfully managed a highly complex transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy – where many developing nations have failed. In the process it has produced the most significant improvement in standard of living for the largest number of people in the shortest time in history. 

Because of this performance record, China’s modernization process has strengthened the party’s rule, not weakened it. The key driver of the party’s success is inherent in its political institution. Over the decades, the party has developed a process through which capable leaders are trained and tested – eventually emerging at the top to lead the country. Whereas elections have failed to deliver in many parts of the world, meritocratic selection has in China. 

The process of  modernization in China has strengthened the party’s rule, not weakened it.

As embarrassing as it must have been for the collapse predictors, the bitterest disappointment belongs to the universalists who foresaw with philosophical certitude the inevitable evolution of China towards liberal democracy and market capitalism. Their conviction was guided by the grand post–Cold War narrative:  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world would come together under a globalized order. Western values were universal values. Western standards were universal standards. Indeed, many have capitulated to that narrative. A large number of developing countries transformed their political and economic systems, some violently, to meet the demands of globalization. 

But China walked a different path. As the party embarked on dramatic reforms, the country possessed a degree of national independence unmatched by most developing nations. This ability to control its own destiny allowed China to engage globalization on its own terms. Its one-party system remained intact and the party institution matured and strengthened. Its economic integration with the developed world was carried out in ways that brought maximum benefits to the Chinese people. Market access was granted in exchange for direct investments that created industrial jobs and technology transfers. The government exercised political authority above market forces and led the largest investment expansion in infrastructure and health and education in history. 

The dream of “they-will-become-just-like-us” has evaporated. After the Cold War, many were enamored by the material successes of the West and sought to emulate Western political and economic systems without regards to their own cultural roots and historical circumstances. Now, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of developing countries that have adopted electoral regimes and market capitalism remain mired in poverty and civil strife. In the developed world, political paralysis and economic stagnation reign. The hard fact is this: Democracy is failing from Washington to Cairo. Even the most naïve panda huggers could not sustain the belief that China would follow such “shining” examples. 

If the West wants to deal rationally with China, a paradigm shift in thinking is urgently needed.

If the West wants to deal rationally with China, a paradigm shift in thinking is urgently needed. And, perhaps, such a shift could provide fresh ideas on how the West can approach the world differently and even begin to solve its own problems. 

To begin a reassessment, it is useful to first recognize what China is not. It is not a revolutionary power, and it is not an expansionary power. It is not a revolutionary power because, unlike the West of late, it is a non-ideological actor on the world stage and not interested in exporting its values and ways to the outside world. Even as its interests expand far beyond its borders – and make no mistake, these interests will be vigorously defended – it will not seek to actively change the internal dynamics of other countries. It is not an expansionary power because that is not part of the Chinese DNA. Compared with the many empires in human history, even at the zenith of its own power during its long civilization, China has seldom invaded other countries in large scale. The Chinese outlook is that of centrality, not universality. More practically, the Chinese see, rather wisely, that, although it could not accept wholesale the current global architecture, its rise must be peaceful. Otherwise the consequences are unimaginable. China’s sheer size makes this so. Self interests will dictate that China is likely to err on the side of restraint as it reemerges as a great power. 

History is littered with precedents of failures to accommodate rising powers leading to tragic conflicts. But that does not have to be destiny. Give China time, allow it the space and independence to continue on its own path. Live and let live. The forced convergence led by the West is costing everyone, not least the West itself. Perhaps a healthy respect for divergence could pave the way toward a convergence of a more peaceful and sustainable kind.


Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This essay is adapted from a lecture given at the Oxford Union.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

25 November 2013
China's DNA was not expansionist, merely imperialistic.
Instead of looking at a flat map, do consider a 3-D one. The Celestial Empire had expanded to the top of any moutain surrounding it, for safety reasons and water control.
Its main problem was the northern gap, the cold frontier without any geographical resistance mole, for which they have built The Wall.
Regarding the Viêts, in a foreign river basin and beyond the mountains - an exception to the rule - we can say that chinese colonization was done to sinicize the Gulf of Tonkin, strategically significant, quite a lake !
But nowadays, there is a doubt, a big question mark about the Southern China Sea, up to Natuna archipelago ???
Where is the profit of such a rampant marine war ? DNA ?
-Catoneo Paris , DNA
22 November 2013
Okay, in terms of China-Taiwan relationship, you don't use 'annex'. Taiwan was part of China anyway because their government came from mainland China, OK? Tibet and Xinjiang? Well, the British wanted them too. They were part of China in the 1700s when America was not even a country. Speaking of expansion, I would love to talk to Mexicans and ask them how they feel about the annexation of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Denver and Texas! No one now said anything about this part of the history? Why? Because what the U.S. is always 'RIGHT' !
-Jiangsu , That's wrong
22 November 2013
The fundamental question is not about the means but the final goal.
"All roads lead to rome", but what is the ROME in China's mind, in fact largely in Chinese leaders' mind? A strong nation with largest GDP only? Will every (ok, even majority) Chinese really benefit? People will not care with or without freedom? Being happy or not happy are not important? And how about Fairness and Justice?
China clearly states its national goal of "building a prosperous, democratic and civilised socialist country" in its Constitution, so tell me what the Chinese "democracy" means? Is that declaration just a Fig Leaf?
I simply see at least one benefit of western democracy that those eastern guys educated under western democracy are still applauded, even they turn to criticise the system. If you dont believe, try to criticise China and see your result.
Right, Eric?
-SUNX , WHO should thank the west
22 November 2013
Political corruption represents the single greatest threat to the continued rise of China today. Xi Jin Ping is wise to have mobilized a most ambitious anti-corruption movement to reform Chinese political institutions. Their political institutions are rife with graft, nepotism, and systems of patronage (especially at the provincial and local levels). Rightly so, this is a priority of the highest order and many of China's problems will be resolved when a true meritocracy does finally exist throughout China.
-Ken Haumschilt , Chinese political institutions- a key driver of success?
22 November 2013
Nice, but what is the China's School then? Socialism with Chinese characteristics?
-SUNX , 中国特色是个筐,神马都能往里装!
21 November 2013
I have been living in China for the past 10 years, have been following Eric Li for at least the last few.
His arguments are phony, but they played well to a naive and foolish TED audience.
First, China is NOT a meritocracy. When I bring this up to Chinese people (in China), they laugh. It's all about guanxi. And it starts at a young age. Take the gaokao, for example. It's not meritocratic at all! Kids from SH or BJ with a 550 can get into a top school in SH or BJ, but the poor kid from Shandong Province with a 550 gets into a second- or third-tier school. (There's a widely circulated joke about this.) So the wonderful gaokao, although fair in many ways, produces results that are inherently unjust -- and NOT meritocratic.
Second, Li often claims that China is a civilization-state based upon Confucian values. Certainly there are some Confucian values, such as placing education in very high regard, placing the family as the most important social unit. But get this: Probably less than 1% of Chinese have read the Analects. Less than 1%! Chinese high school students have very little knowledge about Confucius, have never read the Analects. So although there are certainly some elements of Confucianism in China, it's hardly a widespread phenomena. And is it at all surprising that what kids learn are intentionally cherry picked: Only those Confucian ideas that play well with Party ideology are taught.
I could go on and on. I'd also like to point Yale Global readers to a paper recently released and co-authored by Larry Summers. See . Sorry, Eric, but you're wrong.
We can't predict which changes will occur, but Li is incredibly naive in predicting that things will continue to go swimmingly for the CCP.
Bottom line: Although the panda huggers are indeed wrong, as are the neocons, so is Li. Read the Summers paper and draw your own conclusions. And don't believe the hype, don't believe the rhetoric. Go for facts and reason, instead.
-David L , A meritocracy?
21 November 2013
@Long Issac
Interesting that you mentioned the Viet, who is using a language the French created for them in the 19th century.
Now who's the bully here? It's neighbour China? Or the country halfway across the Earth?
-M.Y. , Oh really?
21 November 2013
The author should learn more about Chinese history from outside China. For thousand years, the Chinese Kings did try all possibilities to invade its neighboring countries. The fact is true until today. Just ask the Filippino, Vietnamese, Tibetan etc. and let those people tell you the truth.
-Long Issac , Why we should believe that China is not expansionary power?
20 November 2013
Interesting thesis posited by Eric X. Li.... how we Anglophone Chinese intellectuals inside China and outside in the West who straddle both ends of east and west can all but mused and wished that we can get a platform to air our thoughtful alternative views in American's mainstream news media, instead of being muzzled by the uber-liberal panda-hugging establishment in American academia, and the neocon China bashers and Chinese demonizers in our midst. Gary Locke just announced that he is leaving his post as Obama's "point man" and "eyes and ears" and "mouthpiece" of Pax Americana in Beijing. Is he getting out because of one of or all of the following reasons?: (a) It is futile for a Chinese-American to try to modulate and reconcile what is fundamentally an irreconciiable "world view" of Pax Americana and Pax Sinica? (b) Is he just plain tired and exhausted from being ignored by an Obama "insiders group" in the White House west wing who just throw away his cables in the garbage bin ? (c) Is Da Boss at the helm at the White House showing very little interest in China, and is no longer focused on China or Asia, but ensuring and salvaging his legacy, however little it is, by focusing on the domestic agenda? (d) Is Obama's Asia Pivot incongruent with what Gary Locke knows and feels in his gut as ill-advised as Obama's man in Beijing? (e) Is Gary Locke genuinely missing his wife and three minor kids who have high-tailed it back to Seattle where the air is cleaner, the water is less contaminated, the food is not toxic, and most important, although the traffic is bad in Seattle, but at least Seattle, unlike Beijing, is just one giant parking lot ! Or all of the above? :-)
-Liu, Wenyi , Obama's Asia Pivot and Pax Americana's man in Beijing
20 November 2013
Excellent article. China is advancing on the Economc Front. Together with Korea and Taiwan they will be a strong Economy in the World.
Dr.Anumakonda Nellore(AP),India
-Anumakonda , China