China: The Art Of Timing Reform

China’s President Xi Jinping, left, is seen with Premier Li Keqiang at the opening session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

It’s all in the timing as English-speakers tell us. Today, as far as political reform is concerned, this principle is being applied best in China.

Timing the vision. Although, logically-speaking, the dramatic decline of Anglo-Saxon soft power, brought about by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, should benefit Europe, in fact it is Xi Jinping’s China that has managed to fill the gap thus created. The opportunistic speech of the Chinese President at Davos will go down in history, and propaganda for the “New Silk Road” is enabling China to extend its geopolitical influence at a ridiculously low cost: 7 billion having been invested in the countries concerned since the beginning of the year. By building infrastructures, China is imposing its own vision of global development — in contrast to the failure of the World Bank’s social programs since 1945. At the same time, President Macron is having a hard time trying to bring his vision of Europe to proeminence. This vision is destined to fail if it continues to hesitate between linking France to northern Europe — by means of courageous reform of the supply side — and linking itself to southern Europe with its abandon of any assault on the mismanagement of public expenditure.

The government is continuously testing the limits of risk-taking

Timing the implementation. The French political elite excels in grand designs emanating from on high, seen as the products of an almost godlike mission. France abounds with ideas for reforming Europe whilst it has scarcely begun to reform itself — as the German FDP has shown. China, deceptively centralized, prefers a bottom-up pragmatic approach, as seen in the “special economic areas” of Guangdong and Fujian — which, in the early 1980s, tested new development models — or like Xiongan which is due to become a “model city”. The timing of the implementation of national measures will depend on success or failure at a local level.

In Beijing, it is all about taking action on several fronts at the same time, for there is no question of “letting time do its work” after over a century of humiliation

Timing the risk-taking. No reform can be undertaken without risks being taken. Far from being a dictatorship at a standstill under Xi Jinping — which is the commonly projected image of China in the West — the Chinese political system has undoubtedly never been so unstable. This is because the government is continuously testing the limits of risk-taking, not only on the political front, where the only effective anti-corruption plan of recent history is creating unprecedented tensions within the Communist Party; but also on the economic front, where moves to restructure the “Old China” are well under way, abolishing 12 million jobs a year and provoking 200,000 demonstrations every year. “At the same time” would therefore be a misleading expression to use when coming to an understanding of current reforms in Chinese and French societies. In Beijing, it is all about taking action on several fronts at the same time, for there is no question of “letting time do its work” after over a century of humiliation. In France, however, it means reform in small doses rather than any daring measures. The French President should visit China. He would be following in the steps of Edgar Faure who, when visiting that country in the 1950s, noted that, “The Chinese know how to wait, for they know what they are waiting for.”

This colum was previously published in L’Opinion on october 6th 2017

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