What stops us learning from China?
Over the last 40 years, the Chinese government has produced one of the greatest transformations in human history. In the 1970's China was a communist country where more than 88% of citizens lived on less than $US 2 a day. In 2017, that number was less than 6%. The Chinese middle class — as measured by western standards — is forecast to reach 550 million by 2022. For the last 25 years average economic growth has been around 9.5% per year. National income has been doubling every eight years. No other nation has been able to produce such an uninterrupted run of growth.
It has impressively learnt from its mistakes, being the first communist country to experiment with limited capitalism. From the results of those experiments, China then changed its most basic operation. China has reformed its state owned enterprises. It has so far avoided the harmful recessions; it largely avoided the devastation caused by the Great Recession of 2007/8. Arguably, China’s continued growth and demand even protected western economies from the worst of the Great Recession. China has been able to invest enormous sums of money building infrastructure to make its economy efficient. It has been able to support its industry to grow and compete globally. It has been able to consistently plan for its future with 13 successive 5 year plans.
China has even been one of the most effective nations in dealing with the risks of climate change and pollution, investing billions. In just one example, by 2019 China had more than 421,000 electric buses, whereas the total for the rest of the world combined was only around 4000.
China has now successfully landed on the dark side of the moon.
And yet, does the west ever look for lessons in government from China? The Chinese have learnt from us — and revolutionised their economic system. It would be extremely naive for us to assume that we can learn nothing from China.
There have been many stumbles along the way. China is not without problems in its government. Its human rights record is poor. China has only recently begun to deal directly with corruption. It has significant issues around personal freedom and around freedom of the press. It has issues (by western standards) around the independence of the judiciary and its courts. Western democracies consider these freedoms essential to protect both the rights of individuals as well as the integrity of the democratic system itself.
China, however, does not seem concerned with issues around human rights. In the last century, political turmoil and conflict cost tens of millions of lives in China and caused enormous suffering. China, quite understandably, considers the survival of society itself as a key outcome, to avoid the carnage of the past. The regime undoubtedly considers any loss of human rights a small price to pay for protection against any conflict, which potentially could cost tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of lives.
However, the area of human rights and individual freedoms are certainly not areas from which western societies would be willing to learn. Our preferences clearly differ. And no western nation will choose to become a single party state. We are not going to remove any independence of the three arms of government. These are not the areas for lessons. There are obviously quite a few other features of the Chinese government without lessons for us.
But what lessons can be learnt?
The successes outlined above have been the result of a range of decisions made by the Chinese government over a period of decades. China’s success has been in its ability to make the right decisions for its future. It obviously hasn’t gotten every decision right, in a complex world no government can. But arguably, in many ways, its system of government has been able to produce both better and faster decisions than its western counterparts. These decisions have been based on a sensible assessment of China’s long term goals. Many of the fundamental changes that China has made to itself would have been extremely unlikely in western democracies, which have moved very slowly in comparison.
But if we look behind the actual structure of the Chinese system of government, and beyond the decisions themselves, there is much to learn. It is the qualities that sit within the decision making process itself that have enabled China to make the right decisions.
In spite of the democratic limitations of China, there are key qualities of their decision making process that have enabled China to make better collective decisions and to avoid the mistakes and poor choices. If we identify the qualities of their process that have contributed to better choices, then we could incorporate those qualities into our western government processes.
We obviously don’t have to use the Chinese system itself, rather we can incorporate the qualities of their system into our own, which will work within our requirements for democratic representation and constitutional liberalism.
So, what are those qualities? The first quality to mention, as Eric Lee has said — in China, capital does not rise above political authority. The Chinese government has the freedom to make the tough decisions. The government is the ultimate arbiter. In the west, democratic governments are dependent on capital (money) for political survival. We have a democratic government that needs support from a range of industries, for example, coal and cigarette companies, to pay for its survival in elections. That same government then needs to make decisions on climate change and health regulations. The conflicts of interest have been too great for our politicians and leaders. Integrity in complex decision making is difficult enough, and yet for politicians, the tough decisions are made even more complex when their own political fortunes are at stake as well. China has been able to make the tough climate change and pollution calls, in part, because the government is not dependent on industry for support. The Chinese government rules over industry and has no dependence upon it. It is free to make the best decisions, without direct personal consequence for its leadership.
Many of the qualities of the Chinese system that have led to better decisions effectively involve the purity of their decision making process. It is actually an absence of many issues, that in representative democracies work to obstruct progress. A list of the effective qualities of Chinese government and its process includes the following:
- Special interest groups and capital do not have influence over the government itself
- The process can plan for the long term — there is no incentive for short term policies
- A process which encourages learning from mistakes or failures
- A process which has no major political manipulation or adversarial politics between political parties
- A process which does not depend on political promises
- A process which is not dependent on the opinions of a largely disinterested, busy and often uninformed electorate
- A process which is not dependent on a popularity contest where a single vote has to choose all of a party, a politician as well as a range of policies
- A process where external governments cannot influence the political process itself
- There is no policy see-saw from one political party to the next
- Decisions are not made in a public forum, where a conflicted media, manipulative politicians and special interest groups can all gain the upper hand through flawed logic and false claims
We must be able to make sensible, evidence based collective decisions, without the nonsense and manipulation of politics and our current political system. We must be able to decide each issue on its own merits. We must be able to have the best of us as our leaders, not just the ones most able to cynically manipulate the electoral system. We must be able to plan for our long term future. We must remove the limitations of our current democratic process, and free our governments to lead towards a better future.
All of the above qualities, in comparison to western democracies, help to make decision making more effective in China. We may not like the political system of China, but it was able to take great strides forward because it was not as affected by adversarial and manipulative politics, or by the constant need for re-election, or by the need to convince millions of disinterested voters whose instinctive preference is for short term solutions, or by any of the many other issues listed.
Just because western democracies have also been successful does not mean that we do not have a lot more to learn. We now compete directly with China, which is rapidly advancing towards our success and beyond. In the future, their ability to make the right decisions for their long term future will likely leave us behind.
For many people, the qualities listed above, although imperfections of our democratic process, are so fundamental to our process of democracy that they are simply something with which we must live. These limitations, however, come at a significant cost. And more importantly, the democratic process can be reconstructed and improved, without losing its essence. We can leave the major structures and functions of democracy as they are, and yet fix the processes that deliver those functions. And while this is done, we can preserve our rights and constitutional liberalism, and even strengthen the separation of powers.
Our challenge then is to integrate the best lessons from China into our own democratic system, to ensure that our governments can be better equipped to make the tough calls. No government, or system of government, can be expected to get everything right. But we can vastly improve the chances of success.
In fact, we must do so, or risk being left behind.
By combining the lessons from China with our own system, we can create a better process for democratic decision making.
Imagine a system of government which incorporated the qualities that helped enable China’s incredible successes, with the best of our requirements for democratic freedom and liberty.
Who knows what would be possible?
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