The image that summed up China for me in 1983 was that of a vast country of immense highways filled with bicycles. I went back in 1990 and found a country still teeming with bicycles but beginning to choke from the fumes of motor vehicles. On my last visit two weeks ago, I was shocked to see that the bicycles are now consigned to narrow lanes while cars and buses, the new emperors of the road, have completely colonized the streets.
China is modernizing. And, in the face of rapidly dwindling fossil fuel, it is not a small tragedy that the car should be the first symbol of that modernity. Chinese incomes are rising fast, creating a fabulous market of more than one billion consumers. It is this gigantic market that the US seeks to invade with the establishment of normal trade relations with China.
It is the proliferation of cars that strikes me because in a superficial sense, it is what dramatically sets apart a capitalist economy from a socialist one. Centrally planned economies tend to have efficient mass transit systems, while market economies tend to value individual mobility associated with cars.
Yet there is every reason to believe that as it cautiously finds its way in a global economy, China will define a different route. Its ancient civilization attests to an inclination toward “great” collective responses to social problems. It has after all been one nation for more than 2000 years. Its administrative traditions are the foundation of what we know today as statecraft. China is likely to be the last refuge of the nation-state, a concept swiftly being buried elsewhere by ethnic fragmentation and global integration.
Modernization has so far been confined to China’s dynamic cities on the eastern coast. As one moves west, persistent poverty and underdevelopment unerringly define the nation’s reality. Thus, its biggest problem today is how to bring the western provinces into the circuit of development.
If China were the Philippines, this uneven development would surely trigger a massive internal migration to the bustling cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, and Guangzhou. Slums would sprout everywhere and further complicate an already difficult transition to a market economy. Urban migration is clearly happening in China, but nowhere near the scale at which it unfolded in postwar Philippines. Migration is strictly regulated, and in fact there is a decisive clearing up of the old “hutongs” and neighborhoods in the major cities to make room for new high-rise offices and hotels. This would be inconceivable in a society without a strong public authority.
China has spent centuries debating the art of political authority. The writer Michael Loewe describes this debate as the struggle between two recurrent attitudes – the “modernist” and the “reformist”. The “modernist” attitude recalls the achievements of the Qin dynasty, which unified China under one authority. It stresses the importance of the role of the state and of one legal code to the economic and political development of the country.
The “reformist” attitude, on the other hand, emphasizes ethical rule as the basic foundation of political authority. The teachings of Confucius serve as the basic guideposts in the exercise of public power. The people are to be allowed to live in freedom, and government must intervene only minimally, mainly to protect the poor. Public officials must live frugal and exemplary lives to deserve the authority they exercise. The Zhou kings were held up as models of ethical governance.
A foreign visitor in China today would easily find traces of these contending beliefs in the often unguarded observations of scholars and tourist guides. Everywhere, one hears unabashed praise for the modernist thrust that Deng Xiaoping initiated after the death of Mao in 1976. But one would as often sense a lingering uneasiness over increasing corruption in high office and the spread of vice and debauched living among the people. Slowly, in the din of modernist prosperity, the sayings of Confucius and Mencius are again finding space in the heart of the Chinese nation.
“The gentleman,” says Confucius, “understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable.” The first values selfcultivation, the other knows only material gain. In no other society perhaps is the tension between these two values more urgent than in modern China. The sheer size of the population (1.3 billion) would be enough to make any society explosive. In the age of information, the Chinese Communist Party must know that once you open up the economy, you cannot remain closed politically.
China has no choice but to democratize, but it will definitely not allow another country to dictate the pace at which it will do so. The control of that pace in the interest of national survival is the only remaining warrant for the continued political authority of the Communist Party. As China modernizes, the spread of the market economy will test the limits of that authority. Unable to use coercive power as freely as before, state authority will have to base itself more and more on moral legitimacy.
In 1989, the students at Tiananmen Square called for democracy, political openness, and transparency. The iron-hand of the state crushed the democracy movement. This naked suppression was met by instant global criticism, yet today it is possible for China’s leaders to argue persuasively that they did the right thing. China was not ready.
Through all its crises, China has survived because of its ability to deal with its own problems without being rushed to solutions by outside powers. That is a good lesson for any nation to learn.
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