There is much commentary and criticism in the Western media about China’s constitutional amendment. Western concern is that China is not continuing on what the West thought would be an eventual and systematic transition toward “democratic institutions”, as certain countries in the West have chosen to define them. In viewing Chinese politics from their own frame of reference, maybe these analysts are missing the bigger picture by narrowing the focus.
Western observers often project their own beliefs and experiences into a framework through which to view China. Similar frameworks are applied to other countries in the non-Western world as well, with similar results.
The consistent result is an inability to understand the currents and considerations that reflect cultures, societies, and geographies that are different from those Western countries. Consequently, Western analysis of China and other non-Western countries is consistently off base, leaving analysts and politicians baffled that their predictions have simply missed the mark. That is because the assumptions that they have based the analysis on, may simply not be relevant－largely because they have not tried to understand events and changes from the perspective of a local context.
The factors and considerations that fill the room of academics sitting in think thanks in Washington or Ivy League institutions may be very different from those considerations of leaders in countries facing challenges of development, severe climate distortion, and often complex multi-ethnic societies, and national security challenges.
Important points shouldn’t be missed
During the ongoing first session of the 13th National People’s Congress, Western media focus and political analysis have been mainly consumed with hyperbolic over-coverage of the constitutional amendment. Much of the commentary and editorial focusing on this has been emotional, without focusing at the overall context of where China is right now in its own development and transition to a global power, and what it needs to do in the next stage. Such analysis falls back on the old story that chooses to define China’s political economy as being some sort of rivalry between “reformers” and “conservatives”, something that is really just a projection of Westerners’ own consciousness and bi-partisan political discourse on a system that does not resemble this at all.
There is very little Western media coverage of China’s deleveraging of domestic debt, establishment of institutional systems of checks and balances against corruption, power abuse, and environmental disruption. There is almost no coverage of China’s efforts to streamline government functions, eliminate different departments’ overlapping and contradictory powers and policies, and the mega-plans underway to support innovation, education, and technology development from the perspective of policy and investment. There is hardly any mention that China is now the only country leading the fight against fossil fuels and climate disruption having adopted realizing an ecological civilization as the national overarching policy to achieve 80 percent clean energy by 2050.
China is now undergoing one of the most complex and difficult transitions in its modern history since the launch of reform and opening-up in 1978, and the State-owned enterprise reform after the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
In 1978, China began the dramatic political catharsis of opening up its economy and attracting foreign investment, without really knowing how to move forward or what the outcome would be. The objective was to eliminate poverty that dominated a largely agriculture economy, and begin the real process of industrialization.
In 1998, China began the process of converting SOEs into corporations, then multi-national corporations, making them globally competitive. This went along with marketization in many other sectors. The rapid development, however, also creates problems such as environmental pollution, growing corruption, and a widening wealth gap.
The run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and onward was all about high investment-driven growth, which on one hand managed to maintain China’s rapid growth and on the other led to over-investment, internal debt, and corruption.
Reforms in the new era bring more changes
After taking the helm of the country in 2013, President Xi Jinping spent the next five years cleaning up the excesses associated with corruption, environmental degradation, over-reliance on fossil fuels, over-extended domestic debt, and so on. Now that the rough clean-up is done, it is time for him to put systems in place to make the future work better. That will take time.
The West complains about a lack of rule of law, transparency, checks and balances, and systems of governance in China. But these are exactly the challenges that Xi now seeks to tackle. Everything about the ongoing National People’s Congress session is about building those systems to perfect the one that the Party central leadership with Xi as the core has spent the past five years in improving. That is why Xi talks about China in the “New Era”.
This National People’s Congress session will last longer than any session before. It is not a ceremonial event, or a “rubber stamp”, as the West calls it. It is now a working program of consensual representation that is seeking to put into place systems that can function well in the long run. That is the point that Western analysts are simply not getting. This is about establishing foundations that can last long into the future.
It is not enough to run a half-decade anti-corruption campaign. There needs systematic supervision to put power in cage. Youth need to be effectively brought into government, which means strengthening functions to adopt not just e-governance but artificial intelligence-governance. It is not just enough to deleverage, but also to build new and efficient banking systems that can also assure green financing, capital to private sector innovators, as China prepares to enter the new era.
In short the task of “reform” ahead is not about “reform”. That word has been overused by the foreign press so much that many of us do not even know what it means anymore. The issue on the table these days in Beijing is how the NPC will improve the governance framework for China in the new era. This is not about repeating the old Western media story that is so severely outdated. This is about China’s “New Normal”.
The author is founding director of Himalayan Consensus Institute and a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization.