Could China’s model of growth be its biggest export to the world?

·21-min read

As China marks a century since the founding of the Communist Party, this series looks at the past, present and future of the country’s political system. Here, Shi Jiangtao and Jevans Nyabiage explore whether other countries can grow along the same lines.

Half a world separates Ethiopia from China but the East African nation gives an idea of what a China-inspired path of development can look like.

Leaders of the continent’s second most populous country and one of the poorest, have tried to emulate China’s economic and governance model, building special economic zones and pursuing infrastructure-led growth since the 1990s.

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From skyscrapers, roads to dams, airports and rail links, evidence of Chinese money and influence is everywhere – so much so that Ethiopia has been described as the “China of Africa”.

And just like China, Ethiopia has achieved this without meaningful political reforms. Addis Ababa is one of Washington’s key military allies in the region but authorities in Ethiopia have traditionally been sceptical of the Western concept of democracy and human rights.

With the deepening of China’s geopolitical and ideological feud with the United States, Ethiopia and the African continent have become increasingly important for Beijing, raising concerns in the West of further efforts by China to “export” its approach to government and development.

But Beijing’s state-led formula, which is not readily defined, is arguably unique to China and may not take root so easily in other countries, observers say.

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For most of the past three decades, Ethiopia’s former ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, dominated the country’s political landscape. The front was “one of the best students” of the Chinese Communist Party, according to former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn, with Ethiopian officials flocking to China regularly since 1994 for party-organised training sessions on poverty reduction, cadre management, propaganda and media control. The front even adopted the concept of “democratic centralism”, an organising principle of the Chinese party that allows centralised decision-making.

The Chinese model gained favour as Africa wearied of the free-market capitalism and deregulation that characterised Western-style neoliberalism.

The failure of neoliberal economic policies in fostering social and economic development across the continent has caused political reorientations in Africa

Tim Zajontz

Tim Zajontz, a research fellow at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, said China positioned its model as an alternative to Western-style democracy, which became a source of inspiration for other African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania.

“The failure of neoliberal economic policies in fostering social and economic development across the continent has caused political reorientations in Africa, with China’s economic trajectory frequently being invoked as a viable alternative development model,” Zajontz said.

Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Centre on US-China relations, agreed. “China has provided a successful authoritarian developmental model that has worked at home, and is thus seductive to other developing countries that have had difficulty organising their body politics, catalysing their economies with growth and keeping social order. The ‘China model’ has produced economic progress … if people are willing to live in an authoritarian, even totalitarian political environment. There is a trade-off,” Schell said.

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However, as Beijing pulls out all the stops to mark the centenary of the ruling party’s establishment on July 1, there is still no consensus on what the China model actually is.

Just over a decade ago after the global financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese government even refused to acknowledge the existence of such a model, or weigh in on the discussions about whether the China model was reality or just something possible.

Instead, a number of retired officials, including former vice-president of the party’s Central Party School Li Junru, cautioned against using the term, citing its possible negative impacts on China’s relations with the world and its domestic development.

In a commentary on Study Times, the school’s flagship newspaper, in December 2009, Li said the notion of China model was factually incorrect and dangerous because it led to “self-satisfaction and blind optimism” and tended to stereotype the country’s ongoing reform experiment.

The ‘China model’ has produced economic progress … if people are willing to live in an authoritarian, even totalitarian political environment

Orville Schell

In the decade since, a group of Chinese academics and intellectuals have also questioned the validity of the Chinese model. Renowned economists Zhang Weiying and Wu Jinglian warned against promoting it, saying it would undermine reform at home and fuel divide and confrontation with the West. Tsinghua University historian Qin Hui argued in 2010 that unlike the rise of China, the rise of the China model, featuring a low level of human rights and welfare, was by no means good news for the country and the world.

It was not until after President Xi Jinping took office in late 2012 that the “China model” finally won official blessing.

“With the rise of China’s national strength and global standing, discussions and studies on the ‘Beijing consensus’, ‘Chinese model, and ‘Chinese road’ have gathered pace in the world,” Xi told senior party cadres at an internal meeting in January 2013.

In another speech that set the tone for China’s increasingly assertive global outreach, Xi declared in 2017 that “the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”

Those remarks at the party’s National Congress four years ago marked a watershed moment in Beijing’s efforts to present itself as an alternative to the West, according to David Zweig, emeritus professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“This is the model that he has decided to emphasise, as he knows it will resonate strongly with governing groups who want to maintain strong authoritarian controls, not give in to Western demands for human rights and popular participation, and yet still grow within the current global political economy,” said Zweig, also vice-president of Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank.

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But still Beijing appears reluctant to officially use the term China model, even as the government has touted the superiority of its authoritarian system and lashed out at the failures of Western liberal capitalism, especially in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

It has instead preferred various alternatives such as “Chinese path”, “Chinese experience”, “Chinese wisdom” and “Chinese approach”, according to Deng Yuwen, a former editor of Study Timeswho is now a US-based observer.

“‘China model’, which is a shorthand for the country’s state-led economic capitalism and political authoritarianism, has some negative connotations in the West,” Deng said. “Whenever people talk about the China model, it raises uneasy questions about whether China intends to spread its illiberal system abroad.”

Africa has become increasingly important to Beijing. Photo: Twitter
Africa has become increasingly important to Beijing. Photo: Twitter

That partly explains Beijing’s resentment towards accusations that it is trying to promote its model of governance beyond its borders, with Chinese officials, including Xi, repeatedly declaring that China has neither the interest nor the desire to do so.

In an unusually acrid outburst in 2009, the then vice-president Xi openly complained about the intense scrutiny of his country. “There are certain foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country,” he said during a visit to Mexico. “China does not export revolution, hunger or poverty; nor does China cause you any headaches. What else do you want?”

According to Schell, the leadership in Beijing has been understandably reluctant to confirm a specific “China model”, lest it be accused of engaging in a Cold War-like export of a Chinese ideology, set of values and political system.

“But whatever you call it, there is a clear Chinese form of one-party rule, Leninist capitalism, and authoritarian cultural and political control,” he said. “The [Communist Party] does appear to be deeply concerned about having this ‘model’ respected, accepted and possibly even adopted elsewhere.”

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However, Beijing’s reluctance to define the China model makes it difficult for others to follow and underlines a constant dilemma for the party to come up with a fair and coherent assessment of its contribution to China’s global ascendance and its future role in the world, according to observers.

“The Communist Party’s celebration of China’s culture and ‘special characteristics’ as the source of China’s strength is in direct conflict with the claim that there is a China model that can be emulated by others,” said former American diplomat Robert Daly.

The murkiness of the China model and Beijing’s deliberate evasiveness “actually work well for the interests” of the party, according to Lina Benabdallah, an expert on Africa at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a research associate at Johns Hopkins’ CARI. “With that, there is very little to no pressure on what aspects of it are successfully emulated or which have led to successes or failures.”

The [Communist Party] does appear to be deeply concerned about having this ‘model’ respected, accepted and possibly even adopted elsewhere

Orville Schell

Ethiopia, despite averaging 10 per cent of economic growth since the early 2000s, remains one of the poorest in the world, with a third of its population living below the international poverty line of US$1.90 a day. And conditions are deteriorating amid droughts, famine, a growing trade deficit and a civil war in the northern Tigray region. China critics in Washington and elsewhere are particularly critical of China’s no-strings-attached lending programmes, saying they amount to a “debt trap” and are a geopolitical tool for Beijing to expand its sphere of influence.

There are signs that the debt is a concern for the public on the continent. An Afrobarometer poll of 18 African countries last year found that while Africans were generally positive towards China’s growing influence and its enormous investment, 58 per cent of those surveyed expressed concerns about excessive borrowing from China. In Ethiopia, which received almost one-tenth of China’s loan commitment to Africa totaling US$153 billion between 2000 and 2019, 60 per cent were concerned about their country’s debt burden. Similar to a previous survey four years ago, the US remains more popular than China among Africans and Ethiopians surveyed when it comes to their preferred development model.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s relations with Addis Ababa have cooled under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has sought to rebalance itself between Beijing and Washington, with the introduction of liberal political reforms and pro-market steps such as reopening some of its state-controlled industries, such as telecommunications.

George Magnus, an economist and a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said that while there were growing examples of authoritarianism and nationalism around the world, it should not be mistaken as proof that China’s model was becoming increasingly popular globally.

“[The rise of authoritarianism] is not flattering for countries that follow this path, or for China. I think this is happening because of a fragmentation of the ‘global order’ that has been accelerated by the financial crisis, the pandemic and rising economic stress,” he said.

According to Magnus, while China may not want to export its development model in the literal sense, it certainly wants to sign emerging and developing countries up, and if possible some advanced nations, for geopolitical considerations.

China appeared keen to “both reshape global institutions, standards and protocols, and peddle and support a narrative of history and of contemporary affairs that mirrors Beijing rather than Washington or other liberal-leaning nations,” he said.

“This is all part of China’s ambition to win the struggle against ‘Western’ capitalism over time. So far, this strategy is encountering strong pushback.”

From a historical perspective, the rise and fall of a certain type of political regime is perfectly normal

Zhiqun Zhu

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, cautioned that the appeal of the China model should not be overstated. He noted the rise of authoritarianism coincided with a host of setbacks faced by Western democracies, which, from the US, Britain to Greece and Italy, were experiencing various kinds of structural problems.

“To some developing countries, especially those struggling with their own transition to democracies, China seems an extremely appealing model. But most countries will probably not copy China’s development model,” he said. “It confirms the belief that democracy is not a panacea ... From a historical perspective, the rise and fall of a certain type of political regime is perfectly normal.”

Protesters rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia against the United States imposing restrictions on economic and security assistance over the conflict in the Tigray region in May. Photo: AFP
Protesters rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia against the United States imposing restrictions on economic and security assistance over the conflict in the Tigray region in May. Photo: AFP

Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, also said the popularity of the Chinese model was more to do with democracies’ own failure.

“Democracy is a nice concept, but too much of it is not conducive to government’s ability to govern and execute. Democracies become increasingly ungovernable and people are more open to alternative models, even at the cost of relinquishing some of their freedoms,” he said. Democratic systems increasingly gave rise to populist leaders who were ill-prepared for their jobs, such as Trump, he added.

Luft cited India, the only other country with a population of more than one billion, as a reference case to evaluate the success of the Chinese model. “In almost every aspect of human development from poverty alleviation and infrastructure to health and social order China leaves India behind. The fact that Covid-19 deaths in India are 75 times higher than China’s is not coincidental,” he said.

Democracies become increasingly ungovernable and people are more open to alternative models, even at the cost of relinquishing some of their freedoms

Democracies become increasingly ungovernable and people are more open to alternative models, even at the cost of relinquishing some of their freedoms

Gal Luft

The debate about the China model has become contentious in recent years, with the White House under Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump is increasingly focused on countering the perceived threats from the Communist Party and the much-touted China model.

Nevertheless, the West is not worried about China because it is promoting a governance model, according to Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute.

“It is worried because China is building its military and technological capabilities and because it promotes illiberal practices and pursues foreign policy goals that developed democracies see as inimical to their interests,” Daly said.

But Daly said there was no strong evidence that China wanted to foist its model on other countries.

“China wants security and stability, as the party defines them, and it wants global access to energy, food, natural resources, technology, and markets. These needs require greater connectivity, on Chinese terms, which Beijing is attempting to build through [Belt and Road Initiative] lending.

“China wants to attain these goals without obstacle and without objection to its domestic or international practices. The party believes that enhanced discourse power and soft power would benefit China, but is not willing to change its behaviour to attain them. It would love to be loved, but will settle for silence, which it has had some success in purchasing,” he said.

[The party] would love to be loved, but will settle for silence, which it has had some success in purchasing

Robert Daly

There were two kinds of resistance to the China model, according to Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. The economic one proposed by many Western market economies maintains that China’s state-led model provides unfair advantage to Chinese firms to the detriment of other countries’ enterprises, jobs and development. The other focuses on China’s political system and alleged human rights abuses.

“Both sometimes blend together, but they are distinct issues. With China rising, the criticism on both aspects has increased, especially since the ascent to power of Xi Jinping, under whom the communist power has taken an increasingly assertive stance in international relations,” he said.

Most observers agreed that a close look at the trajectory of China’s success story showed its model was unique to the country mostly because of its history, its scale and party’s ability to reform and thus not “exportable”.

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic, there have been various development models, from a relatively traditional centralised Stalinist approach to development in the 1950s and 1960s to a decentralised, more market-oriented approach since 1978. Along with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the party’s ability to blend important aspects of capitalism, including ownership structures, resource pricing and allocation, and the creation of the world’s biggest private housing market, has been at the heart of China’s success as a globalised economy. There has also been a shift in recent years to a more statist approach in which the party-state dominates the economy and society.

“The particular route that China has taken in its development is quite unique to China, and is determined by its history, initial conditions and particular political structure,” Hofman said.

Daly noted the export-led development model China adopted and adapted 40 years ago was also used previously by Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. The model was supercharged by China’s scale, the rest of the world’s interest in developing China’s market, its invaluable tradition of prioritising education, the energy of the Chinese people, and China’s admirable willingness to experiment and learn from other countries, he said.

“One of the keys to China’s success from 1978 to 2012 was the Communist Party’s adaptability and evolution. Under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, China pursued outcomes, not orthodoxy, and was open to most forms of social change short of political reform,” he said.

“No other nation enjoys the historical, cultural, or demographic conditions that have enabled China’s development. It is extremely unlikely that other countries will succeed by doing what China has done.”

The particular route that China has taken in its development is quite unique to China, and is determined by its history, initial conditions and particular political structure

Bert Hofman

Magnus said Beijing’s success was to a large extent also a result of its pragmatism and steady, if sporadic, bouts of liberal reform. “The Communist Party succeeded in turbocharging economic growth and rightly gained plaudits for its pragmatism in this major effort, until around 2012, since when the impetus and appetite for liberalising reform has, by and large, waned,” he said.

Zweig also argued that the demise of the liberal wing within the party resulting from the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 had largely ended any major elite instability for the next decades and created unified support for China’s “undemocratic capitalism”.

What makes the China model even more difficult to replicate was another key contributing factor – the Chinese diaspora, according to Zweig. “China also has benefited enormously from the Chinese diaspora – something no other country has – that has been willing to bring it production lines, trade networks, foreign capital, and now, more and more, the new diaspora is bringing in technology to drive the economy,” he said.

Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident fellow in the Europe and Asia programmes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, also said that despite some appetite among certain political regimes in other parts of the world, there would never be a direct “copy-paste” from the Chinese system.

“It is a unique system based on an imported political thought – Marxism – and Chinese traditions of authoritarianism, therefore not ‘exportable’ to other countries. Whether the Chinese way of doing things is exportable is another matter,” he said.

Describing the China model as “a colossus with feet of clay”, he said its fate remained unclear due to the enormous long-term uncertainties looming on the Chinese society, including the lack of an independent gauge of Chinese people’s support for single-party rule.

As the party touts its success at its centenary, Le Corre cautioned that “many mistakes were also done and history matters”, pointing to the tumultuous years before the opening-up era, including the Cultural Revolution.

“The [Communist Party] is primarily a Chinese party rather than a communist party, although Marxism has indeed been used to develop the Chinese political environment we are discussing. At the end of the day, the fact that there are so few communist parties left in the world shows this is not a successful system. It has been rejected by many countries around the world, and China might be the exception due to local factors,” he said.

Deng Yuwen also said the party’s contribution to China’s success and the rise of the China model could not be overestimated, because “as a ruling party it should also be held responsible for the past mistakes and tragedies. I would argue that the best the party has done for the country was its relaxation of its grip on the economy and the society, which allowed the Chinese people to create the miracle by doing what they are best at.”

I would argue that the best the party has done for the country was its relaxation of its grip on the economy and the society

Deng Yuwen

While the party insists its total control of a sprawling, rapidly evolving society is the key to China’s global ascendance, observers cautioned that its monopoly on power along Leninist principles may underline the future of the China model amid uncertainties about the US-China rivalry.

“Its biggest limitations are its insistence on allowing the party-state and the bureaucracy to maintain too much control, limiting the private sector over the public sector, and its overall inability to respond well to social complaints against environmental pollution, inequality, excessive cadre power,” Zweig said.

In a move targeting China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Biden proposed a US-led global infrastructure plan at the summit of Group of Seven advanced economies last month, which he described as a democratic and environmentally-friendly alternative to the Chinese one. Washington also vowed to maintain its technological supremacy, with proposed investment of over US$200 billion in scientific research and subsidies in the next five years, a move Biden’s critics alleged as something similar to “China’s mode of capitalism”.

“The US is already looking to pour trillions into infrastructure and has even instituted its own [belt and road] programme, all to compete with China,” Zweig said.

“If [the belt and road] is relatively successful, China’s model will be even more widely accepted. But all that assumes that the model continues to work at home, that the private sector is allowed to flourish and grow, that state-owned enterprises do not eat up too much capital, and that China gets out of the ‘middle-income trap.’ All these are not clear yet.”

China has been a major investor in Ethiopia. Photo: AP
China has been a major investor in Ethiopia. Photo: AP

Magnus also said China’s model was going to succumb to rising domestic structural headwinds because its mode of development needed a makeover, and the external environment was harsher than at any time before the Deng Xiaoping era.

“The 2020s will be a telling decade. China needs a much more stress-free commercial, economic and financial engagement with the rest of the world to realise its ambitious goals, but the chances of this happening look slim,” he said.

He noted the wrangling over the China model was at the heart of the rivalry between Beijing and the West, which was rooted in their ideological differences. “Neither side is accommodating of the other, and many countries and indeed companies are caught in the middle, having to make awkward choices. A bipolar world is pretty much where we are now, and will be for the foreseeable future,” Magnus said.

Gennady Rudkevich, a political scientist at Georgia College, also said the vast differences between the two countries’ type of government have made it very difficult to resolve the US-China feud through diplomacy, with each seeing the other as their biggest threat.

Noting that American political parties and a large part of the American public had become more anti-Chinese in the past 10 years, he said some conflict seemed inevitable considering there was little sign that China may scale back its assertiveness.

“Instead of seeing the economic challenge from China as something natural and therefore something to be resolved through skilled diplomacy, people think China must be deliberately trying to hurt them. This, in turn, makes it easy for certain politicians to blame China for their own country’s economic problems. This will likely lead to greater global tensions in the future,” he said.

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