Political scientists are fond of ‘typologies’. Political systems are of this or that kind, and one way to explain individual systems is to determine which type they belong to.

One such category is ‘the developmental state’. This is a type of state that has been seen to evolve in East Asia in the latter part of the last century when the ‘tigers’ displayed remarkable development. It has been suggested that the reformed China is the most recent developmental state. But is that a good way of understanding the Chinese system?

The arch-typical developmental state was South Korea in its authoritarian transition. The characteristics of this state were:

  • a strong authoritarian state
  • a dedication of that state to the modernisation of the country
  • rapid economic growth the main engine of modernisation
  • a state-led economy of crony capitalism, steeped in two-way corruption.

The Korean state, although with economic development always the no. 1 priority, was also activist in other areas of public policy, including social protection. For example, the first autocratic leader/dictator, General Park, immediately after the military coup in 1961, started to build a welfare state in Korea, with the same energy he put into creating the Korean CIA, his secret police.

The Chinese state has many of these characteristics but the similarities with previous East Asian developmental states are only on the surface. Compared to authoritarian South Korea, for example, the current Chinese regime is

  • not just a state, it’s a party-state
  • not just authoritarian but dictatorial, including with the military as the armed wing of the party
  • not dedicated to modernisation but to the perpetuation of the regime, with modernisation a means towards that goal
  • not a case of crony capitalism but of a corrupt socialist market economy.

The Chinese state is activist in what it needs to be activist in, mainly the control of its population, but not where it does not need to be activist in the interest of perpetuation. In social protection, for example, it does only what is productive in the interest of ‘stability’, and no more. Another difference is that, even in the authoritarian period, public administration in Korea was in the hands of a civil service which retained some element of autonomy. In China, the public sector is a party service, not a civil service.

The difference between these state systems came on display in the late 1980s. Both regimes were challenged by uprisings in their populations, in Korea in 1987 and in China in 1989, but reacted differently. In Korea, the authoritarian regime tried to survive through the crisis of popular revolt but was unable to hold on to power and stepped aside to allow democratic reform. In China, the regime did not give in but reached for its ultimate power resource, the military, and crushed the revolt with weaponry. In Korea, there being no party-state, the leaders could not react similarly. They did not have a similar resource of ultimate power at their disposal and did not have the justification for the use of force that is contained in the ideological and organisational structure of a party-state. Presiding over a country that was not monolithic but built on vibrant civil society institutions which had evolved during the period of modernisation, including in business and voluntarism, the authoritarian leaders could relinquish control without fearing that their project of modernisation would collapse, indeed had to give in since an attempt to hold on to power with force would have destroyed the project that was their raison d’être and their only claim to legitimacy. In China, the leaders could not compromise because that would have meant the demise of the party-state and because there was no civil society for China to fall back on, wherefore compromise would lead to chaos. Nor did they have to compromise because they had the physical and ideological means to hold on in their hands.

Typologies are sometimes useful in political analysis, but sometimes also misleading. In the Chinese case, it is almost always misleading to suggest that the system can be understood by how it conforms to any general category. The Chinese system is entirely of its own kind and needs to be understood on its own terms. That is true whether we look to the political system, the party-state, or the economic system, the socialist market economy. The way this system works is like nothing elsewhere or previously known to man.

For my own case, when I started my research on the Chinese system I expected to see a similar story to the South Korean one (on which I had co-authored a previous book), only writ large. As I worked on, however, a completely different and unique story emerged.


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