There are two main competing schools of thought on the Chinese state:
- The benevolence school. Here it is thought that the reformed People’s Republic, with and after Deng, has evolved into a more or less benevolent autocracy that has delivered stability, economic growth and progress for most Chinese people. The proponents of this school are not naïve: they know that the Chinese regime is oppressive and that many suffer for it. But they tend to see the oppression as no more than might be expected to maintain order in so big and complex a country as China and to give the regime’s dark side little weight in their overall assessment. This is the narrative you will see in, for example, the Financial Times, the Economist and in most business commentary. A recent book in this school is, for example, Hank Paulson’s Dealing With China.
- The contradiction school. Here it is thought that China’s contemporary political economy is riven by internal contradictions and, mostly, that it is just a matter of time before it somehow implodes or explodes or otherwise falls into decline. The main contradiction, it is thought, is between capitalism in the economy and Leninism in the polity, resulting in, for example, inadequate economic reform, extreme inequality, out-of-control local government debt, extractive corruption, capital flight and so on. This is the story you will typically find in, for example, commentary in the Wall Street Journal. A recent book in this school is, for example, David Shambaugh’s China’s Future.
There are many variations within these schools but by and large the thinking on political China, with a few exceptions, falls into these two categories. The pro-China voices are in the benevolence school and the China-critical voices in the contradiction school.
For my part, I disagree with both. The benevolence school is not empirically tenable. It exaggerates the regime’s delivery. Even economic growth has been nowhere near what inflated statistics will have it. The best guesstimate is that the Chinese economy is about a third smaller than official statistics will have it. The progress that has followed is not for most Chinese people but, in China’s extremes of inequality, for a minority. Nor is it morally tenable. It depends on an understatement of the regime’s repressiveness. After 1989, it has been made clear to the Chinese people that they, or some of them, may have economic progress but that liberty is not available. China is a society in which people of independent mind cannot sleep at ease at night out of fear that someone will come knocking and take them away, and bring retribution down upon family, friends and contacts. Under Xi Jinping, all the screws of dictatorship have been relentlessly tightened.
The contradiction school depends on what has been called ‘the liberal myth.’ In Western mindsets and experiences, it is almost impossible to grasp that political Leninism and economic capitalism (after a fashion) can co-exist. It is thought that with economic opening up must come political opening up. That was ‘inevitable,’ said then President Clinton, ‘just as inevitable as the Berlin Wall fell.’ But this is to squeeze China into a model of our own making in which it does not belong. On reform and opening up, Deng from the start said in clear language that it was to be economic but not political. In 1989, that was confirmed and consolidated. In The Perfect Dictatorship I have reviewed state-economy relations and the matrix of power made up of the party, the military, the executive, the legislature, the police and the judiciary. I find many problems in the workings of this bureaucratic monster, but not in the nature of ‘contradictions.’ Rather I find a system in which the state is fiscally solid, with adequate administrative capacity and awesome control capacity.
The reformed People’s Republic is a regime the likes of which the world has never seen. Neither the benevolence school not the contradictions school grasp its true nature. It is not a kind state – that’s self-deception by friends of China – nor a state threatened by internal contradictions – that’s wishful thinking by foes of China.
The best we can hope for in Beijing now, at least during Xi Jinping’s tenure, is a hard dictatorship that is nevertheless tempered by an element of pragmatism. If that is unpalatable, bear in mind that the alternatives are even worse: either all-out totalitarianism or chaos.