A Glimpse of the Other China

Op-ed for The Washington Post

August 1, 2001

Several recent developments have highlighted the dark side of contemporary China. The reconnaissance plane incident is a reminder of the truculence of the People's Liberation Army and the extreme nationalism among the Chinese people. The oppression of Falun Gong and the arrests of foreign scholars, as described so chillingly by Professor Gao Zhan in the Post on Aug. 26, underline the continuing repression of some human rights.

But there is another China that is much more congenial to American and global values, much more open and pluralistic in its demeanor, and hence much more promising for a peaceful and cooperative future. That China was on vivid display at a recent two-day conference in Beijing on China's economic reforms, sponsored by Premier Zhu Rongji and managed by the Development Research Center of the State Council, the highest governmental authority in the country and rough equivalent of our Cabinet.

Several dozen foreign businessmen and economists participated in the session along with a large number of ministers, other top officials and nongovernmental economists from China itself. The conference was stunning for its openness and candor. It was as freewheeling and spirited as any seminar at my Institute for International Economics, and any other American think tank or university: Chinese government ministers sharply criticized each other. The minister for economic restructuring berated the ministers who continue to run and defend the failing state enterprises. Nongovernmental economists stridently attacked the ministers and other government officials. One harangued the government for running an "approvals economy" that was bereft of real reform. Corruption, manipulation of data, the continued coddling of vested interests and other highly sensitive issues were openly discussed. Prominent government critics were accorded full opportunity to join the discussion. One, Mao Yushi of the Unirule Institute, has been publicly chastised and mildly disciplined for espousing political and economic reform. He was seated in the front row and participated fully in the debate.

There were several conferees from other parts of Asia. A high official from South Korea observed that such openness would be impossible in his own country. He and others doubted that it would even be countenanced in Japan. The substantive focus of the conference was equally striking. Nearly all of the ministers had clearly internalized China's pending entry to the World Trade Organization, were in the process of altering their policies and practices to conform to its rules, and were in fact using its requirements aggressively as justification for reforming their economy and greatly increasing its transparency.

The most striking presentation came from the minister for legislative affairs, who reported that he was revising more than 100 current statutes to bring China into compliance. Imagine the reactions from our congressmen and women if they were told that a US official was making such wholesale changes in American legislation to meet the standards of an international organization. Virtually all of Chinese participants in the conference, including those from the government, fully realize the significance of what they are doing.

The substance of the reforms and the open process through which they are being developed and implemented, albeit limited to economic issues, have the potential to eventually transform the entire society. Though there was no overt criticism of the ruling Communist Party, the very existence of such a conference indicates that even the party recognizes that reform is necessary and inevitable.
The economic role of the Chinese government is changing profoundly, with the state-owned sector having already shrunk from essentially 100 percent in 1979 to less than 40 percent today. It is hard to see how the authoritarian political system the state seeks to preserve can be sustained in such a climate. The Chinese economists at the conference, many of whom have studied in the United States or otherwise spent time here, clearly believe that such a transformation is inevitable.

These policy directions have been set at the very top of the Chinese political leadership. At a small meeting in November 1999, just after China and the United States had negotiated the basic terms for China's accession to the WTO, President Jiang Zemin indicated that he saw China's membership "in the context of our country's deep sleep during its feudal period while the West was advancing smartly after the Renaissance."

His comment recalls the disdainful response of the emperor of China to the proposal by a British envoy in 1793 to initiate trade between the two countries, to the effect that "You have nothing that we want." China' top leaders understand that the country must never again cut itself off from the world, or else it would once more become poverty-stricken and defenseless. Was it all a show for gullible foreigners and even gullible Chinese? There is no way to know for sure. But it seems implausible, even in such a politically regimented country, that a charade involving hundreds of top intellectuals from such a wide variety of positions could be pulled off or even seriously attempted.
Of course, the United States and the rest of the world would be irresponsible to drop their guard against the risks of a hostile China as that country resumes its role as a global power. But we would be at least as foolish to ignore the open and pluralistic China revealed by the events and attitudes described, which is bound to compete aggressively for the soul of the country and its future leadership, along with the ongoing reforms themselves and the country's obvious openness to new ideas.

There can be little doubt which China we prefer and which China we hope will emerge victorious. Nor is there any doubt that democracy led by economic reform has prevailed in a variety of other national settings, ranging from Franco's Spain and Pinochet's Chile to Korea and Taiwan in East Asia itself. We should clearly do all we can to support and strengthen the Chinese reformers, to both assure their success and speed the day when it will prevail.

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C. Fred Bergsten Senior Research Staff

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