In Governance

Strengths of the Chinese Economic and Political Model

The Chinese model (socio-economic and political system) is about leadership – visionary, strategic, technocratic and meritocratic leadership. It is driven by a long-term shared national vision, strategic thinking, strategic planning, effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

All this is anchored by a hard work ethic, national cohesion, profound self-belief, efficient use of national resources and zero tolerance to corruption. Chinese values, history, traditions and philosophy inform and inspire the model. The socio-economic and political system is characterised by an unrelenting commitment to, and effective deployment of, high technology and advanced science as the drivers of economic development and transformation. The Chinese have eagerly and systematically embraced and leveraged the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Some of the Chinese model’s strengths are ably articulated by Zhang Weiwei – a Chinese International Relations Professor at Fudan University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Chunqiu Institute. Professor Weiwei is the author of the book ‘The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State’. He identifies merits and flaws in the Chinese system and contrasts the China model with its Western equivalents. He argues that although the Chinese model is not perfect, it is a strong alternative model to Western ones and more significantly, it has delivered for the Chinese people. 

China's economic ascendancy has attracted global attention, and many pundits and scholars have focused on the country’s economic aspects of the model. However, equally important are the political aspects of the model. 

Quietly, Beijing has established a meritocratic system called ‘selection and election’ where competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support after a vigorous process that includes screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and elections. This process is anchored in the Confucian tradition of meritocracy – a Chinese philosophical framework. Leaders are judged, appraised, and chosen based on their experience and competence in poverty eradication, job creation, local economic growth, social development, and, increasingly, environmental protection. 

The Chinese model is organised around the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with its various structures such as the National People’s Congress, the Politburo of the CCP, and CCP Advisory Panels anchored in their Chinese concepts of solidified consensus, democratic supervision, dynamic democratic centralism, continuous renewal and rejuvenation. All this is grounded in socialism and capitalism with Chinese characteristics. They put a premium on Chinese culture, values, history and interests.

According to the assertive and overconfident Prof Zhang Weiwei: ‘Today’s Chinese system of meritocracy makes it inconceivable that anyone as weak as George W. Bush or Donald Trump could ever come close to the position of top leadership.’ What a vicious but incisive put-down of the world's leading democracy!

Indeed, the much-touted Western popular democracy model has its own weaknesses. It has been described as ‘the least bad option’, which allows for the exit of incompetent and content-free leaders like Donald Trump and George W. Bush. Nevertheless, why does the system even allow the ascendency of such ignoramuses and buffoons to the presidency? The Chinese are not impressed by that flaw in the Western model.

The Chinese system embodies a meritocratic system of ‘the best of the best options’, where leaders of the highest expertise, capacity and calibre are chosen. The system combines the best option of selecting well-tested competent leaders and the least bad option of ensuring the exit of incompetent and corrupt ones. In fact, corrupt leaders are shot! 

They are placed before a firing squad in public glare, so that the anti-corruption message is unequivocal and ingrained in the population. None of the African leaders who have tried to copy the Chinese model uncreatively have executed any of their colleagues for corruption. In fact, they prosecute and incarcerate those who fight against corruption. Surely, the Chinese model cannot work in such a corruption-tolerant environment.

Let us say more about the calibre and pedigree of the Chinese leader. A brief review of recent key Chinese leaders’ qualifications shows the preponderance of highly technical expertise, in particular Engineering. The following recent Chinese Presidents demonstrate this: Xi Jinping (Chemical Engineer), Hu Jintao (Civil Engineer) and Jiang Zemin (Electrical Engineer). A similar pattern is observed with respect to Chinese Premiers: Wen Jiabao (Geo-Mechanical Engineer - Postgraduate), Zhu Rong (Electrical Engineer) and Li Keqiang (Lawyer and PhD in Economics). 

The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the supreme organ that consists of the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership. Historically it has been composed of five to eleven members, and currently, it has seven members. Over the past three decades, on average, 80 percent of the PSC members have been engineers. There you have it, Africans – technology-savvy leadership matters.  Our governments are dominated by lawyers, political scientists, economists, business majors, historians, teachers and noisy unskilled activists. Some African countries have never had an engineer in Cabinet. Why are we surprised when our efforts to replicate the Chinese model fail?

It is also important to note that every 10 years, all the top leaders are changed without exception in the Chinese model. There is a new President and a new Premier every decade, without exception. That is political renewal and rejuvenation on steroids, achieved without popular democracy. Of course, African leaders who eulogise the Chinese model do not like this aspect. For example, Mugabe was in power for 37 years, Kaunda - 27 years, Nyerere – 21 years and Gaddafi – 42 years. Obviously, this lack of leadership renewal is part of the rationale why any efforts at duplicating the Chinese model have been disastrous on the continent. 

Of course, in 2018, the Chinese took a strategic review of the two-term limits (10 year renewal) to accommodate their rapid growth ambitions and address their geopolitical concerns through ensuring continuity and strong leadership. Again, this shows that model is dynamic and can be changed by the Chinese in pursuit of Chinese interests. It is not some dogmatic and unchangeable disposition borrowed or imposed from some foreign land. 

They introduced it, and it served its purpose. Circumstances demanded a different tactic, so they changed the provision. In future, depending on their strategic interests and prevailing challenges, they might re-introduce it. That is the Chinese model, totally controlled by the Chinese. They do not have to please any prying and uninvited external players, such as the United States. Their retort to the Americans would be very apt and crude: ‘Mind your business. Our economy is performing better than yours. If we withdraw our investments from your country, your economy will collapse! More importantly, we will soon be overtaking you in terms of GDP anyway. Give us a break!’ When you are successful, no one can patronise you. Game recognises game. 

Indeed, it is self-evident that the Chinese model is more about strategic leadership, rather than showmanship and ability to raise campaign finance, as exemplified by the United States. We must understand that China’s meritocratic governance challenges the traditional dichotomy of ‘democracy versus autocracy’. The content or substance is as important as the form. Within the one-party state system, the Chinese have delivered good governance, competent leadership, poverty eradication, and shared economic prosperity. 

Despite its many limitations, including a democratic deficit and disrespect of human rights, the Chinese model has produced the world’s fastest-growing economy and has dramatically enhanced the quality of life for most Chinese people.

Article 2 of 3 of The Chinese Political and Economic Model: Why it has worked for China and not benefited Africa is an extended excerpt from Prof. Arthur G.O. Mutambara’s book “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: Volume 3” published mid-2021

Sources: Prof. Arthur Mutambara

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