THIS is a story about the past as much as about the future.
When the 2008 financial crisis buffeted the U.S. economy and went global, China weathered the downturn. Following the global crash, its rapid return to recovery sparked more questions by then unanswered. Among them a core one is: What was China’s secret formula?
At the root of its fast development and recovery, China’s unique experience in properly handling interactions among reform, development, and stability plays a vital role, and is thus considered a feasible alternative for less developed parts of the globe troubled by various socio-economic malaise.
A leading U.S. diplomat, quoted unnamed by an article in the British daily The Times in 2010 found that wherever he went in the world, governments and business leaders were talking about the Chinese route to prosperity.
In an article published in March 2008, Mark Leonard, co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, wrote that research teams from middle-income and poor countries “have been crawling around the Chinese cities and countryside in search of lessons from Beijing’s experience.”
Developing countries have long sought ways out of poverty or chaos, the two usually intertwined, as China once endured. So China’s experience tackling such issues, as a developing country, may well work, or at least be revelatory, in another, like how to maintain order in a changing society and achieve economic growth based on stability, or proceed at a fast pace toward globalization while preserving its own lifestyle and political system.
As others look to China, it never tries to sell experience, nor would it seek to impose certain schemes upon anyone. China offers economic aid and cooperates in construction projects, but never ties them to political promises. For years, China has contributed to a big portion of global economic growth, and, through win-win cooperation, helped create jobs in other countries and regions and kick-start local economic growth.
“We object to being ordered about and we, for our part, will never issue orders to others,” late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told some senior Chinese officials in May 1980, when China’s reform and opening-up just began. It is believed that good things gain traction on their own merits.
This is also more about understanding one’s own ground realities rather than learning from China, which, of course, is not the only country that has seized a chance and has leaped forward for decades.
The problem of copying someone else’s model is that it may not match with local realities. China used to copy the Soviet model of socialism and ran into difficulties. “Now we are solving it; what we want to build is a socialism suited to conditions in China,” Deng said in May 1988.
The Western world also experienced such failed attempts to transplant their institutions to somewhere else. Washington-based institutions listed a set of economic policy prescriptions to pull Latin America out of its financial crisis in the 1980s, but in the ensuing three decades or so, the region only saw growth of less than one percent per year in per capita gross domestic product, compared with 2.6 percent from 1960 to 1981.
“A banker’s list of dream conditions for development,” as Joshua Cooper Ramo, vice chairman and co-chief executive of Kissinger Associates, calls them. “At the end of the day, the model failed a basic test of suitability for most countries.”
The world’s problems cannot be solved by some one-size-fits-all solutions. China is still exploring, in a pragmatic and flexible way, instead of taking an abrupt leap that may deviate from its history and tradition.
“China is perhaps the best example of a country that has listened to foreign advice but has made decisions in the light of its own social, political, and economic circumstances,” said Ramgopal Agarwala, a former senior World Bank official in Beijing, in his book.
Three decades ago, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, claimed that Western liberal democracy may constitute the “final form of human government.” Yet in 2011 he admitted that “China adapts quickly, making difficult decisions and implementing them effectively.”
China’s reform suits its own needs for change. As Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “only the wearer knows whether the shoes fit or not.”