Key advantages held over Western democracies, experts say
A centralized political system such as China’s may be better equipped than Western liberal democracies to meet the challenges of the 21st century, according to leading experts.
Responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic, tackling climate change and advancing technology, along with other challenges, require the huge mobilization of resources that a centrally planned economy working effectively and efficiently might be best able to achieve. However, this is not accomplished by standing still.
As Beijing hosts the annual two sessions, improving the operation of the governance system is high on the agenda.
A program of national governance modernization was set in place at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Communist Party of China Central Committee in October.
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, made clear the challenge when he set out the session’s agenda.
“What we need to do now is to advance the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance in the practice of upholding and improving the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he said.
Koh King Kee, president of the Centre for New Inclusive Asia, a leading Asian think tank based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said the pandemic has brought into focus the effectiveness of government systems around the world as never before.
“The World Health Organization and many international leaders have complimented China on its achievements in combating the coronavirus. China’s centralized system has demonstrated its strength in being able to do this,” he said.
Koh believes China is right to focus on improving its government system, and the two sessions provide it with an opportunity for reassessment.
It is the perfect forum for the Chinese government to assess, review and explain its performance to its people and the world, he said.
The October plenum focused on improving governance in a number of key areas. These included streamlining operation of the government structure, continued economic reform, making governance more people-centric, ensuring a social security safety net, improving the environment, and greater effectiveness of the rule of law.
It was made clear that the Party leadership would head the delivery of necessary reforms and coordinate the work of all government bodies.
The modernization drive is directed toward meeting landmark national goals over the next 30 years.
The first of these is to eliminate all forms of extreme poverty and become a moderately prosperous society by the end of this year, in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China in 2021. This is seen as China’s system achieving maturity.
By 2035, when China aims to become a global technology leader and see major environmental improvements－summed up by the term “a Beautiful China”－modernization of the system will be “basically achieved”.
Full realization will come in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when the nation will become a “great modern socialist country”.
Edward Tse, founder and CEO of Gao Feng Advisory, a management consultancy, said China’s system is already developing unique capabilities and is well on the way to achieving those goals.
“Early in my career, after returning to China from the United States in the 1990s, I found the business environment was very different from that in the West, with the role of the government very significant,” he said.
“This has evolved into a unique model, with the central government giving direction at the top, a private sector delivering incredible innovation at the bottom, and, in between, local government playing an enabling role. I can’t think of any country like this－and it is very effective. It is in complete contrast to the US.”
One of the recent major debates in China has centered on how the State and private sectors interact and whether the interests of State-owned enterprises have been given priority.
Qi Fanhua, director of the Centre for Research on State Governance at Renmin University of China in Beijing, believes the modernization plan addresses this.
“The relationship between the government and the private sector is a critical factor in the transformation of governance. This is something the Chinese government is working hard to improve,” he said.
Mei Ciqi, associate professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said people should not expect an immediate major change in the way government operates in China as a result of the new modernization drive.
“This is not something specific that is going to happen straightaway. It is a process that is going to be substantiated over the next 15 years, taking us up to 2035, an important year in achieving certain national targets, and beyond that to 2049, when China is set to become a modern socialist country in every respect,” he said.
Mei believes some of this modernization is about institutionalizing what is already in place.
“This is actually more important than what might be termed reforming the system. In the Chinese language, the concept of institution is a more important one than system. You could see from the plenum resolution that the government is trying to institutionalize a lot of things,” he said.
Andrew Podger, honorary professor of public policy at Australian National University in Canberra and a former senior public servant in Australia, said China’s institutional arrangements are not something that could be easily replicated in the West. As an example, he cited the Party playing a coordinating role in driving government modernization.
“It’s very much to do with China’s institutional arrangements, which are very different from Western ones. The trend in the West has been about less government direction and more about consultation, engagement and negotiation.”
Podger said that unlike China, Western governments do not set long-term targets.
“We (in Australia) use what we call a five-yearly ‘intergenerational report’, which looks forward 40 years to things like what’s going to happen with the population, aging trends and the implications for government spending and for government revenues,” he said.
“Unlike China, these are projections, not targets. They complement our medium-term budgeting process that sets out spending and revenues for the next three and four years and include performance targets in areas like health and education.”
A key area in which China wants to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government is in using new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain, which enables the use of cryptocurrencies for payment. The People’s Bank of China has indicated that it will be the first central bank in the world to issue its own cryptocurrency.
Koh, from the Centre for New Inclusive Asia, said: “These technologies will become important tools to improve the efficiency of the government delivery system, enabling smart cities, improving the social credit system, allowing facial recognition for security screening and the application of big data for public health and poverty alleviation. Technology not only raises efficiency but also increases transparency, thus enhancing good governance.”
However, Podger said governments, such as Australia’s, also recognize that adopting technology is important.
He pointed to a report issued in December by the Australian administration recommending heavy investment in artificial intelligence and other technologies to deliver government services, but he said that there is likely to be more resistance in Australia than in China.
“China, though, does seem to be more willing to move quickly. I think there is a tendency for most Western countries to be more cautious because the public is more concerned about issues such as privacy and the risk of misuse of their personal data. So, there are more interest groups to be assuaged before you can rush in with new technology,” he said.
One issue that was made clear at the plenum was that the Party was to be central to the modernization of national governance.
Mei, from Tsinghua University, said the Party will have a central coordinating role in modernizing the entire system.
“The Party’s leadership is one of the core principles of the People’s Republic of China. It is the single most important factor for China’s development over the past 40 years and, indeed, over the past 70 years. What is being reaffirmed is that we are going to stick to this principle,” he said.
Koh said this leadership gives China many advantages over free-market economies.
“Laissez-faire economies skew the allocation of resources to industries which often yield only short-term returns, overlooking the long-term development needs of a country,” he said.
“China’s centralized political system is more efficient in mobilizing the State machinery and resources, particularly in tackling national emergencies or natural disasters, as it has recently shown.”
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