China’s reform priorities stress ‘putting people first’
9 January, 2013
Towards prosperity: implications and opportunities of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China (WP1196)
Sunday 16 – Tuesday 18 December 2012
Adela Gooch, Programme Director, Wilton Park writes:
China’s key challenges – managing high growth; maintaining social cohesion; instigating radical reform and fielding the population’s growing expectations were debated at a conference we ran with the Chinese Communist Party School (CCPS).
Held soon after the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which confirmed China’s leadership and policy priorities for the coming decade, the conference focused on areas such as demographic pressures and meeting the needs of an ageing population;creating the right climate for entrepreneurship and investment and the importance of rules based systems as tools for development as well as the growing calls for China to play a more prominent role internationally.
The issues facing China were like a “jacket made from hyperfabric, but the shirt underneath is covered with patches,” said one Chinese participant from the Party School which brings together China’s seniors leaders for periods of study and training throughout their careers and plays a significant role in policymaking.
The conference followed on from a meeting that debated prospects for achieving sustainable prosperity in the wake of the global credit crunch, held at the Party School campus in Beijing last March ‘Prosperity in a new world order‘, which served to launch the partnership between the School and Wilton Park.
Chinese participants, including Han Baojiang, Director-General of the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the CCPS and Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK, cited sharp contrasts, for example between modern fibre-optic cities and old-fashioned rural areas, as indicators of the disparities China had to grapple with.
China was deemed to be rich because of the high growth rates enjoyed over the past years but the reality was far more complex. Urbanization, the rural-urban divide, regional differences, financial reform, welfare reform, an ageing population all posed particular problems for China’s leadership. It was more appropriate to see China as the world’s largest and fastest developing country and it was crucial to find the right balance between bottom-up and top-down reform.
China would continue to focus on economic development but it must be sustainable. Investment in science and education were priorities as was safeguarding the environment. “What we aim for is not only a prosperous China but also a beautiful China… an approach that puts people first and stresses comprehensive, holistic, coordinated and sustainable development.”
China was rightly proud of having lifted people out of poverty, 600 million over the past 30 years, and of “steady gradual reform” but setting the right pace of reform was important.
A number of Chinese and Western commentators characterised the years after the 17th Party Congress as a lost decade when more could have been achieved.
The tone and style of the new leadership was certainly more modern; the rhetoric ‘inclusive’ stressing the need to spread China’s wealth among the population, but ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ continued to pose real contradictions.
Meanwhile, Western policy makers also needed to demonstrate that democratic capitalism is not only virtuous but effective and that was reinforcing China’s view that it needed to develop its own model of development rather than looking to Western patterns.
One of the UK’s leading China watchers, Peter Nolan, Chong Hua Chair in Chinese Development at Cambridge University, stressed the paradox that just as the capitalist model was facing one of its greatest periods of crisis, China’s gradual adoption and harnessing of the power of capitalist forces had driven its growing prosperity and integration into the world economy and global governance systems.
So, despite wide differences of cultural and civilisation patterns, the economic crisis had shown similarities between basic human needs. The answer to the question of ‘what do Chinese people want’ was simple. They wanted the same things as people around the world; better education, more stable society, higher income, reliable welfare and health care, good housing and a better environment. Safeguarding these was a common challenge for governments.
China was having to manage Western expectations of what it could and could not do; advancing Chinese interests while calming the anxieties of others and improving its ‘soft power’ capability to ensure the Chinese perspective was properly understood and represented.
The conference agreed that the issue was not so much the differences between countries, which were bound to arise, but the need to find effective ways of managing them. This meant focusing on areas where there was potential for co-operation, in particular education, trade and security issues.
Britain and China had much to gain from working together:
Lord Green, Minister of State for Trade and Investment reflected that demographics would play an important role in the development of both economies and lead to convergence as China developed a more expensive labour market and the UK a cheaper one.
Lord Adonis, recalling his experience of education reform, suggested that the UK could learn a great deal from China’s emphasis on teaching maths and science and by welcoming Chinese teachers, who spoke English, to teach in English schools.
Developing understanding was essential and this was reflected in the strong interest shown in the findings of the conference at a follow-on dialogue held between members of the Chinese delegation from the Party School, and business leaders at the China-Britain Business Council in London, and in plans to develop the partnership between Wilton Park and the Party School through another conference to be held in Beijing in the Spring of 2013, which is likely to focus on the green economy and safeguarding energy supplies.