Search for balance in China: a quest for dynamic stability

Author: Yu Keping, Peking University

The 18th Party Congress, held in November 2012, reaffirmed that China will continue to struggle down the road of socialism in its search for modernisation. Yet the party also offered its own response to many of the challenges facing China in the coming years.

Past issues of Southern Weekly newspapers are pictured in Beijing, China, 08 January 2013.  (Photo: AAP)

China has paid a steep price for its rapid growth, but two areas in particular stand out. First is the growing level of social injustice, which has been exacerbated by income disparities. Today, China’s Gini coefficient is above 0.47, a relatively high number compared to most other countries. The second issue is the environmental damage caused by pollution and an over-use of resources. Some Chinese have begun to reflect on the relationship between economic development and justice and fairness — and this is leading to heated debates across the country. After 30-plus years of reform and opening up, people are now asking whether economic development should continue to be China’s top priority. Should development continue to be China’s guiding principle? Should justice continue to take a back seat to efficiency? How can China best contain the widening gap between individuals, between different regions, and between rural and urban areas? And will China fall into the middle-income trap?

The CPC leadership has not shied away from these issues. The 18th Party Congress responded to them in two ways. First, it responded theoretically by formally establishing the status of scientific development as a guiding philosophy. This requires a balance between economics, politics, culture, society and the environment throughout the process of continued growth, as well as sustainable development. Secondly, it responded practically by accentuating the significance of justice and fairness. It laid emphasis on achieving the related goals of fairness and justice, establishing a fair social security system centred on equal rights, equal opportunities and equal rules, and narrowing the widening income gap. It’s notable that the congress attempted to find an ideal path forward for China, one that sustains economic development but that also maintains fairness and justice.

As a developing nation, China must continue to make economic development its first priority. Yet the Chinese economy must also grow sustainably, by conserving resources and protecting the environment. The difficulty of maintaining this balancing act has triggered a whole range of worries for the Chinese people. Citizens are now asking whether the last 30 years of rapid economic growth have been worth it; if China can still afford the high price of ecological destruction and environmental deterioration; whether China’s model of economic development must be changed — and if so, how? The question also remains as to what kind of economic development strategy should be adopted in future: development-oriented, environment-oriented, or something between?

The party congress proposed two strategies to address these issues. The first is to transform China’s mode of economic development by deepening reforms to the economic system. Specifically, this would include the following measures: imposing an innovation-based development strategy, deepening the strategic adjustment of China’s economic structure, tapping domestic consumption, optimising industry structure, developing a modern service sector and promoting emerging industries, as well as further enhancing the openness of the Chinese economy. The second strategy is to energetically promote the building of ‘ecological civilization’. The congress openly put forward the principle of ‘giving high priority to conserving resources, protecting the environment and promoting its natural restoration’ and called for the whole party to strive for green, resource-efficient and low-carbon development. The congress also advocated building a systematic method of promoting ecological progress. Resource consumption, environmental damage and ecological benefits should be covered by a system of standards for evaluating economic and social development. Related evaluation methods and reward and punishment mechanisms should then be adopted.

As to the tension between social stability and democracy, intellectuals expressed varying opinions based on their divergent standpoints and interests. Some elected stability as China’s top priority, while others argued that rights should take precedence; some unswervingly advocated democracy and rule of law, while others did their utmost to block these efforts; some viewed the development of democracy as the best way to achieve stability, while others demonised democratisation, insisting that it would eventually ruin social stability. Some acknowledged the inseparability of democracy and respecting people’s livelihoods, while others treated them separately; some insisted that both democracy and rule of law are indispensable, while others deliberately separated the two, arguing that China can only have rule of law at its current stage. As a result, these political questions have become the most contested issues in China today.

Given the rapid transformation China is undergoing, social stability will continue to be a prerequisite for further development. But given China’s current need for democracy, it no longer requires the static kind of stability that comes from keeping a lid on the public’s complaints, but rather a dynamic stability focused on the free flow of opinion. The 18th Party Congress report outlined the concept of ‘dynamic governance’, indicating that the notion of ‘dynamic stability’ is achieving greater prominence than the notion of ‘static stability’, which the central authorities had long supported. According to the congress report, the ultimate objective of China’s political development is to guarantee the fundamental position of the people as masters of the country and to develop people’s democracy. Democracy, liberty, equality, justice and rule of law are all identified as core political values in China, while broadening socialist democracy and building a socialist country based on the rule of law are earmarked as the two cornerstones of socialist political civilization. Thus, the substantive plan for realising democracy in China should be an organic integration of Party leadership, the position of the people as masters of the country and the rule of law. One realistic approach to push forward China’s democratic politics is to develop intra-party democracy and then create an enabling environment for the development of wider democracy.

China’s progress so far in building a market economy and democratic politics has provided the fundamental economic and political basis for defending individual rights. However, everything has its pros and cons. An overemphasis on individual rights can easily lead to a neglect of public goods and a watering down of the prominence of the state, family, community and work units. So it is a pressing task to reconcile the tensions between individual rights and public goods, given the new realities shaping China today. This topic also spawned much debate at the party congress: should the state deal first with public goods or with individual rights? Should China continue to emphasise the notion of ‘the masses’ or pay more attention to the notion of citizenship? Who has the right to define the boundary between public goods and individual rights? Centring on these issues, different opinions have surfaced in Chinese academia, and as a result divergent thinking on China’s political and social development has emerged.

The congress did, however, make some effort to reconcile the relationship between public goods and individual rights, aiming to strike a balance between the two. On the one hand, it continued to emphasise the position of the people as masters of the country, justify the notion of ‘the masses’, uphold patriotism and collectivism, and enhance the ethical and moral standards of citizens. But, on the other hand, it also advocated the ‘people first’ principle and the all-round development of the people, and upheld such values as liberty, equality and rights. It promised to ‘broaden the orderly political participation by the citizens in all fields and at all levels’ and to ‘ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms as prescribed by law’. Upholding the rule of law is the most basic way to govern a country; where this principle is maintained, law becomes the basic guideline for both defending public goods and protecting individual rights. Any behaviour, no matter how lofty its ambition, must take place within the framework of the constitution and the law. In today’s China, this will require the government and citizens to place even more emphasis on ‘civic awareness’ and ‘respect of the rule of law’. Any action to enhance collective benefits must also protect individual rights to the greatest extent possible.

It is undeniable that there is some tension between ‘the China model’ of social, political and economic development and the ‘universal values’ that are often discussed in the same domain. Striking a balance between the two, in order focus equitably on both public goods and individual rights, will be a difficult task for China’s leadership. To overemphasise China’s particular characteristics — or to wantonly apply the label of ‘with Chinese characteristics’ — could lead China to reject universal values and lessen its desire to learn from other nations. Conversely, to overemphasise universal values is to deny that China has its own particular development model, and ignore the diversity of human civilization. The debate on the issue of ‘China Model’ vs. ‘Universal Values’ has intensified in Chinese intellectual circles. This debate gave rise to the formation of two groups that are contradictory to each other. The ‘China Model’ group, who exaggerated its success and insisted that it should be exported elsewhere. They discarded universal values and depicted them as ‘beautiful lies’. The ‘Universal Values’ group denied the existence of ‘China Model’ and argued that, if it did, it should be jettisoned.

The congress report reaffirmed the importance of ‘Chinese characteristics’. The report states that China is in a unique situation and that it should ‘adhere to socialism with Chinese characteristics, develop it as required by the times, constantly enrich it in both practice and theory and enhance its distinctive national features in keeping up with the times’. It also states that China ‘will never copy a western political system’. The report does not, however, deny the existence of universal values, but rather establishes the concepts of democracy, liberty, equality, fairness and rule of law — basic values common to all mankind — as core elements of the socialist value system. It also calls for the whole country to ‘actively draw lessons from the achievements of human political civilization’ and to ‘actively absorb and draw lessons from the successes of foreign cultural achievements’.

Yu Keping is Director of the Center for Chinese Government Innovations, Peking University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly‘Leading China where?’.