ETHOS Issue 08, Aug 2010
To what degree do perceptions of China, both domestic and international, reflect the reality on the ground today?
The Chinese people are generally satisfied with China's progress. Even the smallest and most remote rural areas — still relatively underdeveloped, where the population works very hard to put food on the table — have seen a meaningful material improvement in their lives since urbanisation and industrialisation took hold. Naturally, there is also a negative side when a society gets rich rapidly — cases of individuals flaunting their new wealth, unimaginable in the old days of poverty and hunger! For most Chinese today, however, their idea of the country is not ideologically driven but is based on their sense of well-being and a desire for a fair, just and equitable system. This is why there have been some instances of public backlash against cases of corruption or exploitation.
There has also been a genuine rise in Chinese pride and self-esteem, as demonstrated at major events such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo. This sometimes manifests itself in terms of nationalistic sentiment. But these are not the result of government campaigns or political mobilisation; instead, they indicate a certain degree of self-confidence among the Chinese people, and a willingness to express their identity.
China is neither heaven nor hell; it is a vast country in the midst of very complex and fluid development.
Western views of China's transformation tend to fall into two extremes. The first is overwhelmingly optimistic, full of praise for China's dramatic development, accompanied by claims that it will soon take the place of the US and so on. The second is pessimistic or even alarmist, constantly warning of some impending crisis, or cultural theories about the Yellow Peril and so on. These two poles of opinion are really manifestations of an inability to come to terms with modern China's dynamic transition: outdated views of a stagnating China are clearly no longer valid, yet there is no new intellectual basis by which to understand the changes that are now happening. There are no textbook models for China's current trajectory. Many of these observers have never been to China, not even the major cities, and yet there have been sweeping claims about its rural areas, mountains and plains; some of these scholarly views are based on simple ignorance. China is neither heaven nor hell; it is a vast country in the midst of very complex and fluid development. It is important to keep an open mind and look at China today on its own terms.
How would you characterise China's youth today, who will form the backbone of Chinese society in the coming decades?
It is the place of youth in any country to be dissatisfied with the current state of affairs — China is no exception. There are a few issues of contention: for instance, many young people with higher education qualifications find it hard to get a job, and there is a perception that opportunity and social mobility are still limited, which has led to dissatisfaction. What is remarkable, however, is that young Chinese today are intelligent and independent-minded, and no longer follow political dogma uncritically; naturally, they are a vibrant generation, eager for reform. At the same time, they are also a pragmatic lot and are generally less interested in political demonstrations. Nevertheless, they remain well informed about economic issues and current affairs. If you want to appreciate the mindset of the Chinese population 8–10 years from now, look at the current stars of China's youth culture — such as pop singer Li Yuchun (???) or the writer and social critic Han Han (??) — who have followers numbering in the hundreds of millions.
Young people in China are neither naive nor apathetic. There used to be a negative impression of their sense of civic and social responsibility, but recent events clearly demonstrate that they will stand up for their country when the occasion arises. Politics cannot teach this; it comes from a love of nation.
What is the right balance for China between enacting challenging but necessary reforms, and maintaining social stability? Could things get worse before they get better?
In any reform process, there will always be a degree of upheaval in the short term. This is especially the case in modern China, which has experienced such dramatic change in a short time. In a mature society, some level of unrest can be absorbed, so long as it does not exceed certain expectations or limits. Otherwise, it may hinder or undo the reform process; there is also an opportunity cost to chaos. The shock treatment that Yeltsin introduced to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union proved that aggressive reform is counterproductive.
Young Chinese today are intelligent and independent-minded, and no longer follow political dogma uncritically.
The current Chinese leadership, unlike their predecessors such as Mao Zedong or Liu Shaoqi, are not politically audacious; they believe in small, prudent steps rather than broad, sweeping changes. There is a technique in Beijing Opera called "suibu" (??), which means to walk in tiny, closely paced steps instead of large strides. Progressive reforms are likely to be gradual but ongoing, calculated to incur the lowest social cost. Now that China has attained a certain level of material success, it is in a much better position to accommodate different interests.
For instance, the administrative and economic reforms being implemented in Shenzhen are relatively modest, and are based on the experiences of the Singapore and Hong Kong governments, but it is an attempt to try out a new model for reform in one of China's most economically developed areas. Another example is the lifting of agricultural taxes for farmers, which has been well received.
The most noteworthy of China's recent reforms have actually been in terms of democratic processes within the Chinese Communist Party itself, including how the cadres are managed and monitored, and the selection of leaders, etc. It is too early to tell if these progressive measures will succeed, but the Party is well aware of the need for change; otherwise, it will lose its legitimacy and be left behind by history. The approach of China's top leaders, Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jingtao, are illustrative: Instead of exercising absolute authority, Hu has sought to develop a shared decision-making process among senior members of the party, through a process of consultation and compromise. Thus, the decisions of the Chinese leadership are not those of individuals but derived through consensus.
How is Singapore regarded in Chinese policymaking circles today? Is Singapore still considered a model for development?
I think this is an interesting question. The role that Singapore plays in the modernisation of China has not abated, but has in fact strengthened. In articular, the Chinese government's 2020 time frame for administrative reform means there is an urgent need for the training and development of China's civil service; there is much to learn from the experience of other countries in terms of public administration, management and development. Singapore is still an important point of reference.
Progressive reforms are likely to be gradual but ongoing, calculated to incur the lowest social cost.
Furthermore, Singapore has been visionary in its many initiatives to strengthen ties with China, with successful projects such as the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city, and the Knowledge City in Guangzhou. I think such full-scale application of Singapore's economic and management expertise through these different model projects is very promising. Singapore may think it is very small, but its relationship with China is probably the best developed in ASEAN; its leadership treads a rational and balanced middle ground, without allowing its size to be a weakness. The Chinese government deeply understands Singapore's delicate diplomatic position. When China expressed its displeasure at PM Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Taiwan on his own initiative, I believe it was merely a test of the strategic bottom line for both parties, and it should no longer be a cause for concern. Singapore is a benchmark to which the Chinese government refers in its handling of relationships with peripheral countries.
It's worth pointing out that the Chinese government seems to be far more sophisticated in its handling of international affairs — particularly since China has become much more prosperous and economically influential — than in dealing with domestic issues!
That said, the current generation of civil servants in Singapore should invest time to learn about the reality in China, given that no country in the region can avoid dealing with China in some way. Without a deeper understanding of the real issues or a good grasp of political and economic concepts in the Chinese language, Singapore may lose the regional advantage it has possessed so far in interacting with China. Singapore's leaders, from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, have understood this. The current and future generations of public servants should ensure that Singapore retains this edge.