Chinese paramilitary police officers walk in formation on Tiananmen Square as the capital hosts the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China, on October 22 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Chinese paramilitary police officers walk in formation on Tiananmen Square as the capital hosts the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China, on October 22 2017. Picture: REUTERS

It’s not supposed to work this way. Conventional economic theory suggests that the richer a society becomes, the more citizens demand democracy, freedom and liberty. There is even a happily metric magic number: 10,000. Historically, when a country’s per capita GDP hits the 10,000 level, it is either a democracy already or it becomes one within a decade.

GDP per capita in SA in 1994 was eerily close to that level. China hit the 10,000 level in 2014 and yet, when President Xi Jinping of China delivered his marathon speech at the opening ceremony of the 19th Communist Party congress on Friday, concessions to a freer society seemed the last thing on his mind.

In fact, the opposite. Xi held out China as a model for the new era, saying his country had developed its economy without imitating western values. "It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence," he said.

So should countries like SA take Xi up on his offer and imitate the Chinese system, which has lifted 500-million people out of poverty over three decades?

Perhaps the biggest danger for outsiders is misunderstanding the reasons and cause of China’s success. Most people think of China as a repressive one-party state; it is and it is not. There is an element of democracy at local level. There is some opposition in parliament, but it’s contained within strict limits.

Some take seriously the Chinese state’s notional desire to follow a Leninist model. It does and it does not. Chinese state-owned companies are huge, and extremely efficient. But their efficiency is somewhat dependent on low wages and by South African standards, exploitative working conditions.

Just one measure of the complexity of the Chinese Communist Party Congress is that it includes, by some estimates, more than 100 dollar billionaires. There is not a single dollar billionaire in the US congress, and Donald Trump is the first billionaire president yet.

The complexity of the Chinese system, bound up in millennia of history and the near failure of the model during the Cultural Revolution, has resulted in a system that is unique. China has developed a state imbued with an obsessive desire to reform and perform in order to underpin its survival, which it guards jealously. In so doing, it may be sowing the seeds of an untenable future, but for the moment, the game is in balance.

The success of the system is tempting for developing countries, especially those like SA with a one-party dominant system, and particularly countries such as SA with a historic affection for left-wing ideology.

Promotion takes decades and is based on said performance. That tradition somehow entirely escaped the ANC

As president elect, Jacob Zuma was clearly enamoured of the Chinese system and after he visited China in 2008, he insisted that members of the governing ANC’s national executive committee do the same. The whole "developmental state" ideology with a national development plan and the state "leading" development is a misapplication of the Chinese model they brought back. The results have been disastrous.

The idea was for state-owned enterprises to lay the foundations of a new country, as they had been told the Chinese state had done. Except in China they did and they didn’t. In the minds of Beijing mandarins, the new era is their achievement. The real driver of Chinese development, in fact, emerged in the private sector, notably in Shenzen and Shanghai — but the private sector representatives are too discreet to rub the noses of the ultra-sensitive party officials in that fact.

The other difference is that within the Chinese state, performance is crucial. Promotion takes decades and is based on said performance. That tradition somehow entirely escaped the ANC, which slammed untested, largely incompetent and often corrupt people into state-owned enterprises. Turns out, economic models are elusive things. But one thing is certain, Alexander Pope was right: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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