Reader impression: Has China won? by Kishore Mahbubani

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Has China won?
Kishore Mahbubani

Publisher: Hachette Book Group
ISBN: 9781541768130

South African readers are spoilt for choice when it comes to China and the West. Literally dozens of books are brought out annually on this very subject. But, with current tensions flaring between China and America, this latest comprehensive work by Kishore Mahbubani, a Singapore-based academic, goes a long way to providing some objective background to the growing historic cleavage which has profound implications for many African countries as well, including South Africa. Entitled Has China won?, Mahbubani’s book answers for me, at least, the famous “Needham question”. Professor Joseph Needham, a British biochemist and later well-known sinologist (author of the multivolume series Science and civilisation in China), wondered why China has been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite having been the first civilisation to develop gunpowder, the magnetic compass and paper and printing – the foundation stones of Western civilisation and development from the time of Galileo onwards.

Needham attributes the failure of these inventions to transform Chinese society in the same way they have Western society, to Chinese feudalism, lack of property rights, and rigid, centralised political control, among other reasons. However, in the last 70 years, China has blossomed economically, advancing more in this brief time than in the preceding 3 000 years. The answer to why this has happened is also the answer to the reasons behind the current impasse between China and the West.

Mahbubani identifies these reasons as Chinese protectionism, unfair Chinese trade and commercial practices, and the leveraging of Chinese technical progress on the back of imported technology – “technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before”. He says the most explosive period of China’s growth took place after it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, when it was permitted to join the WTO as a “self-declared” developing country. The developed country members supported the application, believing that China would wean itself off the tariff wall privileges protecting developing countries, but, in practice, China has refused to do so.

Matters came to a head when, in 2018, one of China’s best friends, Hank Paulson, the former US treasury secretary, called Beijing out: “China hides behind WTO rules meant for poor developing countries. Seventeen years after joining the WTO, China has still not opened its economy to foreign competition in so many areas. It retains joint venture requirements and ownership limits. And it uses technical standards, subsidies, licensing procedures and regulations as non-tariff barriers to trade and investment. This is unacceptable. It is why the Trump administration has argued that the WTO system needs to be modernised and changed, and I agree.”

How, then, can China extricate itself from these charges? It’s quite ironic, really – the West originally stole the key elements of progress (compass, gunpowder, etc) and built their economies, and now the Chinese are being criticised for doing the same in reverse and, in a sense, taking back what was theirs in the first place.

Mahbubani sets out to correct the big picture and suggests China would do well to ditch its Marxist contempt for businessmen and regain the confidence of Western business communities who feel “ripped off” by China’s blatant abuse and manipulation of the WTO rules. For a country that puts rockets in space and has more high-speed trains than the rest of the world put together, it feels wrong for China to insist that “under the WTO’s agreements on intellectual property, developed countries are under an obligation to provide incentives to their companies to transfer technology to less developed countries”. No wonder America is thinking of leaving the WTO!

But, paradoxically, as Mahbubani notes, this WTO arena is a space which offers hope for dialogue between the two superpowers. China, he says, must – despite the familiarity of Chinese officials with Marxist literature, which takes such a derisive view of capitalism – launch a major effort to regain the trust of Western business communities, including the American business community.

Constructive engagement can, however, flourish only when the other party offers something to be constructive about. Can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embrace a multiparty democracy in China, as Russia did? The omens are currently not good when one looks at the way China has abrogated its treaty with the United Kingdom over Hong Kong. But, as Mahbubani points out, the CCP has also become a “strong and competent communist party”, behaving as a “regional and stable actor”. It is a “status quo” power, rather than a “revolutionary” power. The West should appreciate this aspect more. Unlike the old Soviet Russia, which supported terrorism abroad, the current CCP has no interest in interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Even its support for North Korea is lukewarm, says Mahbubani, and China has difficult relations with the other regional communist country, Vietnam. As to allegations that China is covertly or not so covertly deploying “a broad range of party, state, and non-state actors to advance its influence seeking objectives”, the author says there have been “too few examples to suggest that there is a systemic effort by the Chinese government to intervene in other countries’ affairs”. I think the author needs to do more empirical research in Africa!

And, again, more questions than answers are raised by Mahbubani. He cites the example of a Chinese student at an American university who made a commencement speech praising America’s “democracy and freedom ... the fresh air that is worth fighting for”. Her speech went viral in China, watched by 50 million people and provoking Chinese government criticism, which was an overreaction, says the author. But the results of this criticism were very negative: the student in question felt obliged to post an apology online: “I hope in future to use my time abroad to promote Chinese culture.”

There is a large section on the results of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform programme and the Chinese embrace of a market economy. China has flourished over the past 21 years, in part because it has abused the benefits conferred upon it by WTO developing country membership, in part through intellectual property theft, in part because its population is docile and hardworking. Growth, stability and “personal freedom” are the expressed goals of the CCP and President Xi. But Mahbubani wonders whether economic growth in the free market system China has chosen, is not going to be politically disruptive: “It can create new political classes with the means to challenge the one party rule of the CCP.” There is a growing middle class, which, as in the West, could demand greater political participation. “If government ignores these demands there could be a revolution on the streets and the government would be overthrown.” Why hasn’t this happened yet in today’s China? Because, says the author, there is an implicit social contract between the Chinese government and the Chinese people: “As long as the Chinese government continues to deliver economic growth and social stability, the Chinese people will accept the rule of the CCP.”

And here is the nub of the matter, which the book deals with perfectly fairly. On the one hand, the CCP is creating a form of socialism “with Chinese characteristics” – citizens have unparalleled freedom to travel abroad, for example, and to become personally wealthy. On the other hand, unlike in Western democratic liberal societies with rule of law, the Chinese communist state is considered to be more important than the individual – the reverse is true in the West. The author quotes American vice-president Mike Pence: “China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”

Part of this system comprises adherence to the “social credit” scheme, started in 2014. It would be inconceivable to have such a scheme in the West where small infringements of an everyday nature, such as speeding or smoking in a non-smoking zone, etc, would count against your social credit score. If you get a low score, you can, for example, be punished by being denied train tickets or suchlike privileges.

It is steps such as these – taken not years ago but by today’s CCP, schooled to good governance methods by its own admission – that raise suspicions about the general direction of travel in China. The CCP views history through a lens of historical determinism, in the view of outsiders familiar with communism regimes elsewhere in the world. According to CCP doctrine, humankind is heading towards a specific outcome, a dialectical materialistic outcome, and nothing can alter that.

The “big secret” of China, according to the author, is that the main reason why the country is so resilient is because China “has one of the most intelligent governments in the world ... the Chinese communist party recruits only the best graduates in China ... selecting only the best minds among the population to serve in its ranks”. According to Professor Yuen Ang, University of Michigan, “China has in fact pursued significant political reforms – just not in the Western manner. Instead of instituting multiparty elections, establishing formal protections for individual rights, or allowing free expression, the CCP has [reorganised] its bureaucracy to make it amenable to accountability and competition, without giving up single party control.” Prof Ang calls this “autocracy with democratic characteristics” – an ossified communist bureaucracy has become a highly adaptive capitalist machine.

Space doesn’t allow for a fuller discussion of the author’s conclusions, the main conclusion of which is that a major geopolitical contest between America and China is both inevitable and avoidable. The dynamics are revisited: China’s mistake in alienating the American business community, the bending of WTO trade rules by President Xi, intellectual property theft and Chinese companies operating as political agents of influence abroad, obliged to report secrets to the CCP. A big head of steam has built up against China. The New York Times’s Roger Cohen says (2019) that the United States is now in a direct ideological war with China. Both Democrats and Republicans support Mr Trump on China. I’m not sure I agree with the author that Westerners are imbued with a sense of “the yellow peril”. He says Americans make a mistake when they focus on Chinese communism, seeing it as a threat to American democracy. I don’t think many readers will agree with this, either; the CCP offends Western liberals because it is patently – on the evidence of its own actions towards Tibet, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong and the Indian soldiers clubbed to death on the common border – a ruthless authoritarian regime suppressing human rights in the absence of a rule of law.

But I take his point that the Chinese are heavily influenced by their cultural roots, and that there is a belief in Beijing that America and China have more in common than they think and should operate as allies rather than as foes. They should work together on the environment, on bringing peace to the Muslim world, and so on. In the same breath, he also devotes a lot of space to the historical antagonism between Japan and China, explaining that the millions of Chinese visiting Japan may become more open-minded as a result. The Chinese fear Japan, he says, as a superefficient potential military enemy, capable of assembling nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks.

Ultimately, the attempts by China to rebrand the CCP as a benevolent force for stability, coupled with the reluctance of the Chinese people to leave their comfort zones and demand pluralistic democracy (they also saw what has just happened in Hong Kong to pro-democracy demonstrators), won’t convince the West. The decision by the UK to ban Huawei puts a seal on future relations with China; an instant Western alliance has been forged – together with powerful regional actors, including Japan and South Korea, as well as Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia – that now has Xi in its sights. For South Africa and Brazil, member countries of BRICS, some difficult choices undoubtedly lie ahead when it comes to China.

The unwitting conclusion of Kishore Mahbubani’s book to which the reader is driven, is that if the Chinese economy is not to suffer, then political reform in China is inevitable. Western trade will increasingly be conducted on due diligence and good governance lines, and this is not something that sits well with any communist government that prevents freedom of speech and free political expression.


David Willers is a former diplomatic correspondent for the Cape Times and editor of the Natal Witness, and he contributed a “Letter from London” to South African newspapers including Rapport, the Natal Witness and the Cape Times.

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