Leading Article: China's unavoidable dilemma

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The Independent Online
WHILE we have been celebrating the collapse of Communism in Europe as if it were a global phenomenon, China has been creeping up on us almost unnoticed. Average growth rates of 9 per cent a year since 1978, foreign investment pouring in, wages rising, differentials widening: economic success seems to contradict the view that Communism is doomed by fundamental internal contradictions. Alternatively, leaving ideology aside, China can be called as an impressive witness in defence of the proposition that democracy is not necessary for economic success. Political repression remains as tight as ever while the economy booms.

If China is proving any general principle up to this point, it is that culture is more important than ideology in determining development. Russian traditions are anarchic, pessimistic, imperial and vulnerable to the subversive appeal of Western values. The Chinese revere hard work and deference to authority, which helps their leaders to maintain political control while freeing the economy. They have had the sense not to challenge the United States to an arms race or to overstretch their empire, and they enjoy the historical confidence to reject alien values. They also wisely began by setting free the acquisitive talents of the peasants.

One has only to look at the phenomenal success of overseas Chinese to become aware of the potential that is now being released in the Chinese economy. With the cork only half out of the bottle, the entrepreneurial energies of the Chinese are pouring out. If the trend continues, it will not be more than two or three decades before the world is facing a country of more than a billion people

with the productivity of Hong Kong.

Whether China can fulfil this potential under its present system is still an open question. If the people are fully occupied making money, and are able to enjoy the fruits of their labours, will they want to rock their golden boat by demanding democracy? Or will they prefer the order provided by an authoritarian government? Other Asian countries have demonstrated that successful economic development can be achieved under authoritarian governments.

It is normally assumed, however, that democracy becomes unavoidable at some point along the line in order to accommodate new interest groups, including a middle class, to devolve decision-making and ensure that political leaders remain responsive to new needs.

It is risky to assume that China is wholly different from the rest of the world, or that the Chinese masses will show no interest in political freedom for as long as their material needs are met. Probably, China will be able to postpone democracy longer than many other developing countries because of its orderly traditions and the economic pragmatism of its leaders. Whereas the Soviet Union tied economic and political control so tightly together that one could not be loosened without the other, the Chinese have achieved a successful separation for the time being. Yet the more power shifts into the economy, the less remains for the ruling party. On the face of it, therefore, the party must either allow its authority to slip gradually away or reassert it at the cost of economic freedom. Chinese pragmatists may find a middle way, but they will not be able to avoid the dilemma