Too early to hail China Model as a success

President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happe
President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happened 25 years later, with visitors walking freely in the same spot.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happe
President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happened 25 years later, with visitors walking freely in the same spot.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happe
President Xi Jinping's plan is for China to achieve rich-country status by 2021 and to surpass the US by 2049. Tiananmen Square then and now: (Top) In June 1989, soldiers with automatic rifles stood on guard every 10m. (Above) A vast change has happened 25 years later, with visitors walking freely in the same spot.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ordered troops to crush the student demonstration at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, many thought that a regime that opened fire on its own people would not survive for long.

Seasoned political scientist Yan Jiaqi, well-known writer Liu Binyan and student leader Wang Dan all shared this view, which gained ground with the subsequent fall of the former Soviet-bloc countries.

I argued then that China would not follow in Eastern Europe's footsteps. This was because the reform and open-door policy introduced by the CCP since 1978 had eased to a very great extent the pressures that could lead to a regime collapse.

On the economic front, crippling shortages had turned to abundance in a matter of years. In 1981, for instance, all daily necessities, from food to cloth to soap and oil, were rationed, and each family had to get a booklet for different kinds of coupons.

But by 1985, production of consumer goods was high enough that rationing was no longer necessary. On the political front, the death of paramount leader Mao Zedong in 1976 marked the end of an era of incessant political purges. The formal repudiation of the Cultural Revolution in 1978 put an end to this political pressure.

In short, the life of an average Chinese national in 1986 was much better than what it was in 1976, or for that matter, better than any time since 1949, when the CCP took power.

The combined effects of these political, economic and social changes in the preceding years helped the CCP greatly in surviving the Tiananmen crisis.

Another reason for the CCP's survival can perhaps be termed "mass Stockholm syndrome". The syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. People suffering from this syndrome may even mistake a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness.

Thus, instead of demanding justice when state oppression was relaxed, many people who were previously victimised by the CCP thanked the party for "giving them a new lease on life".

China and the CCP did not merely survive the Tiananmen crisis, of course. The party went on to engineer a spectacular growth period for China that defied all economic and political predictions.

Many now call this the "China Model", a strange mix of economic liberalism and political authoritarianism.

This model has its roots in the Tiananmen crisis, which, as Professor Barry Naughton of the University of California San Diego noted, was a "catalyst for a shift in the overall pattern of Chinese economic transition".

Prof Naughton, a noted expert on the Chinese economy, further wrote in a paper marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crisis: "The post-1989 model of economic reform was a model of concentrated power wielded more effectively... and led within a few years to the crystallisation of a new reform model."

I believe that this model rests on five pillars, each of which can be traced to a specific instruction by patriarch leader Deng Xiaoping.

The five pillars are to put economic development at the centre of everything; to strengthen the grip of power by the party, to expand the role of the military to cover domestic stability; to tighten ideological control of the people; and to nurture nationalism.

The results have been spectacular. But to me, a developmental strategy that focuses on the economy while neglecting other social objectives will in the long run bring about a "moral landslide", as aptly described by former premier Wen Jiabao.

Twenty-five years ago when I saw the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square to clear out the students demonstrating against corruption, a mental picture emerged in my mind: The tanks were in fact clearing the way for corruption. I was right. Even the CCP has admitted that corruption has reached a point threatening the very existence of the party and the state.

If the China Model created attendant problems serious enough to threaten the life of the party and state, how could such a model be considered "successful"? More problems will emerge.

Top among a long list are worsening socio-economic disparity, crony capitalism and irreparable environmental destruction. All these suggest that it is way too early to conclude that the China Model has been successful.

What about the next 25 years?

Economically, I have no doubt that the current growth rate will be sustained, thanks to the vast size of China's domestic market. World Bank chief economist Justin Lin Yifu has predicted that the Chinese economy will maintain a 7.5 per cent to 8 per cent rate of growth for the next 20 years.

By 2020, China's per capita income could reach US$12,700 (S$15,950), the international benchmark of a high-income country, according to his estimates.

President Xi Jinping's China Dream, defined as achieving rich-country status by 2021 and surpassing the US by 2049 - the 100th anniversaries of the CCP and the People's Republic of China respectively, will be within easy reach if this growth trend is not reversed.

Politically, China will keep its one-party rule intact, as is evidenced by Mr Xi's policies since he took over the helm in 2012. He urged people to be confident of the system (proletariat dictatorship), the road (economic liberalism coupled with political authoritarianism) and the ideology (socialism with Chinese characteristics). Clearly, he saw no need for political reform.

But without reforms that bring greater accountability and checks on the party's power, one may well question whether the rise of a country with a worrying moral and ethical vacuum at the heart of its political system bodes well for the world.

At the state level, the government is still unable to fully face its own calamitous mistakes between 1949 and 1976, when tens of millions of people died from policy-induced famines, summary executions, factional infighting and political purges. It is no surprise then that the system continues to suppress human rights on a daily basis, albeit on a much smaller scale.

At the personal level, I've seen many Chinese develop, sub-consciously or otherwise, a merciless indifference to justice and morality in their efforts to thrive in this system. The proliferation of fake items, from food to medicine to university qualifications, is testament to that.

These aspects of the China Model, I fear, will prohibit the country from rising to true greatness.

chingcheong@gmail.com