The Chinese Exception

(Published in French on October 18th 2017 in Le Monde as Qu’est-ce qui met les Chinois de si bonne humeur ? and in L’Écho as L’exception chinoise)

It is hard to imagine that there would be today a people somewhere approving without any soul-searching the policy pursued by its government or the economic circumstances of the nation. We are thus stunned to hear that since 2010 over 80% of the Chinese people express the view that they are satisfied with the direction taken by their country. And here is not a statement more or less tinged with government propaganda as it shows in investigations carried out by the American think tank Pew Research Centre.

What makes the Chinese so cheerful? Comprehensive enrichment of the population, further supported by a campaign against poverty in the form of a minimum income, accompanied by the successful eradication of graft. A few figures: more than one million civil servants punished, including 13,000 military personnel and 648,000 local officials.

The Chinese are fond of numbered objectives, such as the “four self-confidences” defined by Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, who will be reappointed for a new five-year term at the end of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, whose meeting begins on October 18th. The “four self-confidences” are trust in the Chinese path to socialism, trust in the political theory, trust in the specificity of the Chinese system, and trust in Chinese culture.

Jiang Zemin, who was president from 1993 to 2003, invoked in his days the “three watchwords”: that the nation should rise, prosper and become strong. Mao Zedong made China rise again, Deng Xiaoping encouraged it getting wealthy – in the turbulent way that made the recent campaign against graft necessary, while the current president is working to make it strong – a task that he will – experts say – pursue beyond the end of his second five-year term ending in 2022.

The hundredth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China will be celebrated in 2049; it should then mark “the great revival of the Chinese nation”. How should the phrase be understood? China as the first world power no doubt, a synthesis having been made by then between the Chinese national and cultural foundations and the contributions of Western thought that reached the nation a century ago under the shape of Marxism-Leninism.

The “New Silk Road” also known as the “One Belt, One Road” project is expected to play a major role in such an ambition. Even though doubts are expressed – in China as well – as to the most glittering images of the benefits that would result. Having connected the most remote cities in western China to the heartland by high-speed rail connections and motorways, and having opened up the hinterland of immense Kazakhstan to China, would however have been enough to justify such an ambitious venture.

As for democracy and human rights, China has we know its own special views, which it admits are not to everyone’s liking. In December 2015, in Johannesburg, Xi Jinping told a gathering of heads of state: “China supports the settlement of African issues by Africans in the African way”, to a beaming audience. This was not the same language they had heard when offered American loans, with their usual strings attached. Similarly, China does not claim a blocking minority amounting to a veto right in the cooperation bodies it sets up, contrary to the United States with the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. In 2015, as opposed to the United States, Britain, France and Germany became enthusiastically members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Doesn’t China, in pointing out that state planning and interventionism sometimes hold virtues that pure and perfect competition lacks, argue in favour of those antiquated values that once made the “glorious fifties and sixties” glorious indeed? The question deserves maybe to be asked.

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