Since I am teaching development this semester, it again bears repeating how thinktanks alike the AEI repeat mistakes American commentators have made time and again in abstracting the unique circumstances of American development and assuming it holds for all others for all time. In other words, there are universal laws of development to be found based on an Amerocentric narrative.
Try this counterfactual: what if a more pliant Gorbachev-like figure to Western tastes rather than a Deng-like figure was in charge of China during the 1990s? Lee Kuan Yew walks us through this possibility:
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that Deng Xiaoping saved China. I think that I read in your opinion, if he had pursued glasnost and perestroika like Gorbachev did, that the country would have fallen apart. Describe at what point in the early '90s he was trying to do to the country, and what was at stake for China.As Lee notes elsewhere in he interview excerpted above, the Chinese have a history of authoritarianism and repression that has not really gone away with the coming of the supposed revolutionaries. While the CCP has an obvious and innate paranoia about counter-movements, this tendency is not unusual when set against the exceedingly lengthy backdrop of Chinese history.
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, he had to fight his own conservatives, the orthodox Communists, who were terrified that this meant dismantling the socialistic way. Their control was total, over every person in society. If you got the sack you'd never get a job unless they wanted to give you a job. There were no independent employers. If you move your residence without permission, you won't have rations to eat. This freeing up meant multiple employers, meant people became more mobile and could move from countryside to city and from one city to another. So they were quite apprehensive. So he started this in '78, so by '90 they were getting apprehensive. So he decided to give it a push. And he went on his so-called Southern tour to Nanjing and made a series of speeches which were well reported throughout the country.
Jiang Zemin was given the boost or the support to press on. He pressed on, and that brought about more growth. Had he not opened up China, they would have gone the way of the Soviet Union. But he was very careful; he believed first in restructuring before opening up. I mean, glasnost and freedom and transparency and so on, that had to wait. First restructure, and restructure under the old system by directives so that nobody can say no. I'm not sure whether Gorbachev would have done better the other way. I think he would have done slightly better, but this was a different and tougher situation. [Gorbachev] had 70-plus years of communism. China had only 30 -- 20 plus the years from 1949 to 1978, so less than 30 years. [Deng] knew what a revolution meant; Gorbachev didn't. Gorbachev went to law school in Moscow and worked his way up by promotion. So Deng understood that if you released the forces, unless you do it in a controlled way, the system will collapse. And he did not allow the system to collapse, because if you allow that, nothing is achieved. His place in history in the West has been tarnished by his tough standard here on Tiananmen, but I think his place in Chinese history will be different. The Chinese will judge him not from whether he was humane or he was brutal, but whether he saved China, or he allowed China to risk disintegration, because now with the Tiananmen Papers out, it is revealed, as I suspected at that time, that mass demonstrations were not in Beijing alone, but also spreading to the other cities, and he had to stop it.
Just as Deng managed to push through economic changes amidst a hardline opposition, more informed commentary should not assume that modern "Communist" leaders do not have the capacity to address the problems mentioned in the op-ed that the AEI chap believes will end the Party: nurturing SMEs, rationalizing the financial services industry, addressing demographic challenges and so forth. Ironically, the erstwhile successes of an export-driven model now need to be confronted as the PRC attempts to transition to a more domestically-oriented one. That said, China will through its own experimentation decide which sorts of reforms to push through and which to discard as opposed to implementing some white man's wish list. If it didn't make sense in the past to discount China's development trajectory based on its deviations from an American model--especially in terms of political freedoms--doing so should be even less defensible now that the frailties of the American model are becoming increasingly obvious while China still manages to grow at a healthy clip.
And the PRC of course has the rhetorical advantage of not invoking characteristic America hubris in extolling their example as one for the rest of the world to follow, pitiably laughable as it sounds at the current time. As even more nuanced and less dogmatic American commentators note, the CCP does change in ways that make it more adaptable to current circumstances--albeit in ways that are not tooted too loudly. Meanwhile, the AEI sounds exactly like the mirror opposite of those orthodox Marxists who believe capitalism's end is ever around the corner, except the object of their disapproval is China's faux-Maoist-Leninist regime.