Learning from China’s transformation. Part 4 – Dominant narratives, alternative perspectives

**10 min read**

We need fresh narratives about how the world works, and why, and what to do to solve its complex problems. We need ‘Two-eyed Seeing’. We need Nuance. Pluralism. Diversity. Alternative frameworks, models, worldviews, perspectives. This notion is driving debates in the economics profession (see also here), around decolonizing curricula, and in development. Yet evaluation professionals – like many ‘intellectuals’ and ‘experts’ around the world – too often see things through ‘Western-centric eyes’ because of where they have been educated or lived. So in this last post on context, let us consider whether we might have been buying too uncritically into certain dominant narratives about China’s rise.

About democracy and governance

Dominant narrative.  “The famous quote said to be by Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of Government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Alternative narrative. We are being misled by ongoing efforts to promote a particular political system as “the best” in all contexts. Instead, we should focus on what constitutes ‘good governance’ compared with ‘poor governance’, irrespective of the political system. Such assessment should be based on sound evidence of positive results balanced against negative consequences and trade-offs, and the country’s development phase. Democracies today too often make for weak governments that have to plan for the short term in order to secure votes or keep coalitions intact. This might work (to a greater or lesser extent) as political system in countries with institutional and societal stability, with a general population that is relatively well-off, well educated and well informed. But in countries that need a steep development trajectory, unpopular decisions inevitably have to be taken for long-term benefit.

“The test of a political system is how well it ensures good governance, as judged by the people. The dichotomy of ‘democracy versus autocracy’ sounds hollow in today’s complex world, given the large number of poorly governed ‘democracies’” – Zhang Weiwei, China Institute, Fudan University

The case of China. According to all development indicators, China has been a remarkable success story over the past four decades, even if not in terms of sustainable development. The achievements are well recognised by the Chinese society, with (often, even Western conducted) polls showing overwhelming support (see also here) for the CPC government. Authors such as Martin Jacques, Yan Xuetong, Klaus Mühlhahn and Daniel Bell point out that the relationship between the Chinese government and the Chinese people is very different from that in the West. It is rooted in more than 5000 years of history, philosophy and tradition, all very different from those that have led to other political or governance systems. This is something that many people outside China do not appreciate.

China (like India and Russia) is also a civilisation state rather than a nation-state, with a population equivalent to the combined populations of more than 80 European nations of average size – or three times the size of the US, France and the UK combined. An adversarial political model in such a context can quite easily make a country ungovernable. Although India has proven that this is not necessarily so, this caution is influenced by memories of the period 1911-1949 when China tried to copy the American model.

In a recent article, Karthik Muralidharan points out that governments obtain legitimacy through a combination of process and performance. While Indian democracy provides the government with process-based legitimacy – in other words, legitimacy based on winning elections – the main source of legitimacy of the Chinese government comes from being accountable for performance towards improving the living standards of its citizens. It is crucial for them to deliver on the promises in the Five-Year Plans (I will write more about this in a future post).

China’s government is also in its essence a meritocracy (see also here and here) – even if not a perfect one. This is something quite unique; in many countries politicians are elected without any proven track record, experience or relevant formal qualification that prepares them for their role, and for taking decisions that affect the life and future of millions. It is hardly a surprise that so many democracies perform so poorly in an increasingly complex, interconnected world.

About human rights

Dominant narratives. “China abuses human rights, and artificial intelligence/AI is now being employed to create a dystopian society. It should therefore be shunned – and definitely not serve as a country from which to learn.”

Alternative narratives. We uncritically learn from countries that have done worse in the world in living memory (surely references are not necessary!). And the concept of human rights has different meanings in different contexts. It is not only about political rights or freedom of speech. It is also about social justice – the right to enough food, water, security, housing, jobs, education and health. With rights also come responsibilities or mutual obligations. Should individual rights be seen as trumping ‘societal rights’ when we are highly social animals whose survival depends on cooperation? Furthermore, we definitely do not fully understand how AI is already being deployed around the world – including in many democracies – to turn us rather subtly into well-controlled commodities (see also here). 

The case of China. One can make a convincing argument that by lifting 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years, China’s government has done more for its citizens’ human rights in a shorter period than any country ever in history. Only someone who has lived in or been surrounded by poverty can understand what it means for impoverished parents suddenly to be able to provide their children with the basics of life. This does not mean the Chinese government is without fault. Or that it respects all human rights. Or that the situation will not change moving forward. But we clearly need a much more balanced, nuanced view.

This includes being mindful of the different perceptions of rights in a collectivist (compared to an individualist) society, one still influenced by Confucian philosophy (see also here and here). The influence of blending cultures draws countries increasingly towards individualism. Yet many societies in Asia continue to value societal harmony and stability, and obligations towards one another, much more than the West. Can we confidently judge who is right?

About AI: The use of AI – including for surveillance – is not inherently bad. It depends on how it is used. AI becomes ‘dystopian’ only when used to manipulate and control society for the benefit of a few. It is much less of a problem when it is used to help ensure good governance and the welfare of citizens. It can support stability while a country is on a steep development trajectory, or when it is under strain from threats of powerful actors and battles for control of resources. The most crucial issue is whether those doing the controlling have good or bad intentions for their own and for other nations’ citizens.

And Western democracies too are using algorithms and AI for the control of citizens’ minds and actions and money (see also here). Like frogs in boiling water, amidst all the spin and finger-pointing at China, citizens will realise this too late (see also here and  here).

The Belt and Road initiative

Click on the image to see a larger view.

About China in Africa

Dominant narratives. “More than any other country operating in Africa, China strips Africa of its resources, builds infrastructure to honour corrupt leaders, fails to employ local people, and fails to meet environmental or labour standards. China is the new coloniser in Africa.”

Alternative narratives. Africa is rich in the resources the world needs. It is under constant stress as a result. We will therefore be unwise and naive to base our opinions on single experiences, personal observations, a few anecdotes, or subtle propaganda with convincing narratives yet flimsy evidence. Instead, we have to consider analytical evidence from multiple and credible sources unlikely to have political agendas.

The case of China. China has been engaged in Africa for many decades with strategies very different from those the West. I have been tracking for years data and analyses about this relationship. Over the past decade pundits’ narratives hold Chinese companies and government to much higher standards than those of the West active in Africa. One country should certainly not be judged more harshly just because it does not conform to others’ demands or expectations.

In fact, nearly every aspect of the dominant narratives about China being the new coloniser of Africa has convincing and credible evidence to the contrary. For those interested in more nuanced reality-checking, start by reading and listening to some of the research and analyses and podcasts by the highly respected ‘China in Africa: The Real Story’ blog and the China-Africa Research Initiative (and podcasts here and here). Search for other sources, often not visible. This brings the confidence to argue about the matter in an informed manner, with a more balanced perspective.

About the BRI and debt

Dominant narrative. China is deliberately trapping in debt countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, and then takes over their assets. It also uses the BRI to expand its hegemonic influence worldwide.”

Alternative narrative. The Belt and Road Initiative (see also here) is a highly influential initiative with potential for major shifts in economic and soft power around the world. It will come under constant attack due to its threat to entrenched geopolitical interests (see also here). The economic manipulation of low and middle income countries by certain Western powers over many decades makes it crucial to study with care the details of the frameworks and reasoning with which such an important initiative is being implemented, and seek credible evidence about the results, both positive and negative.

The case of China. There is no doubt that the BRI is set to be a highly influential project that will face major challenges and obstacles of different kinds. But there is no doubt that the propagated hysteria over ‘debt trap diplomacy’ is inflated (see also here). The China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and others following China’s overseas lending have found that out of more than 3,000 projects financed by Chinese banks, the only one that has ever been used as evidence of a ‘debt trap’ (and then without giving all the facts) is the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka (see also here and here). The BRI is evolving as lessons are learned and challenges are addressed. China is now drafting rules for overseas investments that want to be part of the BRI. There are inspiring efforts to ensure a ‘green’ BRI. And a just-released UNDP supported report reviews the actual and potential contributions of the Chinese Overseas Economic and Trade Cooperation Zones to sustainable development across the Belt and Road countries.

Then there are the key points that China has never been a hegemon as usually defined (see also here and here). And unless a lender has predatory practices, it cannot be held responsible for borrowers’ decisions – not even when its principle of non-interference is applied in an increasingly nuanced manner.

Finally, those in glass houses ….

Powerful countries espousing democracy around the world often themselves do not hold up democratic principles. They might have to do so domestically – and even then sometimes with significant flaws – but certainly not in their approach to the rest of the world. It is hypocritical for any country to make a statement about human rights if they have had a hand in the recent destruction and impoverishment of countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Yemen, or sit by while refugees drown in the Mediterranean as a result. Today only the naïve or uninformed believe that intervention in the affairs of others is done for unselfish reasons rather than for access to power and resources, profiteering or geopolitical gain.

The value of multiple perspectives

We have to be more aware of our own prejudices, and of differences between people that go beyond simple rituals. These first four posts sketched some of the context for lessons from China. I trust they will encourage us to be considered in our judgments about situations and narratives, and open to learning from all parts of the world.

For me, one thing stands out: In an increasingly multi-polar world we are entering the era of the East, to be led by China and somewhat later also India. We have to learn from their experiences. I will now highlight some lessons I consider as most interesting and useful for our work.

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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator. Based near Geneva, she works across Africa and Asia. A former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member, she is at present IDEAS Vice-President, Lead Steward of the SDG Transformations Forum Evaluation for Transformation Working Group, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany.

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