The other day, Mark Anthony Jones (formerly of China, now returned to Australia), mentioned in a comment that he would like me to read Randall Peerenboom’s book, China Modernizes. My response was that I would love to read the book, but since I am already way behind in my promises to read and review books, I asked if he would do so and the below is that review.
There are precious few good books on present day China’s governance and society. Most tend to be either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic.
Two sharply opposing images of China seem to prevail in the Western media, reflected also on the pages of many English language China-related blogs and discussion forums.
The Middle Kingdom is often depicted as a rising superpower set to achieve global economic hegemony, some even say by as early as 2020. According to this view, China provides a model for other developing countries, and with its high growth rates, is the envy of the post-industrial world. In 2004 the Pew Research Centre surveyed the popular attitudes of people towards China in sixteen countries, and their findings showed China is much more popular around the world than the United States, and is roughly as popular as France, Germany and Japan. Even in the UK, America’s closest ally, 65 percent of those surveyed viewed China favorably, as compared to just 45 percent for the United States.
The opposing view, easily found on the shelves of Walmart and common among many (if not most) English language China-related blog sites, sees China as a brutal authoritarian state that violently suppresses its citizens, and that far from being self-confident and tolerant, is instead defensive and nationalistic. Its environmental problems are made out to be so severe that the country’s days of stability are numbered and its impoverished rural population is constantly rising up in protest against corruption and land thefts.
I have always challenged both of these extremes, and roughly nine months ago I wrote a piece for my blog, titled “Some Thoughts on the Nature of China’s Governance and Society,” [link no longer exists] where I sought to present a fairer, more balanced assessment. Though I framed my arguments using abstractions derived from the Frankfurt School of Marxism, my study was nevertheless empirically based and dialectical.
Though I received many comments in response to my text, I am nevertheless well aware I am generally quite alienated from the narrow world of the English language China-related blogosphere. Most of those who frequent this particular cyberspace are quick to dismiss me as a “CCP apologist,” which has always puzzled me, since I am quite clearly not of this mold. I am often quite critical of the CCP and my conclusions on the nature of China’s present day governance and society are nuanced, and, as in my piece “Shenzhen Kitsch,” [link no longer exists] sometimes overtly critical.
Blogs however, necessarily reflect the biases of their creators, who themselves usually look to the popular media for guidance in forming their world views. I think it better to rely on academic sources as they are more likely to present balanced, fairer assessments.
There are, however, precious few academic books that examine present day China’s governance and society, which is why I ended up producing my own text on the topic for my blog. There are plenty of excellent academic studies on China to dealing with specific social phenomena, but bringing them together to create a broader assessment seems to have been attempted by very few.
So I was thrilled to come across Randall Peerenboom’s new book, China Modernizes, because it addresses the same questions as in my post on China governance and society and his conclusions very closely mirror my own — though he reaches his conclusions using different sources.
Peerenboom builds his book around the four pillars of modernity: economics, human rights, the rule of law and democratization, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Peerenboom looks favorably on the CCP’s economic management of China and its pragmatic and successful approach to reforms. While embracing market reforms, China resisted the attempts of international financial institutions and foreign experts to engage in shock therapy, pursuing instead a more gradual pace of reform. “Rather than blindly following the advice of the IMF or the World Bank,” writes Peerenboom, “the government has taken care to adapt basic economic principles to China’s current circumstances . . . . contrary to neoliberal prescriptions, the state has actively intervened in the Chinese economy and played a key role in setting economic policy, establishing government institutions, regulating foreign investment, and mitigating the adverse effects of globalization on domestic constituencies.”
Like the vast majority of Chinese mainlanders, Peerenboom praises China’s political leadership for pursuing economic reforms before democratization, which is also what most other East Asian states like South Korea did, and for that matter America and Western European countries too. Most of Peerenboom’s second chapter in fact, is spent on demonstrating the wisdom of this approach, which he does convincingly by drawing on numerous broader empirical studies. Surprisingly, he does not mention Henry Rowen’s contribution to this debate. Rowen was one of the first to argue that “growing wealth is accompanied by increased education, the building of business and government institutions with some autonomy, and the formation of attitudes that enable democratic governments to survive when they have a chance at power.”
“If China’s economic growth continues at today’s rates,” argued Rowen, “it will reach mean incomes of $7,000 to $8,000 by 2015. Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, in addition to Taiwan and South Korea, all made the transition to democracy while they were within this income range.”
Like Rowen, Peerenboom links performance on human rights standards, including measures of civil and political rights, to a country’s level of wealth, by drawing heavily on the World Bank Good Governance Indicators as empirical evidence to support his claims.
Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is that it is does rely heavily on empirical studies to demonstrate how China performs relative to other countries. The book demonstrates convincingly that rule of law, good governance and virtually all rights including civil and political rights are highly correlated with wealth. “Comparing China to much wealthier countries,” says Peerenboom, “leads to the unsurprising conclusion that China has more problems: there are more deviations from the rule of law, government institutions that are weaker, less efficient and more corrupt; and citizens enjoy fewer freedoms while living shorter and more impoverished lives.”
But what is more revealing, and as Peerenboom very rightly stresses, is how well a country does compared to the average country in its income class. When we examine the empirical evidence this way, we see China meets or exceeds expectations on most measures.
In terms of economic growth, China’s performance has been “phenomenal’, lifting roughly 250 million of its people out of poverty. “The legal system has played a greater role in economic growth in China than often suggested by those who belittle the importance of rule of law for development,” says Peerenboom, and “China has made significant progress in a short time in improving the legal system, having essentially begun from scratch in 1978.” China’s legal system, notes Peerenboom, “now outperforms the average in its income class on the World Bank’s rule of law index.”
China also “outperforms the average country in its income class on most major indicators of human rights and well-being.”
According to Peerenboom, “China’s performance across a range of variables from economic performance to elimination of poverty to the establishment of a functional legal system and government institutions is on a whole demonstrably superior to the performance of most African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries.” China, argues Peerenboom, is following the East Asia Model used by Singapore, South Korea and Japan, and is performing better than these countries did when they were still at China’s current income level.
After spending much time demonstrating empirically developments in the rule of law in China, Peerenboom investigates why China is among only a handful of countries frequently targeted for systematic government human rights violations by the wealthy West in the UN, even though it does so well relative to its level of development on most measures of human rights and well-being. He spends three and a half pages on India alone, demonstrating how its respect for human rights is far worse than China’s, though, unlike China, it is never censured before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Peerenboom sees this double standard as the product of four things: first, a longstanding bias among Western human rights activists and governments that favor liberal democratic societies and do not want to see a non-liberal nondemocratic regime succeed: “UN resolutions for systematic government violations of human rights have overwhelmingly been meted out against a handful of nondemocratic developing countries with poor civil and political rights records, even though some of them may do better on other human rights measures and indicators of well-being, including physical integrity violations.”
Another factor explaining this double standard is that much of the reporting on China by the general media and human rights monitors tends to focus on particular horrific cases of human rights violations, — which is what I have been arguing now for a long time (see my piece, “Regimes of Truth — How Westerners imagine China” [link no longer exists]). As Peerenboom very rightly points out, “the emphasis on individual cases, especially heart-wrenching cases that are not representative of the system as a whole, creates a misleading impression of how serious the problems are and a distorted image abroad.” The bias in favor of liberal democratic states mentioned earlier above is also reflected in Western media reports on China. Much of the reporting, as Peerenboom notes, “continues to be framed by the narrative of ‘good dissidents’ battling the ‘oppressive authoritarian state’ in a noble quest for democracy and social justice. . . .”
But as Peerenboom empirically demonstrates, not all democracies guarantee and protect human rights, just as not all non-democracies seriously violate and neglect human rights.
The US State Department reports for China invariably start with a description of the nature of the political regime, as if that were the most significant determinant for rights in the country. To be sure, the reports only discuss civil and political rights, in itself a clear indicator of bias. The 2004 report for China begins: “The People’s Republic of China . . . is an authoritarian state in which. . . . the Chinese Communist Party . . . . is the paramount source of power.” Imagine it began instead: “Human rights and other indicators of well-being across the board are highly correlated with wealth. China outperforms the average country in its lower-middle income category on every major indicator except civil and political rights (as is generally true for other East Asian countries).
As I argued in my post, “Some Thoughts on the Nature of China’s Governance and Society,” [link no longer exists] a fairer assessment requires examining empirically verifiable evidence, rather than simply relying on qualitative evidence.
The third reason for Western double standards towards China comes from those who want to contain China’s development and influence. Criticizing China’s human rights record “deprives it of legitimacy and ‘soft power,’ thus making it more difficult for China to persuade others to join it in pursuing policies that serve China’s interests.” Despite its various diplomatic successes, notes Peerenboom, “the demonizing of China has indeed impeded China’s international influence to some extent.”
The fourth cause of the double standard is the over-critical attitude many foreigners have towards China’s system of governance, stemming largely from a blind faith in the legacies of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, which of course made valuable contributions to our modern ideas about democracy, human rights, religious tolerance, and the rational pursuit of truth.
There is so much more to be gained from this important new book than what I have outlined here. There is an entire chapter on democracy, a chapter on the rule of law, and a chapter on human rights, all carefully researched and empirically grounded. “China’s performance to date,” Peerenboom concludes, “has exceeded expectations, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. It is a large country, with considerable room for further growth. As rule of law and good governance are highly correlated with wealth, there is reason to expect that China’s legal system and government institutions will continue to improve as China becomes richer . . . . Chinese leaders have no choice but to continue with economic, legal and political reforms” and “China need only look at its more successful neighbors to get a general sense of the way forward.”
Rather than demonizing China as a strange authoritarian anomaly, Peerenboom succeeds in demonstrating China is simply following the normative patterns of its East Asian neighbors in terms of economic development, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democratization.