Tag Archives: Martin Jacques

On Martin Jacques’s Latest Op-Ed and the Superiority of the Chinese State

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came across this piece by Martin Jacques on the BBC’s website. He is, of course, the man behind the sickeningly sycophantic When China Rules the World. But even knowing that, there are some shockingly insane assertions in this article. Let’s jump in, shall we?

After a introduction in which Jacques sets up a straw-man argument (he assumes you think China’s government will be its downfall) to knock down, he writes,

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.

But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.


But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

The key word here, of course, is “central.” Saich himself writes:

While in 2009, 95.9 per cent were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government, this dropped to 61.5 per cent at the local level.

In China, local governments provide almost all public services and the fact that satisfaction levels decline as one gets closer to the people is a worrying sign.

Saich goes on to write that local approval numbers have increased under Hu and Wen, but of course, his latest survey was in 2009, before the recent bouts of inflation, the Wenzhou train crash, the current economic slowdown, the Bo Xilai scandal, the revelation that central leaders like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have used their positions to amass huge personal fortunes ((I highly doubt many Chinese were surprised by this news, but there is a difference between knowing something in the cynical, they’re-all-corrupt attitude of a taxi driver and knowing something in the sense that the New York Times has given you very specific figures.)), etc. Jacques also — what a surprise — cites the 2010 Pew poll but, again, that came before everything I have listed above.

(And, of course, although Hong Kong and Taiwan are a part of China whenever it is rhetorically convenient to say so, somehow the opinions of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese about the Chinese government never get mentioned when discussing how “Chinese people” feel about the government).

All of those issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Jacques’ approach here: the reliability of strangers doing opinion polls in a country where a sarcastic tweet can get you sent to a labor camp. I am sure that Jacques, being a China expert, is familiar with the phrase 家丑不可外扬 (‘never air your dirty laundry in public’). I have yet to see a convincing explanation anywhere of how opinion polling conducted in China accounts for the fact that (a) people don’t tend to share their true feelings with random strangers and (b) that is doubly true when people perceive expressing critical sentiment to be dangerous, which we all know it can be.

Why would anyone choose to go out on a limb and tell a stranger they disapprove of the central government? They gain nothing whatsoever from such an action, and the risks, while minimal, are not nonexistent. Moreover, many Chinese are used to censoring themselves when it comes to discussions of politics in public or with strangers. Even if you are dissatisfied, being forthcoming about that has no upside.

Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right. Anyway, back to Jacques as he continues his argument:

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.

Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?

Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

This does not strike me as a sufficient explanation for the Chinese government’s paranoia. That all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms is probably debatable, but instead of getting into it I’ll grant Jacques the benefit of the doubt there and instead point out that historically, this has been true of more or less every government everywhere. Before the modern era, finding a government that didn’t attempt to censor culture or round up dissidents every now and then is a rather difficult endeavor; this is certainly not a historical phenomenon that is unique to China.

And while China is more populous than any other nation on earth, Jacques’ assertion that it is more difficult to govern is highly questionable (and, in his article, totally unsupported). Certainly, governing a billion people is difficult. I imagine that governing a multiracial, multicultural nation of immigrants that has a history of divisive violence and a legal system that permits most people to carry firearms is also probably difficult.

So what makes China in particular so difficult to govern? Geographically, it’s about the same size as the US, and although it is far more populous, Jacques has just gotten through arguing that virtually everyone in China supports the government. If China’s central government really enjoys 95% approval, then that means it has to worry about around 62 million dissatisfied citizens who may be tough to govern. The US government’s approval rating, by almost any measure, means that it is frequently dealing with a dissatisfied citizenry whose numbers are at least double that.

So what is it that makes China so hard to govern? If Jacques is correct in his argument that Chinese people overwhelmingly support their government, then China’s government has to deal with far fewer dissatisfied citizens than the US does, spread out over an area of approximately the same geographical size. Here, Jacques will likely recall another popular Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾 (‘contradicting oneself’). How can China’s citizenry be overwhelmingly supportive of the government and yet somehow so difficult to govern that the government must resort press and internet censorship, the suppression of dissidents, etc.?

But let’s move on, because this is where we move from faulty logic and questionable unsupported assertions into the realm of full-on crazy:

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different [from the Western one].

They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.

They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What’s more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

It’s hard to know where to even start with this. First of all, the idea that all Chinese people see the state the same way is utterly ridiculous. Earlier in his article, Jacques points out that Western perceptions of the state depend in part on one’s own political positions, but apparently there is no such diversity when it comes to the Chinese. No, “they” all apparently feel exactly the same way about the state.

That would be ridiculous enough on its own, but his assertion that Chinese people see the state as “a member of the family” is also pretty nuts. On the one hand, I can see where Jacques probably got this idea; the government itself often uses the family metaphor to characterize the way it governs over the people, and the people have to some extent adopted this metaphor. I’m not sure where Jacques is getting the idea that people perceive the state as an extension of themselves, but some leaders (i.e. “Grandpa Wen”) certainly are referred to occasionally as though they are members of the family.

However, the idea that all Chinese really see the state itself as a member of their family (or see the state as themselves) is absurd. It’s also difficult to disprove empirically because it would require reading the minds of large numbers of Chinese people. But anecdotal evidence abounds, and as someone who spent the part of last couple years traveling around China talking to Chinese families I feel quite confident in saying that there are plenty of Chinese people who don’t see the state as the head of their families, let alone an extension of themselves. Jacques, I’m sure, would argue that those people are the exceptions that prove the rule, but even if we just consider the parents of missing children and ignore other larger demographics of people who have come to see the state largely as an obstacle (like these folks), we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of exceptions.

In fact, in my entire time in China and outside of China talking with Chinese people, I don’t think I’ve heard a Chinese person sincerely refer to the state as though it were a family member more than once or twice. Sure, it’s just anecdotal evidence, and it doesn’t prove anything, but I do feel inclined to point out that it’s far more than the zero evidence Jacques offered in support of his assertion.

Anyway, from here, Jacques moves into specifics, and bizarrely, chooses what has got to be one of the worst possible examples in an attempt to prove his point:

Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.

Take infrastructure – the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world’s largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world’s put together.

Really? It is at this point when we begin to suspect that Jacques’ article may actually be satire, because what else could possibly explain this choice of examples? Has Jacques forgotten that China’s high-speed rail network, one of the youngest in the world, has already experienced one of the deadliest high speed rail accidents in history? Is he unaware of the concerns about low-grade fly ash in track construction that indicate most of Chinas high-speed rail network is unsafe? Did he not watch the government’s response to the Wenzhou crash, a performance so blunderously pathetic that it ought to be listed in the dictionary next to the word incompetent?

At best, China’s high-speed rail is an unknown quantity. I do think China’s government was right to invest in this technology, and that China should expand its rail system as rapidly as is safely possible. But since at present there are multiple indications that China has far outstripped what is safely possible, using the high-speed rail network as an example of the Chinese state’s competence simply because it is big seems a little bit insane.

The Jacques moves on to his second example:

And the state’s ubiquity – a large majority of China’s most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

Indeed, some of China’s most competitive companies are state-owned, but Jacques is forgetting that that is in large part because it is the state that decides who can compete! It’s also worth noting that in some industries where users have more choice, private companies dominate. Let us compare, for example, the telecom industry and the internet search industry. State-owned companies dominate the telecom market (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are all state owned) and consumers don’t really have other choices. Since telecommunications networks need to install sensitive hardware in millions of places across the country, it’s no surprise that state-owned companies dominate here and Chinese consumers don’t have a viable private option. But in internet search, where users are free to visit any URL they choose (so long as it isn’t blocked), private Chinese companies like Baidu and Qihoo absolutely destroy the state-owned offerings.

The dominance of state-owned companies varies by industry, but given that the government ultimately decides whether any company is allowed to operate or not, we shouldn’t be too surprised that lots of state-owned companies end up doing pretty well. To use a sports metaphor, State-owned companies win a lot because the referees are the state. How good a record would the you expect the Yankees have if George Steinbrenner was the umpire for every game?

But let’s move on to Jacques’ assertion that the one child policy “still commands great support” among the population. Here we have another vaguely worded and totally unsupported assertion. It also comes at a particularly interesting time given that the China Development Research Foundation (a government think tank) just released a report urging China to abandon the One Child Policy entirely.

In terms of popular perceptions, the One Child Policy is a complicated issue. In my experience, most Chinese accept that it was a necessary measure to prevent population growth beyond the nation’s capacity to support people, and believe it’s still necessary, although in my own conversations with people I have found that most seem to consider it to be a bit outdated and wouldn’t be too sad to see it go. I’m not aware of any scientific polling on this specific issue, but a recent online poll with more than 30,000 respondents found that more than 70% wanted to abolish the One Child Policy and less than 30% wanted to keep it. Is this what Jacques means by “great support”?

Jacques concludes:

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.

Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China’s startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

Why is it that every article like this seems to imagine that history just stopped in 2009 or 2010 and the events of the past few years don’t matter when it comes to evaluating the success of China’s state? Moreover, why do the West’s economic woes prove the incompetence of the state when they are mostly the result of incompetence and gambling in the private sector? China’s government certainly deserves credit for the growth of its economy, but condemning Western states for the current crisis seems like a much greater reach.

I’m no economist, so I could be wrong, but again, Jacques doesn’t make any effort to connect the moral failures of Western investment bankers with the failure of the state on a systemic level. Nor does he point out that “the goods” China’s government has been delivering have come with both immediate problems (see: Wenzhou train crash, inflation, Bo Xilai scandal, censorship, paranoid crackdowns, etc.) and long-term issues that haven’t yet fully emerged (see: ageing population, local government debt and reliance on land sales, gender imbalance, shoddily-built infrastructure that will break sooner or later, etc.).

Western governments also face numerous problems, of course, and if we define a state’s competence as based entirely on its total GDP then, yes, China is poised to become the most competent state in the world. But right now, that definition would make the United States the most competent state on earth, a claim that (if it wasn’t election season) I think even the most strident Tea Party nutjobs might shy away from making.

Jacques’ article is full of the vagueness that is characteristic of China’s-system-is-the-best arguments because, as usual, his only real evidence is China’s remarkable economic growth. And while its growth has been impressive (to put it mildly) it has also given rise to significant problems. Some are already in full bloom and some have yet to emerge but pose serious questions about the Chinese system’s long-term viability if it does not reform. China’s system has done an incredible job of improving the economy over the last thirty years. But thirty years is barely more than a generation, and using that period (which was not without its rough patches, by the way) as evidence of systemic superiority is at best premature.

It is also simplistic, because it assumes that the purpose of the state is purely to generate economic growth. Economic growth has been great for China’s population, but when assessing the superiority of a given system (which, just as a side note, is a pretty pointless endeavor to begin with) there are a myriad of other factors I would argue that should be considered. And despite what Jacques might say about what “Chinese people” think, I know plenty of Chinese people who agree with me.

Has the state adequately protected its people from threats to their well-being, including long-term threats to their health like pollution and tainted foods? Has the state adequately protected its people’s human rights? Has the state enacted policies that solve problems in the short term without creating bigger ones in the long term? Has the state’s primary concern in governance been the welfare of its people or the perpetuation of its own power? These are serious questions (and there are many more) that could apply to most Western regimes just as well as they apply to China. But Jacques, in his article, has considered precisely none of them.

If nothing else, I hope that someday we will be able to move past the ubiquitous, ridiculous idea that “Chinese people” are a monolithic bloc that thinks the same way about everything. In China, as anywhere, there is a diverse spectrum of beliefs and opinions when it comes to the legitimacy, the role, and the competency of the state. Certainly, these beliefs and opinions have been shaped by China’s unique history, and as a result they do probably skew differently than Western opinions about the same topics (although measuring this empirically would be extremely difficult).

But Chinese people do not all think the same way about anything, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Unrelated note: If you haven’t yet checked out 2non.org, my new nonprofit venture, please do so and consider making a donation. They’re tax deductible, the articles (and other content) is free, and the only way we can afford to keep doing it is if people kick in a little bit when they think the content is worthwhile. Whether you can donate or not, we’re working on a new article that should be up sometime this week that I think you will enjoy.