China Book Reviews


John Lee, Will China Fail? The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, 2007.

ISBN 9781864321807 (pbk)

A pessimist of Enlightenment: John Lee's Will China Fail?

by Jason Lee

A good number of interesting books have recently been written and published about today's China, though they tend to fall into one of two categories: either they are hyper-critical, often predicting China's imminent collapse, or they are overly celebratory and optimistic. Of the latter, the more sophisticated and empirically-based ground their arguments in a rejection of the European Enlightenment, or at the very least, call for a less dogmatic approach to understanding and evaluating human rights and "alternative" systems of governance. Such studies include Daniel Bell's Beyond Liberal Democracy: political thinking for an East Asian context (2006), Doug Guthrie's China and Globalization (2006) and Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes (2007). Of the former variety, we have books like Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China (2001), Minxin Pei's China's Trapped Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy (2006) and  Will Hutton's The Writing on the Wall: China in the 21st Century (2007) - which evaluates the importance of Enlightenment institutions via a reading of Habermas.

John Lee's book belongs, as the title indicates, to the list of China doom books. Lee, an Australian of Chinese heritage with a PhD in international relations, holds the view that China is "barely managing to stay half a step ahead of disaster despite its impressive growth figures." Far from being a successful dictatorship, China, argues Lee, will one day soon fall as a result of its failure to embrace the Enlightenment values of democracy, a free press and the rule of law.

According to Lee, "China's rulers are explicit in that they do not intend a transition that will ultimately reduce their power, role and reach. The regime's 'opening up' of China and engagement with the world is being done to entrench and salvage its own exclusive rule." (p.154) This presents the West with a moral challenge, argues Lee, because China's rulers seek to replace the United States as the world's next superpower "armed with a moral and political reasoning that is at odds with the freedom and restraints on governments in the West." (p.154)

"The world wants China to succeed for economic, political and humanitarian reasons." says Lee. "The alternative would condemn over a billion Chinese to a grim existence. That China's current model is failing, not succeeding, makes the moral and strategic challenge more profound, not less." (p.154)

So Lee's heart seems to be in the right place, but how correct is he in his assessments? Is China really failing, as he so strongly believes? Lee understands that China's rise presents the West with an ideological challenge, one that, if China were to succeed in rising to the status of supreme global superpower, would pull the rug out from under the feet of those countries that champion capitalist democracy as having universal appeal. "The Chinese model is not simply an economic model but a model of political-economy," he very correctly observes. (p.33) While China's growth over the past 25 years has been truly spectacular, Lee argues that focusing on the politics behind China's model offers a fundamentally better understanding of what is occurring in China than do pure economic analyses. (pp.33-34) It is only when we examine China's political-economy, argues Lee, that we can begin to see the cracks, for what the CCP fears the most from its market reforms, "is the emergence of new elites within their own society that might challenge their political authority." (p.42) In order to remain in power, they must placate potential new losers from the new economy, while co-opting the emerging winners: a juggling act that is easier said than done, especially in the absence of a free press and the rule of law.

Free markets "need independent courts to enforce rules and regulations, and to uphold contracts and payments," notes Lee, but in China, "granting and enforcing widespread property rights would strip away the power of CCP officials who essentially rule through the extraction of collective rents and poorly compensated seizures." (p.49) Apologists for the Chinese system may very well like to point to the frequent anti-corruption drives initiated by the Central Government as evidence that such corruption is being tackled, but Lee is quick to dismiss such drives as insincere, for they are focused mainly on catching out corrupt individuals: "While the attention is firmly on the prosecution of high profile individuals on the take, there is certainly something questionable about the sincerity of campaigning to eliminate China's 'rampant' corruption (in the words of President Hu) when relationships inimical to the effective operation of free markets between political and economic arms are relied upon (or at least encouraged) by the one-party regime to maintain their system of patronage and reward that which is essential to remain in power." (p.51) The evidence for this? Citing Carsten Holz of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Lee notes that "of the senior positions in the five industrial sectors - finance, foreign trade, land development, large-scale engineering and securities - 85-90% are held by children of high-level Party officials." (p.51)

One of the many interesting insights offered by Lee is his observation that the problem for the CCP today is that the rhetoric of revolution is no longer engaging. China has become less of a totalitarian state (where it was deeply involved in very aspect of life), and more of an authoritarian one. "Opening up the economy has decreased the relevance of the CCP for millions of Chinese and increased the resentment of many others; in particular rural areas where reforms have been the most dramatic." (p.85) According to one survey cited by Lee, carried out in Xinjiang Province, 65% of the respondents identified the tax burden as being the principal cause of social instability. (p.86) back in 1999, taxes in Hubei Province were so high that in one jurisdiction, farming was unprofitable for 80% of the farmers. (p.86) Very often, these taxes are not spent on improving government services like to local infrastructure, public health or education, but are instead used to enrich local Party members. Taxes are often therefore considered by farmers to be illigitimate, and are often met with open revolt.

Lee goes on to discuss the various problems with China's banking system, its aging population, its growing unemployment problem, its fiscal problems, concluding that:

"China is a country in a profound mess. It's economics and wealth creation are inefficient and flawed, its financial structure is unsound, and the misallocation of resources is massive, chronic and deep-rooted. Its growth is artificially fuelled and unsustainable, and the wealth created is systematically wasted and directed towards less and less productive areas. Government and social deficits are mounting while the regime - which is itself largely the cause of them - cannot offer any viable solutions without precipitating its own demise. It therefore maintains a holding strategy while these problems worsen. Meanwhile, the lot of the majority of the population is either stagnant or in decline, while economic elites (who are the regime's newest support base) continue to thrive but only as a result of the tenuous and ultimately unsustainable growth strategy. Most significant decisions made by the regime are therefore tactical ones - putting out spot fires - driven by the logic of pure political survival rather than the logic of fundamental and sustained transformation. Meanwhile, the fragmented regime hangs on the best it can and eliminates or impedes any threats they can see to their political dominance." (p.112)

While this is a well structured and clearly argued book, full of interesting insights and criticisms, it does have its flaws. Lee's selective use of evidence, along with his failure to consider alternative readings, to some extent at least, undermine many of his central arguments. He presents a very one-sided picture, though intelligently enough argued to make it a good companion volume to China's Trapped Transition, by Minxin Pei, and to Will Hutton's The Writing on the Wall.