China Book Reviews


Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes: threat to the West, or model for the rest? Oxford University Press, New York, 2007.

ISBN 0-19-920834-4

Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes

by Jason Lee

In Randall Peerenboom’s view, China is following the East Asian Model of state-led development, which he argues is a more appropriate model for China to embrace than the Washington Consensus. Peerenboom links China’s economic development with the evolution of a “thin” rule of law, and builds his book around the four pillars of modernity: economics, human rights, the rule of law and democratization. He looks favorably on the Central Government’s economic management of China, with its “pragmatic” and successful approach to reforms. While embracing the market, China, according to Peerenboom, has 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,” he notes, “the government has taken care to adapt basic economic principles to China’s current circumstances”, for “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.” (p.5)

Unlike most American China watchers, Peerenboom praises China’s political leadership for pursuing economic reforms before, arguing that whatever defects may characterize China’s record on political and civil rights, they are offset by its impressive performance in improving overall social and economic conditions. (p.158)

On the issue of human rights, Peerenboom acknowledges the ongoing problems and torture and capital punishment, but challenges the way these problems are characterized or quantified by the international human rights community. Responding to criticisms of China’s repression of religion, particularly in minority areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, Peerenboom suggests that China’s policies and practices are understandable in light of its need for stability and that they generally satisfy international law requirements. (pp.148-152)

Peerenboom then goes on to link performance on human rights standards, including measures of civil and political rights, to a country’s level of wealth, drawing heavily on the World Bank Good Governance Indicators as empirical evidence to support his claims.

Perhaps the main strength of this book is that it is relies 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.” (p.11)

But what is more revealing, suggests Peerenboom, is how well a country does compared to the average country in its income class. China’s Gini coefficient, he argues, is roughly comparable to that of other economies in Asia, with China meeting or exceeding expectations on most measures.
China’s economic performance has been “phenomenal” notes Peerenboom, lifting roughly 250 million of its people out of poverty. China’s legal system for example, “now outperforms the average in its income class on the World Bank’s rule of law index,” and China also “outperforms the average country in its income class on most major indicators of human rights and well-being.” (p.20)

So why then, does the Western media single out China for so much criticism? Much of the reporting on China by the general media and human rights monitors, says Peerenboom, tends to focus on particular horrific cases of human rights violations: “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.” (p.171) Much of the reporting “continues to be framed by the narrative of ‘good dissidents’ battling the ‘oppressive authoritarian state’ in a noble quest for democracy and social justice,” a fact which Peerenboom says reflects a bias in favor of liberal democratic states:

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, he writes. 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).” (p.173)

Randall Peerenboom's China Modernizes is a breath of fresh air. It is an insightful and important book, and is essential reading for anybody who is interested in today's China. Of all of the books currently available on the market that deal with today's China, Peerenboom's is the most worthwhile reading, with the exception perhaps, of Doug Guthrie's China and Globalization.