National and International Issues

Understanding the China Success Story: Challenges are Indeed Opportunities!

Being posted to China during the 1980s, which were the epic years of initial transformation from a centrally planned Marxist Leninist Economy to what is called a Market Socialist Economy with Chinese characteristics, was a ‘Godsend’ opportunity, it so appears to me. Most people globally are eager to know as to ‘what happened? What happened hardly remains fully narrated to the world due to a number of factors. In this write-up, I will make an effort to dwell on some of the aspects of China’s phenomenal rise in order to make a sense of not only what happened, but also how it happened. Being an eyewitness to the remarkable happenings, I find myself best placed sitting at the pedestal of contemporary history to relate not just to a narrative, but put across an objective analysis with the sole aim to benefit the researchers, scholars, policymakers and ordinary men and women who remain keen to understand China’s success story. That may be my humble contribution to the field of research and scholarship on ‘China Studies’, a field of study that is bound to receive greater attention globally in the future, with the growing influence, power and goodwill of and for China. Understanding the China story requires asking the right set of questions before attempting any answer. First, why it is important to study it; secondly, what makes it uniquely different; thirdly, why the Western nations did not understand as to what was happening, and instead now calling it a ‘shock’; fourthly, why China’s rise mesmerizes the developing, particularly the Islamic world; fifthly, is the China Model sustainable?; sixthly, what would be the impact of China’s rise on the existing rules based global order; seventhly, does China’s rise herald the dawn of Euro-Asiatic Century?; eighthly, why the Chinese needed to launch the Belt and Road Initiative; and ninthly, how Pakistan can benefit from the rise of China, given the long history of steadfast strategic relations, extensive friendly exchanges and abundant mutual goodwill at the popular level that makes the Sino-Pakistan relations as the ‘defining relationship for shaping the 21st Century’.
It is important to study China’s story, since its spectacular rise in the past four decades (1980-2020) made it achieve what the Western world did in 400 years. With each passing year, this phenomenon is bound to impact the world even more profoundly than presently, due to a host of factors. China is still in the initial phase of its rise and is nowhere to reach its maturity phase before 2050 A.D.  Understanding it is hence the key to benefitting from it. It is not a routine event! Such developments of power shifts take place once in many centuries. The Western world’s own ascension to power came somewhat three centuries ago. The rotation of global superpowers is a normal event, as per the dictates of the Law of Nature, though no superpower had been happy about it. China’s rise has happened without conflicts, wars, loot or plunder, colonization, discovery of oil or gas, help from the international financial institutions or charitable transfer of technology. China harnessed its soft power heritage, governance system, political organization and collective leadership. It was not easy. Deng Xiaoping who led the Reformists in July 1977 confronted key challenges such as: Leftist ideological trap; status quo inertia; trust gap; make believe propaganda; egalitarianism syndrome; economic stagnation; technological backwardness; personality cult; rampant poverty; Western powers’ sanctions and the blunders of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ which had pushed China decades behind. Deng Xiaoping listened to everyone, but preferred to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones or seeking truth from facts’. He believed in team work, service delivery and results. He knew that ‘actions spoke louder than words’.     
China calls its rise as a revival of its central place in history which, in the words of British Historian Angus Maddison, lasted 15 centuries. China’s share of global GDP, which was 34 percent in 1820 A.D., came down to 5 percent in 1950. China’s rise now mesmerizes the developing and the Islamic world, because it happened despite the Western hostility. Further, Chinese trounced the Western powers in their game at their turf, while most of the developing world and the Muslim countries still continue to suffer due to their incompetent leadership, lack of foresight, poor governance, archaic organization, naïve and selfish elite and lack of reforms and innovation. China’s rise from a much worse position of weakness now offers the best hope to these states for their own take off, learning from some of the best practices of China. The Western media had tried its best to ‘hide’ China’s success story, failing which it has launched a relentless smear campaign to malign and belittle China’s achievements. The Western scholars who thought that China will not be able to sustain its development have seen their prognosis proved wrong because of their apparent failure to understand the ‘undercurrents’ that tell China’s story. The Chinese are master craftsmen in converting challenges into opportunities. They attribute their phenomenal progress during the past four decades (1980-2020) as courtesy of a calamity called the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It prepared the population for a paradigm change. The new Reformist leadership turned it into an opportunity for reforms and opening up; the backwardness of China’s economic structures was utilized as a ‘bait for joint ventures’ to incentivize for the foreign investors to earn their profit and gain a market share in China; the challenges of competition from the membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001 was turned into an opportunity for technological upgradation, learning from global best practices, and surfing the wave of hybridization, localization and globalization; the calamity of SARS epidemic (2003) was converted into an e-commerce bonanza. China’s growth is now providing a lifeline to the acute recession-prone global economy. 
China’s exponential rise is bound to impact the so-called existing ‘rules based order’. China has indeed benefitted from the existing international order, but knows very well that it is beyond reforms and restructuring. It is indeed a miracle that China was able to make it this far on the strength of its wisdom. Chinese know it very well as to how the Western world imposed all kinds of hard scrutiny as conditions for its membership of the WTO in December, 2001. China is also aware that the Western world is obsessed with its domination and will never accept the rise of China and make all efforts to subvert it kinetically or by other means. The talk of Cold War and coalition building with ‘Quad Powers’ like Japan, India and Australia are all meant to contain China. But China has indeed played its cards in a smarter way, with the launching of the USD 1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with six corridors connecting it with 65 countries by reviving the ancient Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Route. This includes USD 62 billion [still evolving] China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is the flagship project. The BRI will add USD 4 trillion to the Euro-Asiatic economies by 2030 A.D. realizing the dream of the ‘Euro-Asiatic Century’. While the Western powers are leaving behind a devastated West Asia, Middle East and North Africa, China is stepping in with massive reconstruction by winning the hearts and minds of the population in these states. The Western powers are not happy as the BRI aims to lift the stagnant fortunes of the Islamic countries in economy, education, science and technology etc. China hopes to revive the pristine era of the Medieval Age when the Muslim Empires like the Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid, Mamluk, Mughal, Malay etc. flourished along with China’s Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties; with combined fortunes possessing ninety percent of the global wealth until 1700 A.D.
No wonder, the rise of China has sent shockwaves to the corridors of Western intelligentsia and policymaking circles. They know the development template of China’s rise, the context and the substance of China’s power profile is different from that of the Soviet Union, Germany or Japan. The Westerners feel perplexed, confused, shocked and ambushed, speeding up efforts to build a narrative for Cold War II. As regards the developing world, their discredited system of electoral democracy and the accompanying development template, sanctioned by Washington Consensus, continue impoverishing them with the help of political instability, brain drain, flight of capital and debt trap. The population in these countries is only left with media moguls, feudal or tribal demagogues for their political entertainment. In contrast, the political leaderships in China have risen through a gruelling process of selection of political meritocracy, learning, talent, delivery, scrutiny, accountability etc. from the grassroot level, all the way up to the highest level of decision making bodies. China’s rise i.e., all round political, economic and social transformation, holds great prospects for the majority of the population in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There is growing interest in China’s model of development as it is based on peace and development and not on conflicts, wars, loot, plunder, exploitation, oppression, and injustice, as had been the case with the former colonial and imperial powers. Among all the developing nations, so far Vietnam, Bangladesh and Philippines have succeeded in learning well – though in varying degrees – from the lessons of China’s model of development. These countries have been successful to emulate China’s policies to launch comprehensive policy reforms i.e., agricultural reforms, proto-industrialization, Small and Medium Enterprises, start-ups, digital economy, mobilization of expatriates, governance reforms, taxation reforms, Special Economic Zones, and export culture etc. The Western Sinologists, however, attribute Vietnam’s economic success, as for China, to the so-called authoritarian One Party rule and control of the Communist Party, which is a sad reflection of a lingering residual colonial mindset.
My two recent books have created ‘ripples’ and generated widespread interest among the China watchers in Pakistan, as well as abroad. The first book is titled China’s Model of Development – Lessons for Pakistan published in November 2020. China indeed went through a hard learning process. Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping undertook a hundred ‘hard decisions’. China’s model based on meritocracy, socialist market and Chinese characteristics is a formidable tried and tested system of scientific approach, delivery, results, inclusiveness and win-win template. As a junior diplomat in the embassy, I saw that dozens of Chinese study teams visited Pakistan in the early 1980s to learn from our market economy practices, stock market, foreign investment frameworks, international banking, sports goods industry, port operations, textiles sector management, etc. Former Deputy Premier of China Mr. Li Lanqing mentions it in detail in his own book Breaking Through. In my second book China, West and the Islamic World, published in January 2021, I metaphorically call it ‘Romance of the Three Civilizations’ drawing inspiration from the ancient Chinese novel i.e., Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I feel that Pakistan can emulate China’s model of development if only it can muster five things i.e., leadership’s ability to acknowledge mistakes, revive social capital, undertake comprehensive policy reforms, adopt merit, rule of law and justice, learn from global best practices, invest in agriculture, and higher education etc. and keep the IFI hitmen, dual nationals etc. away from high level policymaking positions. The storm Pakistan faces in the coming years is now ‘tailwind and not headwind’. While the 20th Century vindicated Pakistan, the 21st Century can propel Pakistan to sustained prosperity, power and position.

The writer has served as Pakistan's Ambassador to Germany, Singapore and Mauritius. He worked in China on two diplomatic assignments for nearly a decade. He speaks fluent Chinese and is an author of many books on China. Since 2016, he is the Director of the Chinese Studies Centre, National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]

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