Putting the Plan into Action

September 2nd, 2012

Part IV: How China’s Leaders Steer a Massive Nation – Published on Spiegel Online International, by Sandra Schulz, August 31, 2012 – (Photo Gallery).

There is no question that China is an authoritarian state. But Beijing’s efforts to include experts and experiments in the way it governs also help to keep power in check. Once the government supports a project, it normally carries it out — sometimes on a massive scale. Are there lessons to be taken from the Communist Party’s method of governance? 

Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just — in other words, prime examples of “good governance.” But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil . Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice? This is part IV in a four-part series looking at how the world is governed today.

  • To read the introduction, click here.
  • For part I, on Brazil , click here.
  • For part II, on the United States , click here.
  • For part III, on Denmark, click here//

… Beijing’s Development Strategy:

  • In China, good governance is primarily defined as the government satisfying the material needs of its people. The people along China’s east coast, in particular, have been able to enjoy rapidly growing prosperity. Deng Xiaoping, the reformer, deliberately chose to develop the coastal regions first. Under Deng’s policies, the losers were primarily in rural areas and in western China.
  • Nowadays, when Shanghai residents take a taxi they can learn about the best temperatures for wine by watching advertising clips on a screen in front of their seat. Meanwhile, some farmers in western China live in caves because they can’t afford brick houses. The government’s response is a policy Beijing calls the “Great Western Development Strategy.”
  • The central government attaches great importance to the strategy, as evidenced by the fact that it has appointed a special “leadership group” headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as a separate agency, to manage the program. The new strategy was adopted in 1999, under then President Jiang Zemin. Even though Jiang may have also been thinking about his legacy, China’s “Go West” policy reveals a strength of Beijing’s approach: Once something has been recognized as a national problem and defined as a national effort, it is addressed in a consistent and enduring way. A government that is not voted into office has no need to take voting blocs and elections into account. This is the economic advantage of an authoritarian system.
  • Ms. Li Yingming meets with us in a nondescript, gray concrete building in Beijing. She is the deputy director of the Department of Western Region Development, which is part of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Li is satisfied, at least to the extent that she can be today, in the second year of the 12th Chinese five-year plan.

A Long Road: … //

… A New Quality of Life:

  • Duan, the official in the west, is also in a hurry. Duan builds things, and he does so because he can. Lanzhou is not Stuttgart, where protests have held up a major rail development project. Chinese pragmatists don’t have to worry about how their plans will affect endangered species like the hermit beetle.
  • The land already belongs to the state, and the migrant workers who are building this city are hardworking and happy to be earning about 2,500 Yuan, or roughly €300, a month. The people who are living there now can be relocated. A government brochure clearly outlines how they should feel about the whole thing. “The construction of the Lanzhou New Area is a splendid solution that was conceived by the city government and the party committee to implement the Great Western Development Strategy,” the brochure reads. It also specifies, in tiny lettering, how much compensation the government will provide for specific items, such as 4,000 Yuan for a concrete well and 700 Yuan for a gravesite (per coffin).
  • There are indeed farmers in Lanzhou who support the New Area, even though they know that there will be a lake where their houses now stand. They hope that they will be able to work as drivers for business executives in the new city. And then there are people like the medical student who eventually wants to move to Beijing, because it’s the best place to work. He says that his biggest dream in life is to own a Lamborghini.
  • They are the people for whom the government is doing all of this, so that it can offer them something, a new quality of life. It doesn’t want the students to leave, because the brain drain is one of Lanzhou’s biggest problems. It wants farmers to be motivated by hope instead of rage. And, of course, the mayor and the party secretary in Lanzhou are also thinking about their careers, given that economic growth is still the gauge of a local politician’s success.
  • Meanwhile the city is growing rapidly, with a current population of 3.6 million. But Lanzhou, wedged between mountains, declared the world’s most polluted city 14 years ago, has no room to expand. Officials even considered removing mountaintops, but then they opted for the flat, undeveloped land out near the airport instead.
  • There are also those in Lanzhou who would have preferred to invest in the old city instead. But they don’t want to see their names in print. The Chinese efficiency praised by so many in the West comes at a price: the silence of critics. The government decides what is good for the people. And if something is deemed good for everyone, the individual must conform.

(full text).


The World from Berlin: China’s View of Germany Is Flattering but Dangerous, on Siegel Online International, by David Gordon Smith, August 31, 2012;

The Domesticated Chancellor: Merkel Shies Away from Direct Criticism in China, on Siegel Online International, a commentary by Wieland Wagner in Beijing, August 31, 2012.

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