The China, Singapore parallel

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By Augustine Low

We live in a small world after all, and people everywhere are the same. I am reminded of this once again, as I read about what keeps China’s leaders awake at night.

In a new book, In Line Behind A Billion People, authors Damien Ma and William Adams argue that China’s economic growth will constrain it, not empower it, and that the idea that “the 21st century is China’s to lose” may not be so.

Two factors that the authors pick out have parallel to Singapore’s situation. They could be the factors which also keep Singapore’s leaders in a dilemma.

The authors call these interlinked factors the Grand Bargain and the Tocqueville Paradox.

The Grand Bargain: For the past 30 years, Chinese leaders have single-mindedly focused on growing the economy and maintaining social stability. The Chinese Community Party struck a Grand Bargain with the Chinese people: If they put their faith in the party’s stewardship, they would see more money lining their pockets, and their nation would gain international respect and recognition. Implicit in the Grand Bargain was the call to accumulate wealth and banish the thought of revolution.

Say the authors: “That Grand Bargain is now showing signs of wear. While not assured, it seems most likely that China’s new leadership not only sees an urgent need to build reform momentum, but also that incremental reforms could be more destabilizing down the line than bolder initiatives.”

But the dilemma for China’s leaders is that a bold reform agenda will be difficult to carry out. To be effective, it has to tackle the elephant in the room: the huge amount of wealth and income going to the elite, and stubbornly refusing to trickle down. The Chinese public is resentful that the elite won their fortunes through privileged access to the political system. The government will, for example, have to engineer huge changes to its myriad institutions, including the healthcare, transport, education and pension systems, so as to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

China has simply become a victim of its own success, say the authors. Shades of Singapore?

Another hint of what keeps China’s leadership deeply anxious is found in what the leaders and intellectuals have been reading: Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1856 classic tome on the French Revolution. The interest in this work revolves around the Tocqueville Paradox.

The Tocqueville Paradox: It is based on the contention that revolution rarely, if ever, occurs when social conditions are at their worst, but rather breaks out when conditions improve, especially when people are materially well-off.

How the Tocqueville Paradox applies to China is apparent to the Chinese elite and ruling class. As people become materially better off, a burgeoning middle class is now demanding deeper reforms to improve socio-political conditions and give leeway for an embryonic civil society to grow. They want the government to reciprocate with what remains elusive: open debate, transparency, mainstream and social media freedom, legitimate use of power.

The authors pinpoint the clamour for socio-political changes as the most formidable challenge. There is a possibility that China’s leaders will dig in their heels and refuse to meet the public’s expectations for a reform agenda. Say the authors: “A vocal segment of the Chinese political class remains gripped by fear of some new change sending the country slipping down a slippery slope into a tailspin. Instead of bending even a little, their overriding hostility to potentially destabilizing reforms could lead to paralysis and stasis.”

China is at a crossroads. The Chinese public is growing impatient. If their dream is deferred, what knows what will happen?

Compared to China, Singapore’s problems are miniscule. But both countries have to sort out how to meet the needs, hopes and aspirations of a more enlightened citizenry. Stubborn resistance to change and preservation of the status quo will lead to growing resentment and restlessness.