Chinese experience

The emphasis on Chinese experience is traced back to the legacy of Mao Zedong’s thought with the essence “to seek truth from facts”, “the mass line” and “independence”.20 Hughes observes that “to seek truth from facts” outweighed thought emancipation as a safer formula because its indication is that “China’s problems have to be found in Chinese experience and not in foreign teaching”.21 The rejection of foreign influence is echoed by China’s national leader Xi Jiuping. In his speech at the China-Africa Business Forum in Johannesburg in 2015, he stated that “It is China’s sincere hope to share ‘Chinese experience’ with African countries” in Africa’s industrialisation and that a path “can only be found by African people’s own practice and exploration”.22

Although the phrase “Chinese experience” has not been systematically smd- ied within the literature, it has a (quickly dismissed) presence in the literamre of the China Model. The intellectual exercise of conceptualising China is motivated by the two distinct features of China’s developmental stoiy: liberalised market reform and authoritarian politics.23 It is understood as co-evolution of the selectively free economy and an instrumental approach to political reform24 or, more fundamentally “a metaphor for difference”.25 The Chinese developmental path is not only different from Western democracies but also from post-Communist states in Central Europe. Rather than using shock therapy like the former socialist countries, Chinese leaders adopted a gradualist reform strategy.26 Kennedy regards the China Model as a synonym for the idea of socialism with a Chinese character.27 The accentuation of difference imbues the China Model with a sense of “ideological and material threat”28 to the United States and its allies, as the Chinese state presents a new paradigm for other developing countries which undermines the relevance of the “Washington Consensus”.

The emphasis on the uniqueness of China’s success stoiy, which prevents the China Model from influencing foreign territories, can therefore be understood as attempts to reduce fears of the model. Pan Wei, for instance, highlights the “unique way in which the Chinese organise themselves in society, economy, and politics”.29 Naughton points out the sheer size of the country and abundance of labour as objective conditions which other countries do not possess.30 However, the uniqueness of the China Model is not unchallenged. A comparison between Chinese development and that of other Asian countries undermines the distinctiveness of China’s developmental stoiy, leading Pattis to describe the China Model as a “souped-up version of the Asian development model”.31

The question of uniqueness has motivated researchers to outline key features of the China Model which are derived from either longitudinal observations or case comparison. The evolution of state-society interaction endows the China Model with history-specific characteristics: decentralisation and incentivisatiou in the 1980s, instihitional build-up from late 1998 to 2012 and concentration of authority since Xi Jiuping’s arrival in power.32 Along the path of China’s economic development, the following features are observed:

  • 1 a strong role of government ownership33
  • 2 a pragmatic and flexible approach to development34
  • 3 the willingness of local authorities to tiy new ideas35
  • 4 a managed engagement with the global economy with a “nationalistic tinge”36
  • 5 an authoritarian government sustained by political stability37 and organisational efficiency38
  • 6 limited room for civil society39

The outline of these China Model features puts the role of the state in the spotlight. Based on a summary of three decades of the ebb and flow of China’s economic journey, it seems that the China Model is already set in stone.

The consensus within the literature that China’s economic stoiy cannot be replicated only reinforces the assumption that the China Model has already taken shape. Indeed, the question is whether the China Model should actually be replicated. The negative consequences of China’s development are well documented: increasing inequality, “chauvinistic treatment of ethnic minorities”,40 and, ultimately, long-term tension between economic and political subsystems in China.41 On the other hand, Breslin suggests that the China Model is impossible to replicate not because it is not desirable but simply because it does not exist in any coherent form. The China Model is “a speech act” which derives its power from “talking of it and defining it in a specific way” 42

Although the academic consensus firmly sides with the non-replicability of the China Model, scholars also agree that concrete developmental “experiences” are essential for our understanding of the China model. Indeed, the literature points towards the element of commonality in China’s developmental experiences, a shared path which has significant appeal to developing countries43 and one that is less overwhelming than the entirety of the China Model44 In other words, “Chinese experiences” open a new possibility of exploring the issue of replicability of China’s economic model. Another academic value of “experience” is that it re-orients our attention towards actors and processes. The plurality of actors contributes to the localisation of experiences of other countries.45 The dynamic interaction between local governments and non-governmental organisations sheds light on the division of labour between state and society.46

The most explicit and usefirl definition of “Chinese experiences” is offered by Breslin as “an example of what can be done if you follow your own path” 47 Breslin’s definition treats “experience” merely as a description of a given fact or an observable object. However, the essence of “experience” is an act of interpretation48 which echoes Breslin’s concepfiialisation of the China Model as a speech act. The interpretation component in the formulation of experience is key to addressing the question of replicability of the China Model, because, first, it dictates how a given fact is perceived as “Chinese experience”, and. second, it legitimises the dissemination of what is practised and experimented in China. In concrete terms, Chinese experience has to be interpreted as both Chinese and as an experience to be able to offer ingredients for the China Model.

I redefine “Chinese experience” as a process of Chinese stakeholders making and interpreting China’s developmental story, which provides a legitimating source of cognition that an alternative to the Western model is possible and even desirable. The purpose of this chapter gives the stage to actors whose experiences constitute the Chinese experience and traces how they construct and perceive China’s success story to understand what components are deemed replicable from the Chinese experience of engaging with the international community for environmental governance.

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