Tension Between Generalization and Reality
It is clear that the central government in China is not the only agent that matters in policy making (Mulvad 2015: 200). The central government has not always been the all-powerful ruler able to force its vision on the rest of the society, as many economic policies in China “have been the product of multi-level negotiations amongst elites, bureaucrats, and interest groups, and have been in response to short-term problems as much as long-term plans” (Kennedy 2010: 472-475). This is also reflected in Zhang and McGhee’s (2014) study, in which they found there are many negotiations, reinterpretations and distortions among local agents in the Chinese policy making landscape.
Thus, as Chinese capitalism is still very much under construction, Mulvad goes on to investigate the ongoing discursive battles over China’s course of development (2015: 201). For example, Mulvad suggests that the debates between the left and the right in China are in fact simultaneously complimentary in the economic sense yet antagonistic politically (or ideologically) (2015: 202). Mulvad argues that divergence among local policies is simply the deliberate result of centrally approved local experimentation, designed to serve the overall national interest in the longer run (2015: 218). They are controlled experiments for finding innovative policy instruments. This experimentation is undertaken in the context of party hierarchy and serves as a politicized process whereby different leaders at the central level can use policies against each other (Heilmann 2008: 28).
Practically, however, China’s unique way of developing the economy also suffers many pitfalls, such as “the concentration of distributional power and the resultant irrational decisions, the bias towards State-Owned Enterprises, and continued reliance on labour-intensive manufacturing and export” (Jiang 2011: 346). Consequently, the concentration of distributional power makes certain ministries more powerful than others and hence more open to corruption and “bad loans.” This, in turn, leads to international price hikes in certain commodities. The tendency towards state-owned enterprises can result in monopolies, which run the risks of creating political rents (as we will show in Chap. 3), discouraging innovation and foreign investment. It is very hard to regulate these state-owned monopolies, which in turn hamper the possibility of more balanced and sustainable development (347-350).
As for the Chinese leadership, they tend not to acknowledge the so- called China Model; rather they highlight the uniqueness of Chinese reform experiences (Warner and Rowley 2013: 437). However, the China Model’s claim to uniqueness simply “ignores the normality of strong state developmentalism over history” (Breslin 2011: 1323). In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Ireland, Israel and others, many have seen the fact that “markets often fail and that governments need to do more than be good referees and provide public goods” (Kennedy 2010: 466). Thus, as Ferchen argues, there is nothing especially “Chinese” about the China Model (2013: 399). The discourse of China’s uniqueness is a form of exceptionalism which is being used to develop its own version of political categories and ideas (He 2013: 271). As Brelisn puts it, “what the China models is—what it actually entails—is less important than what it is not” (2011: 1324).
In many ways, the Chinese experience of development has served as a paradigm of what can be done if you follow your own path, rather than following a generalized model (1328). This paradigmatic basis of the China Model may result in a degree of emulation among developing countries for the same reasons that Western modernization models were adopted throughout the world in the nineteenth century (Beeson 2013: 240). Thus, as Mulvad argues, “political economists working on
China should abandon the search for a coherent, unitary ‘China Model’ of capitalism, or for a set of independent local ‘varieties of Chinese capitalism’, instead they should study how China as a whole is becoming increasingly integrated in global capitalist networks of production and consumption through processes of spatio-temporally uneven development” (2014: 20).
More importantly, the problem of a generalized China Model discourse, which describes China’s unique state-economy relations as being a certain type, is deeply political (Ferchen 2013: 392). The modernization theory as an attempt to derive universal principles of social development has been identified as a historical pattern of rationalization (Wheeler 2005: 4). However, for developing countries, it is important they establish what is best for themselves based on their own circumstances and not simply what they are told to do by others (Breslin 2011: 1338). Thus, many Chinese scholars prefer the China Model to the Beijing Consensus, as they believe consensus means an ideal model that other states can promote, whereas the discourse of the China Model provides a potential paradigm for other countries so that they may develop in their own ways, rather than providing a blueprint for others to follow (Chan et al. 2008: 13). The discourse of the China Model in turn gives legitimacy to various alternative development paths that diverge from the free-market democratic ideal promoted by others (Kennedy 2010).
Thus, similar to the China Dream discourse, the discourse of the China Model is often seen as a form of resistance to democratic pressures in the course of China’s modernization project (Ambrosio 2012: 395). The assumption that the authoritarian state is in direct opposition to neoliberalism is problematic. First, as Kennedy argues, the Washington Consensus is often conflated with the economic ideology of neoliberalism, as if everything that highlights the role of strong political institutions in economic development would be excluded from the Washington doctrines (2010: 464-465). However, it is not the case as the Washington Consensus also advocates building up strengthened political institutions to generate good governance in support of economic development (465). Moreover, even if the Washington Consensus can be viewed as a neoliberal dogma, there are a number of cases that demonstrate that neoliberalism and authoritarianism can coexist, as in China (Ong 2007: 6). This example is not a threat to liberal democracy as such, but represents the uncertain path to the future in the era of globalization (Ambrosio 2012: 397).