By Antoaneta Becker
The Chinese Communist Party likes claiming credit for the success of the country’s model of steady rule and economic prosperity. But as it prepares to celebrate its 90th birthday on Jul. 1, the party has seen the attractive China brand lose appeal with once enthusiastic followers abroad and being outright rejected by violent protests at home.
Two years ago, at the height of the financial crisis sweeping Wall Street, liberal capitalism was losing credibility and China’s model of one-party rule and state-driven investment was on the ascent. Scores of economists were predicting the end of the Washington consensus era and the dawn of the Beijing consensus century.
But things have changed. China has been plunged into a cycle of violent protests, revealing raw anger with the communist rulers not only among the disgruntled ethnic minority groups living in the border regions of the country but also in the heart of China’s economic powerhouse. After Inner Mongolia, riots have broken out in the prosperous manufacturing hub of Guangdong and in other provinces populated with ethnic Hans that dominate Chinese society.
“There has always been more doubt than consensus about the China model,” Prof. Wang Hui who studies Chinese intellectual thought at Tsinghua University in Beijing told IPS in London. “It should be said that the praise for China’s development model came mainly from abroad while at home among the intellectual circles there has been a lot of criticism. When you add all the questions that have been raised about it you will see that the so-called model almost disappears.”
After a trip to China last week, Nitish Kumar, chief minister of India’s Bihar state, applauded the achievements of his Chinese hosts but said it was impossible for democratic India to replicate the communist country’s development model.
“Be it the industries, railway or agriculture, China is supremely developed in these sectors,” Nitish told reporters on his return from China. “But we are a democratic nation developing in our own ways. It is not possible for us to adopt the process and technology China has used.”
In Africa where the Chinese footprint is growing there is also growing awareness that the continent cannot replicate the China model and needs a different economic paradigm to suit its own realities.
At the 49th session of the African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights in April in the Gambia a declaration proclaiming the birth of the African consensus was adopted. It called for a bottom-top growth model driven by businesses built on village-level with the involvement of both governments and NGOs.
“China’s experience is unique because of the central apparatus that can make a decision at the top and see it through all the way to the bottom. This cannot be replicated in its entirety anywhere else,” says Lawrence Brahm, activist and writer who attended the conference in Banjul, Gambia. “The African consensus recognises the importance of growth from the grassroots.”
In the early years of China’s reform and opening up Beijing developed special economic zones to support manufacturing and attract foreign investment. With more than a hundred such areas by date, China has begun exporting its experience to Africa. It is now in the process of constructing similar special economic cooperation zones on the continent with the aim of attracting Chinese firms and improving infrastructure and services.
Such zones are now being developed by the Chinese in Africa – in Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Nigeria and Zambia. The experiment has drawn a lot of praise from African politicians.
But observers warn that transplanting the China model has its risks especially because Beijing is seen to be preoccupied with satisfying African countries’ governments while ignoring social groups.
“China’s potential pitfall in Africa remains how to handle the civil society and village stakeholders,” says Brahm.
It is the same risk factor that is now undermining China’s economic miracle at home. In the last three decades the communist party has presided over an enormous transformation of the country, creating a vibrant society of entrepreneurs and lifting millions out of poverty.
But as recent riots have shown, people’s happiness is not always measured by the accumulation of material gains alone.
When protests rocked the semi-autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in May they brought memories of the unrest that racked the Muslim province of Xinjiang in 2009 and the violence that swept Tibet in 2008. Though brutally suppressed, protests by ethnic minorities have flared again on and off, invalidating Chinese presumption that economic growth is more important than ethnic diversity and local identity.
More alarming to party leaders, though, as they ready for the communist party’s 90th anniversary celebrations, are the protests that have erupted in China’s inner provinces. From Guangdong to Hubei and Jiangxi provinces people have risen to protest the lack of justice and the arbitrary rule of local leaders. They have vented their anger openly, clashing with paramilitary police, burning cars and ransacking shops and government offices.
The leadership’s crackdown on protests and the jailing of agitators for a China-style Jasmine revolution display a sense of insecurity haunting the party even as it claims the title of the largest and most successful ruling communist party.
“Insecurity displays the need for China to change its development model if there ever was one,” says Wang Hui.