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Rapid Economic Growth of Last 30 Years Provides China a Strong Base to Enhance Political Reform

Jun 08, 2011

Video Interview


Ken Lieberthal, director of the John L.Thornton China Center and senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings.

Wang Changjiang, director of the Party Building Teaching and Research Department of the Central Party School.

Date: 9th May, 2011


Moderator: Today we are very pleased to have two renowned scholars here: Professor Wang Changjiang and Professor Ken Liberthal, welcome. For the last two days leading Chinese and American experts have convened in Washington DC to discuss China’s politic and democratic reform. What were the main goals of the conference and why is it so important to China and to the whole world? Professor Ken Liberthal?

Lieberthal: Well I think the main goals of the conference were to have a very serious discussion in detail of how the Chinese political system works, the key issues that it confronts, and of the ways that those situations are being dealt with in China and some analysis of that, to look to the future. It’s an important topic because frankly, if Chinais governed well, the whole world benefits and if Chinais governed very badly, the region and the world suffer. This is such a big country with such an important role to play in the world that the whole world has an interest in China’s effective governance. This conference in particular sought to educate Americans to a more detailed understanding of what the issues are in Chinese governance, what the Chinese are doing to address those issues, and then some evaluations on the part of various scholars as to how effective those measures are likely to be.

Moderator: Professor?

Wang: I agree with Professor Liberthal’s views. China and U.S. are both big countries, which is why scholarly exchanges are very important to us. I’ve attended several of these exchanges myself. Through these conferences, we reached better understanding of each other, improved communication, and reached a consensus on many issues. Like what Professor Liberthal said, together we can enhance the understanding of the problems. This is very very beneficial to the development of both our countries.

Moderator: there is a common perception that, actually today, I think Ambassador Roy mentioned that the Chinese democratic and politic reform is comparatively slow compared with the economic reform. First, do you agree? And second, how important is politic reform to China’s leaders?

Lieberthal:  Well I think it’s fair to say that economic reform has taken a lead, but that, the results of economic reform: the changes in society, and changes in education levels, changes in interest groups and so forth, inevitably promote political reform. So this is, the two are not separable, but economic reform clearly has gone further and faster in China. I think that the general view, not held by everyone but on the whole of the conference today, was that political reform over the next decade to fifteen years will prove to be very important.  In order to fully resolve the contradictions that inevitably arise as the economy changes and society changes along with that economy. 

Wang: The question you proposed is a popular one. They say that China’s economic reform and social reform is quite fast, but comparatively, political reform is quite slow. I can sum up my views on this question in two points: Firstly, in terms of economy, China has had drastic changes in the past thirty years. Relatively, the pace of political reform is slower than the economic development. This is because everyone knows that the political system is more of an upper structure, and the speed of development of the upper structure is always a littleslower than the economic development, this is reasonable. Secondly, we should see that China is moving forward politically. During this meeting, we’ve discussed issues revolving the development of China’s political reform. In general, we think that politically, China had moved forward quite a bit, but we also recognize that there are going to be tougher challenges ahead.  If I may illustrate an example, what we did before is to clear out the obstacles, now we have to take down the castle, which is why the challenges are going to be more difficult from now on, but we have confidence and courage. I am an optimistic person, andI’m cautiously optimisticin this aspect.

Moderator:Are you also positive?

Lieberthal: I’m hopeful. I would say, to quote someone else at the meeting today “I’m cautiously optimistic”. I think the problems that loom large are recognized by the government, I think thereisa desire for dealing with those problems effectively, but I also think by now in China there are very strong vested interest, interest groups that have risen that would want toeitherslow down change or modify change to suit their own priorities. So I think this is more difficult as you go forward. But people recognize its importance and I am cautiously optimistic that the necessary changes will be made in good time.

Moderator:During the conference, what consensus did the Chinese and American participants come to in their assessment of the political reform and in what areas did they differ?

Lieberthal: I think actually this conference did not seek to develop a consensus. That would be true maybe of a political meeting, like the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that’s taking place at the same time as this conference. This was a scholarly meeting, and it really was focused on increasing understanding of the various dimensions of the issue. I think on that level it was quite successful, but I think that asking whether there was a consensus really doesn’t capture what the purpose of the conference was and I don’t think the consensus was either sought or achieved. I do think the different analyses show somedifferences of view but within a broad common framework of a feeling that the political system has changed a lot over the years, but that it needs to undertake some very difficult reforms over the coming years. And there were different details about those two aspects, but I think broadly, people, almost everyone in the conference agree both that it had changed a lot, but also that because of the changes in society and the economy and in the world, it will need to undertake a significant additional changes in order to maintain the basis for social and political stability going forward.

Wang: Through this conference, experts on both sides had enriched their understanding and consensus on political reform in China. In the past, I know that some Western scholars refuse to acknowledge any political reform progression in China, but after a few exchanges, many of them start to recognize it. Specifically, there are several common understandings between scholars of both sides. For example, our country leaders as well as our party leaders have a very strong sense of crisis, therefore they introduced a lot of new concepts and understandings. They promote concepts such as the party’s administrative position is neither long lasting nor innate, inner party democracy is the life line of the party etc etc. Another consensus we’ve reached is the importance to deal with thegrass-root unitsof society, where there are direct social conflicts; they have a strong urge to undertake changes there, and many attempts have been made. These attempts have received recognition from a variety of scholars, but the key is how to continue to execute and advance these attempts and continue planning in a broader and higher level range. This is the key.

Moderator: The uprising in the Arab world recently going on has caused the Chinese leadership concern about the social unrest descent in Chinese society. How would China balance the management of unrest and the political reform?

Wang: I think social unrest is inevitable in the process of a country’s development. The key is how to handle it. I can’t agree to use the old way, the way of planned economy, or  use force to maintain a static stability. Our society is still developing, therefore conflicts are bound to happen. Should we approach by using proper reform, taking a step forward to deepen understanding and a more democratized way to resolve the problems? Or attack the conflicts using old methods? This is a directional decision. We are happy to see more and more problems are solved by using deepen understanding and democratized methods and we very much approve of this approach.

Lieberthal: I think that Professor Wang just identified the long term goals and trends, but did not really capture the immediate issues that we’re seeing in China. I think the short term reaction to the development in the Middle East has been an increase in political pressure in order to reduce expressions of dissent, to remove people from society who they fear will raise difficult issues, to weaken NGOs and their autonomy, and broadly, to apply administrative means to try to assure greater social stability, frankly from a Western point of view, those measures are both not welcome and many Westerners would say are not particularly effective. While they may reduce problems immediately, they can increase problems over the longer run. But I think that’s what we’re seeing right now in China. My hope is that increasingly we’ll see these problems resolved through appropriate reforms that relive tensions, and increase social stability, but I think the immediate reaction has been more conservative than that.

Moderator:Is it reasonable for the Chinese leadership to concern about the Arab revolution would apply to the Chinese society since the two societies are so different? China’s economy grows so fast.

Lieberthal: Well the societies are enormously different. In the Arab world, you’re dealing with generally slow economic growth, with autocratic leaders who have been the same leaders in power for decades. Or not the leader, at least the family in power for decades. Often with an ethnic minority ruling over an ethnic majority, there’s a different sect within the Arab world and a tremendous bulge in the youth population where people in their teens and early twenties are a very large percentage of the population. None of those things is true for China. So formally, it’s hard to draw a connection, but it is quite evident that Chinese leaders do draw a connection, and I suspect the connection is to recognize how difficult it is to anticipate how society will act when you have a combination of new capabilities in the digital world, in social media and so forth. And a political system that remains basically authoritarian. So you do not have the capacity of society to change leaders through direct elections and to resolve tensions through fully democratic means. Now there are some arguments for the capabilities in the authoritarian systems to do some things. So I don’t want to suggest that this is simply black and white, but I think clearly China’s leaders had become worried by the example of the Arab states, even though all the details in the Arab states are quite different from details in China.

Wang: I agree with professor Liberthal’s views. Regarding the unstable events happening in the world, I would like to sum up my views in two perspectives. Firstly, we shouldn’t feel that we need to reject the changes because the world is changing, that we have to maintain stability and use the old methods to manage our society. It shouldn’t be like that. Changes will inevitably happen to the world. In that aspect, China is also a part of the world, therefore, we are guaranteed to experience changes in the future, which we should face candidly. This is my first point. Secondly, China is indeed quite different to the Arab states. Professor Libethal has explained very clearly just now, China has a strong economical base and our growth for the past 30 years is obvious. In my opinion, this should not be the reason to stop us from reform. On the contrary, it is a chance for us. We should seize this opportunity to continue to promote comprehensive reform, including political reform. 

Moderator:  I just want to move onto the next topic. Professor Liberthal, just mentioned the S&ED, China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue. So today is the first day of S &D, both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Geithner used Chinese idioms to describe the China-US relationship and address the hope for the future. And secretary Clinton mentioned “Feng Shan Kai Lu Yu Shui Jian Qiao”, We build the road when we come to the mountain and we build the bridge when we cross the river. How do we translate good words into concrete action.

Lieberthal: Well first of all the S&ED is designed to be an opportunity for top leaders to get together and spend serious time talking face to face about the core issues that confront us. So it’s an opportunity to build personal relationships, and through those relationships hopefully to build greater mutual trust. Secondly, it’s the one opportunity each year to bring people from very different parts of each of those governments together with each other. They often don’t talk to each other, even at home, and then with their Chinese counterparts or their American counterparts, so it’s an opportunity to get beyond what we call the stovepipes, the various channels within each government and pull together everyone, who’s putting into the major issues that are on the table. This is not a decision-making platform, so this is not a time or a vehicle to reach in major decisions that produce big announcements and that kind of thing. That’s more what you see in a Summit, and we in fact saw that at the Summit of President Hu Jintao and President Obama in January. I think that this kind of meeting is more to help monitor and advance the implementations of decisions already made, and to build mutual understanding around those decisions. And I think for that purpose, it’s a good kind of meeting to have, but it needs obviously to be supplemented with decision-making opportunities in order to get new programs into place.

Wang: I have two opinions for this question. I think for it is very beneficial for China to participate in such a Summit. Just now professor Liberthal has explained very well. The conference is not supposed to be a decision-making meeting, it is a conference for bettering acceptance between our two nations, bettering  mutual understandingand enhancing communication. From this perspective, the world is constantly developing, economic globalization is spreading, to boost communication and exchanges will help defend our global village against risks. This is beneficial to every country. My second opinion is that China is very keen to learn, actually I should say that our nation has learned a great deal from others. But people often ask, do one need to be selective when they learn and only take from a specific type? It shouldn’t be like that, we can’t only copy and just take from one source. Our way of learning has to go through exchanges, discussions, to transmit information and extract some valuable lessons to broaden our horizons, and come to find a unique Chinese way of approach. I believe this is most important, which is why I’m so supportive of enhancing exchanges, and it makes me feel very pleased.

Moderator: Professor Liberthal you mentioned in your previous interview you suggested that the S&ED should identify one or two core issues each time, so what are the top two priorities from your perspective?

Lieberthal: I think in this S&ED the top priority on the strategic side lies in what is the only real innovation of this S&ED as compare to last year and the year before. And that is for the first time we will have significant level military participation by both sides. General Ma Xiaotian will participate, or is participating on the Chinese side, as his counterpart on the U.S. side is participating and so we will have to my knowledge the first time in a U.S.-China meeting, both top people in the civilian diplomatic track and top peoples from the uniform militaries sitting together, discussing key issues of common concern. Those issues increasingly with U.S. and China integrate military security and diplomatic issues together, especially around Asia. And so I think it’s important to get that combination together and I think this first time it may be with limited results but at least to establish that, you know, be the first step in developing that as a channel of ongoing discussion. On the economic side, I think the issue really is openness to foreign investment and I think that is in both directions. Many Chinese firms now really want to invest in the United States but have fears about U.S. security concerns and the U.S. political environment. Many U.S. firms that want to invest more in China, increasingly have concerns about rules, governing, technology transfer and market access, and find the situation more difficult than they did before. so I think that issue of openness to direct investment by the other side, the terms of that, the politics of it and the best way is to promote it are going to be the key issues on the economic side.

Wang: I disagree when someone describes China and U.S exchanges as “two big nations sitting together as equals”. Even though China is a big country in terms of size, from multiple perspectives it is still difficult to compare it with the United States. Premier Wen Jiabao once famously said: when one times the smallest thing in China by 1.3 billion, the smallest thing will become huge. Vise versa, when you divide a big deal by 1.3 billion, it will become nothing. This comment is very accurate, it points out that as a nation we still have a lot to develop and improve on in many levels, which is why China and U.S. can’t be equals. We shouldn’t want to be treated as equals with others just because we are a massive country. What’s more important is to acknowledge the fact that China is a highly populated big country, and if we increase its interactions with developed countries such as the United States, it could be beneficial to the whole world. If the two nations can sit down together and discuss crucial global issues and problems on world development, it is evident that through this method, we can achieve a lot and benefit the mankind. We lacked communication in the past. The Americans don’t really understand the Chinese and the Chinese don’t know much about the Americans. This had created prejudice, which led to misconceptions and negative attitudes towards each other. I think through better communication, these prejudices are slowing disappearing. Right now, it is most important that we try our best to strengthen our relationship, better our understanding, improve communication and promote the well being of humanity together.

Lieberthal: If I can add a comment. First of all, I agree very much with what Professor Wang just said, but let me make two additional points based on what he said. First of all, as you consider the major global issues that we confront, issues still of global economic recovery, stability, issues on the security side of the nuclear proliferation, issues such as climate change, a truly global issue where the U.S. and China are the two biggest players on that issue. We’re the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. You can say two things, first of all, every global issue becomes easier to manage if the U.S. and China act either co-operatively or in parallel fashion. And becomes more difficult to manage if we act across purposes. But secondly, there are no global issues that the U.S. and China alone can manage, so there’s no such thing as a G2, which some people raised over the past year or so. But it’s very important that the U.S. and China understand each other and are able to find ways to move in broadly similar directions in order to address these global issues. One of the problems with that, to be quite candid, is that China is now a country that has a global impact, but I think because it’s still a developing country, is a country that is not prepared to assume full global responsibilities. Its major responsibilities remain developing China’s economy, protecting its sovereignty, maintaining its territorial integrity. And so in a lot of ways people now expect China with the world’s second largest GDP, and a country that invests in Latin America and Africa and Europe and so forth, expect China to be a truly global player. But I think in China the mindset still is: no, we’re a developing country, we have to first develop, and then become a global player. And the tension between having a global impact but not yet being a global player, is one that everyone has to cope with. It’s a matter of transition this would change over time, but I think as of now in the real world that is one of the issues we all confront.

Moderator:and this is also why President Obama and Secretary Clinton constantly ask China to be a responsible international stakeholder.

Lieberthal: Well I’ll tell you, when President Clinton came into office I served on his East Asia Strategy team during his campaign. So I have some understanding of the thinking when he came into office. Let’s keep in mind he came into office with no background whatsoever in dealings with China. I mean zero, but his strong conviction was that we would do well to treat China as a major global power. Our term would be to bring China to top table on global affairs that China now was big enough and important enough that we should not treat it merely as a developing country that we’re working with, but rather make it a full participant in global issues. I think on balance, this is my own view, he’s not said this but I would say I think on balance, the U.S. administration has been somewhat frustrated that China has not been prepared to respond more fully in terms of global responsibilities. It isn’t that they’ve done nothing, but that they haven’t done quite what the President had hope he would see by kind of bringing that to top table, that they would then fully assume that role. In think in retrospect, that disappointment was inevitable, it was a good learning experience. Expectations from all sides are now more realistic, and I think in China there’s a very active effort to develop a consensus on what China’s global responsibilities are. Not surprisingly it will take some years to develop that consensus. These are not things that happen overnight. And I think we now in America have a more realistic understanding of that process and are prepared to work with China on that basis.

Moderator: One thing we just briefly touched on is you mentioned the innovation of this year’s S&ED is we bring the military engagement. Last year, the military talks were suspended because of the issues such as South China Sea and Senkaku Islands issue.

Lieberthal: I know they are actually suspended because of Taiwan,

Moderator: That’s what I was about to mention. So do you think it’s good to bring up these issues from the military to military discussions this year at the S&ED?

Lieberthal: Well I think the scope of the discussion will be determined or is being determined by both sides. So I think we are likely to include issues of great concerns to the American side such as cyber security, and the rules of the road if you will in China’s exclusive economic zones. I think the Chinese side inevitable will want to discuss Taiwan arms sale, and any effective relationship has to address the issues of greatest concerns to both sides. I think that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be specific progress, but each side needs to raise the issues of their concern and make sure the other side understands both their priorities but also why they have those priorities and what their views are.

Wang: Since I’m not a diplomat, so I don’t have too much right to discuss about Taiwan or the South China Sea issues. But I still agree with Professor Liberthal’s standpoint. China and the United States need to strengthen their exchanges and build on our communication. Only through that, can we step closer to solving these problems together. I very much believe in these efforts. If we don’t overcome our prejudices for each other like in the past, we will not come close to solving any issues. Which is why I believe in the importance of communication and learning from one another.      

Moderator: The last question is the S&ED comes a week after the successful raid that eliminated bin Laden, how would anti-terrorism issues and security issues play in a role in the S&ED?

Lieberthal: Well let me say first of all, China and the United States share an interest in cooperating on counter terrorism. China has a terrorist threat from, you know, Muslims who want to damage the government in Beijing. The U.S. suffers from a terrorist threat also, largely from the Muslim community internationally. I think the elimination of Osama bin Laden was a very good thing, because I think it, to some extent, weakens the cohesion of the terrorist networks and the inspiration to some of them of having bin Laden avoid capture or elimination by the United States. So this is an area where I think there is a lot of commonality, in terms of our basic interests and we in fact have cooperated on the ground in counter terrorism efforts for many years now. We’ve had people in Beijing and have exchanged information and have coordinated in various ways over the years. This is obviously not an area that people talk about publicly in any detail, but it is one of those areas where U.S.-China cooperation, you know, has not been perfect but has been significant.

Moderator: Professor Wang?

Wang: Regarding anti-terrorism issues, how much consensus has the two countries reached? I think I need to broaden my answer a bit. Maybe we’ve reached more consent in terms of anti-terrorism. Regarding the success of the bin Laden mission, the Foreign Ministry had announced its position. Personally I stand in line with the announcement made by the ministry. The U.S. made a significant contribution to the international anti-terrorism efforts. This is the truth. No matter how different our two systems are,  how distinctive the routes we choose, how much misconceptions come between us, which strains our bilateral relationship, but when it comes down to a common ground that all humanity shares, something that is so humane, our countries should stand on the same battle line.  This is very obvious. Therefore, from this angle we can see that scholarly exchanges between our countries are very beneficial. We should strengthen these interactions, and together, we can promote the development and prosperity of the human world.

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