Why Is Chinese Governance Better?

Recently, Martin Jacques observed that Chinese governance under the CPC is a better, more efficient and higher form of governance than we have seen thus far. To begin with, Jacques is correct. This is particularly obvious if we compare it with bourgeois (liberal) democracy, which is now obsolete and quite clumsy. The latter arose in a specific context, in eighteenth and nineteenth century Western Europe, and may have been appropriate in that part of the world in the wake of the bourgeois revolutions. It has also been transplanted to some former colonies in North America, Australia and New Zealand. But the system is rather crude, with nearly every feature of public life politicised, with antagonistic political engagement in which one policy is promulgated by a particular political party only to be undone by the next. Chaotic, clumsy and outdated.

As is usually the case with Martin Jacques, he tries to explain this reality by going back into China’s more distant past. Strangely, he skips past the central role of Marxism in shaping the current practice of governance in China. So let us see what such a focus indicates (this article is also useful).

Here I draw on a book I am writing on Engels, for it is precisely Engels (more than Marx) who provides the philosophical basis for socialist governance. The book has taken longer than expected, since I need to work carefully through material few consider. In the final chapter, I examine Engels’s ideas concerning what a socialist form of governance might be.

There are two main points.

First, the organs of governance ‘stand in the midst of society’. Engels draws this insight from his careful study in the 1870s and 1880s of what he calls ‘pre-state’ societies, but which may also be called ‘base communism’ and ‘base democracy’. Why ‘pre-state’? For Engels, the state is a ‘separated public power’, which arises from class conflict and stands over against society. By contrast, base communism does not have this separation. All the various organs of governance – and there are many – stand in the midst of society. They are woven within social structures, being part and parcel of society as a whole. In my book, I have developed the category of ‘enmeshment’ to understand how this might work: society, state and economy are not separated from one another, but rather enmeshed within one another.

One might respond: but Engels is dealing with ancient societies, in a historical and anthropological way, so these insights are not relevant for how socialism today functions. The answer: in a crucial but under-studied piece called ‘The Mark’, Engels points out that this type of base communism would be dialectically transformed under socialism, so as to become the type of society and governance that would be appropriate.

This point I have realised for some time, but the second is relatively new: ‘public functions will lose their political character and be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society’. This text is quoted from Engels’s 1873 piece, ‘On Authority’, in which he castigates the impractical proposals of the Anarchists, especially under Bakunin’s leadership. But the core idea of political character disappearing and being replaced by an efficient administration focused on the public good is crucial (it appears elsewhere in Engels’s work and is voiced by Marx).

Let us begin with political character. Under bourgeois democracies, a whole spate of areas are political footballs: education, health, environment, public transport, immigration and refugees, economic policy, and so on. They are the subject of election campaigns, of bewildering changes in policy with changes in the party in power, of implementation and winding back. But if they lose their political character, they cease to be tossed back and forth depending on the whims of political parties.

In place of this political character is efficient administration focused on the public good. Let me give three examples drawn from China. In education, the long-term plan is to improve the already impressive educational system in all respects. This entails careful research, significant funding, trials of new methods in some areas before extending them to the rest of the country, and so on. For this reason, people with whom I speak in China find it unbelievable that the Australian government – as one example – has been reducing funding for education for quite some time now.

Another example concerns public transport, which is reasonably well-known internationally. Simply put, the Chinese rail system is now the best in the world. Three levels of high-speed train operate across the country, while the slower ‘green skin’ trains ply local routes. In cities across China, world-leading metro systems are being implemented at a breath-taking pace. One that I know well is in Beijing, where they are working towards increasing the total kilometres covered from about 500 km to 1,000 km. Currently, it caters for 6 billion passenger trips per year, but this will increase. Again, this is seen as a public good, requiring long-term planning and efficient implementation.

Finally, environmental policy and action, which is called in China ‘ecological civilisation [shengtai wenming]’. The term refers to the modes of life and their relation to the environment: only when this is sorted out can we speak of wenming, which is not so much ‘citification’ (as the Latin origins of ‘civilisation’ suggest) but the just, peaceful, healthy and stable nature of culture. In China, the realities of climate change are not politicised; instead, they needs to be addressed directly. I have seen this with my own eyes, in what may be called the greening of China. The country leads the world in reafforestation, the water, plants and air of major cities have been improving year on year, and green technologies are leaping ahead. Again, this is efficient administration for the public good.

So yes, Chinese governance is clearly the highest form we have seen thus far, precisely because of the CPC and the socialist road. We should of course be careful: Engels’s formulations are not the final word on the matter. He had never experienced the actual process of constructing socialism, let alone a successful communist revolution. But it is rather striking how he and Marx provide the philosophical basis of socialist governance in terms of the disappearance of its political character and the development of efficient and careful administration for the public good. That the Chinese have developed these much further, in light of their conditions and the actual experience of constructing socialist governance, should be clear.

China leads the world in re-afforestation

On one or two occasions, I have written about the greening of Beijing, as well as ‘ecological civilisation‘ as one of the core features of the drive to a xiaokang (moderately well-off) society by 2021. But these are not merely recent developments. Many environmental projects require a long-term approach, stable planning and determined governance – precisely what a communist party in power is able to provide.

Here is another fact that is not so well known internationally: China leads the world in re-afforestation. This has been an ongoing project for several decades, as the following graphic from the People’s Daily shows:

The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the bewildering maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the massive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better than the woeful Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring flowers. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people out and about and celebrating spring. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many policies that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies that have become political footballs. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.