Political reform crucial for China

It must adopt change to attain modernisation target, says report

By Ching Cheong, Senior Writer
20 March 2010

China must take the path of political reform if the country is to achieve full modernisation by the end of this century.

This, in a gist, is one of the observations – a striking one indeed – made in the 2010 Report on China’s Modernisation by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

The report generated much discussion and debate among netizens after it was published in late January.

China’s remarkable economic success in the past 30 years is well known and well documented. It has given rise to praises from some quarters about the superiority of the ‘China model’.

But the CAS report has some sobering reminders.

‘Unless China embarks on reform in its basic political system, its chances of achieving full-scale modernisation by the end of this century is next to zero,’ the report said.

The author of the report, Professor He Chuanqi, said at its launch in Beijing that given the experience of the modernisation process over the last 300 years, if China followed the same path as others, its chances of achieving modernisation could be as low as 4 per cent. Worse, if it did not wipe out feudalism, the entire modernisation process could be derailed.

He attributed the low probability to various factors: China’s huge population, regional imbalances, income disparity, resource depletion, environmental degradation and lagging political reform.

‘Once weighting is assigned to each of these factors, one arrives at a very low probability,’ he said.

Prof He, the director of the Centre for Modernisation Research at the CAS, is a foremost authority on the subject.

He heads a research group which has put out the China Modernisation Report every year since 2001.

Prof He said that China’s modernisation over the past 160 years was characterised by industrial development and no attention was paid to systemic and conceptual changes.

‘This is our weakness and its negative impact would become an important factor in derailing the modernisation process.’

However, if China could work out a different developmental path as well as reform its political system, then the chances of hitting the 2100 modernisation target would be increased to about 30 per cent, according to Prof He.

The CAS project studies the modernisation process over the last 300 years to find out how best China can achieve it.

It developed 138 indicators to measure advancement in political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and human development, and examined 130 nations between 1700 and 2000.

It defines modernisation as having reached ‘the world’s top 20 positions’ by these indicators. Countries ranked 21 to 45 are medium-developed, 46 to 80 are primary-developed and the rest are undeveloped.

The report said that in 2006, China was ranked 70 among 130 nations. It should be in the top 60 by 2020, the top 40 by 2050 and the top 20 by 2100.

According to these indicators and China’s actual performance in 2000, the CAS study concluded that by 2050, China will attain a medium-level of modernisation.

What this means is that:

  • Per capita annual income will reach US$20,000 (S$28,000) with key economic indicators placing China among the world’s top 40 nations.
  • Pension and health insurance coverage will reach 100 per cent.
  • The political system will be basically democratic, free and equitable.
  • The average life expectancy will be 80 years and the university education rate will be more than 80 per cent.
  • Economic growth will be decoupled from environmental degradation, with the quality of the living environment reaching the level of major developed countries.

But to reach a fully modernised level – with all the major indicators placing China among the world’s top 20 – the going will get very tough.

‘The last leg of the race is much more difficult than all previous ones,’ Prof He said.

He cited three reasons.

First is the size of China’s population. In 2006, the country already had 1.3 billion people, or 30 per cent more than the total population of the developed world. This magnifies the task China faces.

‘If population size is taken into consideration, the chance of attaining full modernisation by the end of this century will be even more remote,’ Prof He said.

Another reason is resource bottleneck. One billion people in the developed world took more than 300 years to modernise – and the result was a serious depletion of global resources.

‘If 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion people try to catch up in the next 100 years, the resource bottleneck will become more pronounced,’ he said.

The third reason is system bottleneck. Prof He pointed out that the political system produced serious income disparities, which in turn constrained consumption – the ultimate growth engine.

The system also did not encourage independent thinking and the development of creativity and innovation, which is becoming more important as a factor of production in the post-industrial age.

Prof He said his centre’s research showed that about 5 per cent of developing countries make it into the developed ranks every 100 years.

If China is to have a shot at joining the club of modernised nations by 2100, it will have no choice but to take on political reform.

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