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At the press conference after the National People’s Congress meeting on 28th May, China’s Premier Li Keqiang surprisingly admitted that 600 million people in China earn less than RMB 1,000 per month. After the press conference, people in the Mainland questioned if Li had missed a zero at the end because, according to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, China should become a “moderately prosperous society” this year. What is a “moderately prosperous society”? After Xi assumed office, it was decided in the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that the per capita GDP of China had to exceed USD 3,000 (or RMB 21,000) by 2020. Then “3,000” becomes a symbol for a “moderately prosperous society”. In addition, the per capita income in cities and towns is RMB 18,000 (or RMB 1,500 per month), compared to RMB 8,000 (or RMB 666 per month) in rural regions. Now the figures provided by Li clearly show that there is still a long way to go before China can become a “moderately prosperous society”.


Many people in the Mainland of China found Li’s figures inconceivable, but on 3rd June 2020, mainland media Caixin published an article by Wan Haiyuan and Meng Fanqiang of China Institute for Income Distribution at Beijing Normal University. In the article, Wang and Meng point out that “the numbers mentioned by the Premier are closest to the reality in China”. The article also reveals that there are 960 million people in China earning less than RMB 2,000 a month.


The remarks by Li Keqiang triggered a crisis within the Communist Party. Li Keqiang was believed to be targeting Xi Jinping, so his remarks on the income of Chinese people were obscured. Plus, Li’s subsequent proposal to save jobs by developing a street-stall economy also provoked fierce opposition from Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen how this intra-party struggle will develop.


To me, the figures presented by Li Keqiang confirm my year-long view that the actual economic situation of China is not as good as what the CCP often brags about. I worked in Beijing from 1981 to 1989 and visited nearly 300 counties in 27 provinces and municipalities (or 1/10 of all counties) in China. Therefore, I had a deeper understanding of the situation in China, particularly the gap between the coastal and inland areas. For instance, in terms of development, Shanghai, the most developed city in China, was a century ahead of Tibet, the most underdeveloped region in China.


Whenever I visit a county, I always visit the plazas (images that the county government wants to show to the world), wet markets (a snapshot of people’s life), and the train or bus stations (from which you can see the county’s economic importance in the region). These “attractions” can best show the overall strength and the standard of living of the county. Then we can deduce the real economic situation in China if we look into the situation of 200 to 300 counties. Based on my understanding of China, I never trust the propaganda by the CCP, so I have huge reservations on “the rise of a great nation”, “national rejuvenation” or “Amazing! My country” which the CCP often brags about. Now Li Keqiang’s figures prove that my observation is quite rational.


Different forms of “China Model”

It is regrettable that many so-called “China hands” are blindly touting CCP’s development model without understanding the reality in China. There are probably three reasons for this.


First, the economy of China has seen in double-digit or high single-digit growth in the past four decades, so the economy as a whole has expanded dramatically. It developed into the second-largest economy in the world at a rate unseen in human history. By contrast, the economy of the West has been growing at a rate below 4 percent per year, so many people have been surprised by the sharp contrast between the West and China.


Secondly, China has made remarkable technological progress with the rapid economic development of China. For example, China launched the first man-made object in human history to the back of the moon and sent a detector to the deepest part of the ocean. In the domestic sector, China has the best high-speed railway network. 5G technology of China is the world’s leading technology. China has the biggest digital economy in the world. High-rise buildings and grand structures, whose ingenious designs surprise many foreigners, are everywhere in China.


Thirdly, as the economy of China has been growing rapidly, even if only 1% of the population in China earns an extraordinarily high income, there are already 14 million such people in China. Their “showy buying” in different parts of the world and their enormous purchasing power make many people envious and jealous.


Foreigners often see China from these three angles, so they may not see the real situation in China. Also, foreign scholars may fail to grasp the situation in China because they trust and rely on the statistical data provided by the CCP.


I have long reminded scholars (such as my advice to Prof. Chen Wenhong) not to rely on CCP’s statistics because they are compiled solely for political needs. I once interviewed provincial governors who attended the “two sessions”. I asked them what economic policies their provinces would formulate. One governor said publicly, “We all have two different books in our pockets. We have to see what our superiors think. If the central authorities promote “reform and opening up”, then we will present figures showing rapid economic development in the province. If they propose “re-structuring”, we will present figures showing a tightened economy.” Unfortunately, many foreign scholars are unaware of the underlying political meanings of statistics.


It is not a problem if these “China hands” misjudge the situation in China. The more serious problem is that they have created different “China models” based or their total or partial misunderstanding of China. These “China hands” attempt to argue that “one-party dictatorship” is one of the most important factors to “economic” success. They do not just misunderstand the reality in China, but also trumpet the “China model” in different places. As a result, they have cheated those living in third-world countries who are eager to get out of poverty.


American scholar Kellee S. Tsai has written a detailed account of the economic benefits of CCP authoritarianism suggested by Western scholars in the past 40 years. She wrote an essay “Authoritarianism with an Adjective” where she lists out various works in favour of authoritarianism. She discovers 16 adjectives describing the authoritarian rule in China:

  • adaptive authoritarianism (Ahlers and Schubert 2011; Heilmann and Perry 2011)
  • consultative authoritarianism (Harding 1987; He and Thøgersen 2010; Teets 2013; Dickson 2016)
  • consultative Leninism (Baum 2006; Tsang 2009, 2015; He and Warren 2011)
  • contentious authoritarianism (Chen 2012)
  • decentralized authoritarianism (Landry 2012, Chen 2016)
  • decentralized legal authoritarianism (Lee 2007)
  • deliberative authoritarianism (He and Warren 2011)
  • fragmented authoritarianism (Lieberthal and Oksenberg 1988; Lieberthal and Lampton 1992)
  • fragmented authoritarianism 2.0 (Mertha 2009)
  • networked authoritarianism (MacKinnon 2011)
  • popular authoritarianism (Brady 2008)
  • populist authoritarianism (Tang 2016)
  • pragmatic authoritarianism (Lai 2016)
  • proactive authoritarianism (Chen 2016)
  • resilient authoritarianism (Nathan 2003)
  • responsive authoritarianism (Weller 2008, Reilly 2011, Stockmann 2012, Heurlin 2016)

As seen above, from 1987 to 2016, Western scholars were convinced that authoritarianism in China could be justified by the rapid economic development of China. A whole generation of elites has unconsciously become part of the foreign propaganda machine of the CCP as they have failed to understand the reality of China. They should look at the figures presented by Li Keqiang and wake up to reality.

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